The man who has been at the helm of San Jose for the past four years, leading the city through catastrophic flooding, a global pandemic and now the deadliest mass shooting in city history, is stepping down.
On the same day that a gunman opened fire on his coworkers at a VTA rail yard near downtown San Jose, City Manager David Sykes, who has spent more than 34 years working for the city of San Jose, quietly announced that he would be retiring in just two months. His last day will be July 30.
“This was not an easy decision, but I feel the time is here,” Sykes wrote to San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and the rest of the city council in an email first reported by San Jose Spotlight. “This last year has been extremely challenging for our City, but I am really proud of the work that we have done together. Although there are certainly big challenges ahead, I truly believe we have turned the corner on the pandemic as we transition into recovery mode.”
In an interview Thursday, Sykes, 56, said that announcing his retirement in the midst of one of the city’s worst tragedies was “not ideal” but it was in motion long before Wednesday morning’s revelation of the shooting.
Sykes began his career at the city as a part-time engineering trainee in January 1987. Over the years, he worked his way up from a city engineer to director of public works to assistant city manager and ultimately, to head of the entire city organization. The mayor and council in 2017 unanimously appointed Sykes to city manager without conducting a national search.
Liccardo, who in 2017 said that appointing Sykes as city lead was a no-brainer, added this week that Sykes “kept a steady hand on the wheel and guided us through some very challenging trials.”
“Dave is genuinely beloved by so many members of our city workforce,” the mayor said. “He has always maintained an authentic commitment to listening and reasoning thoughtfully to concerns expressed both within City Hall and within the community.”
As city manager, Sykes served as the chief administrator, overseeing more than 6,600 city staff, directing department heads, managing the delivery of services and implementing the city council’s priorities and adopted policies.
San Jose operates under a council-manager form of government where the elected city council provides policy leadership and appoints a city manager to see those through by managing the organization at-large. That has the potential to change, however, if San Jose adopts a “strong mayor” kind of government, which is under consideration and would give the mayor some of the powers currently held by the city manager.
Sykes also led the city’s emergency operations center during trying times, including the devastating 2017 Coyote Creek floods, in which he took responsibility for the city’s delayed evacuation warnings, and most recently, the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, which took the lives of more than 2,000 Santa Clara County residents.
“I’ll be honest with you, my job is really demanding — sometimes unrealistically demanding — but you get the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives every single day and that’s a very rewarding feeling,” Sykes said in an interview. “We’re not perfect and we don’t always do everything right, but by and large we do great work for our community.”
Over the course of his four-year stint as city manager, Sykes said he learned from mistakes made during the 2017 floods and considerably improved and invested in the city’s emergency operations center to ensure that San Jose was prepared for the next disaster that came its way.
“We really, I think, have done an outstanding job in terms of supporting the needs of our most vulnerable communities during these times and I couldn’t be more proud of the organization and the work that we’ve done, especially during this last year and the pandemic,” he said.
Lee Wilcox, who was recently appointed to deputy city manager and previously served as Sykes’ chief of staff, called Sykes an “amazing mentor and leader to everyone in the organization.”
“He listens incredibly well and always supports people who are doing really hard work in a way that’s very authentic,” Wilcox said. “He’ll be missed quite a bit.”
Sykes will become the latest of a handful of top city officials to leave the organization within the past eight months. The city lost its former police chief Eddie Garcia and deputy city manager Jim Ortbal in December 2020 and former economic development director and deputy city manager Kim Walesh in March.
Despite the slew of departures, Sykes said that the city has a “super strong bench.”
Carolina Camarena, city spokesperson who worked in Sykes office, echoed the sentiment, saying that he was “leaving the city in a good place to recover from the pandemic and to do so with people in mind.”
Sykes was born in the United Kingdom and moved to San Jose as a child. He graduated from Gunderson High School and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in civil engineering from San Jose State.
Although he’s not yet sure what the next phase of his career will look like, Sykes said he plans to stay in San Jose.
“I’m not rushing into anything else,” he said. “I’m looking forward to detaching for a while, taking a break and assessing what I want to do next.”
As for those who might be considering a career in the public sphere, Sykes has one piece of advice — do it.
“It’s been a very rewarding experience serving our community and I would encourage anyone to come work for city of San Jose,” he said. “It’s hard work, it’s demanding work, but it is a great feeling being able to help people.”