A city manager strives to demonstrate the nobility of his bureaucratic position as he investigates the environmental costs of a development project.
In this long, informative debut novel, Thompson tells the story of Brad Jacks, the city manager of Santa Ynez, a small town in southern California. Brad finds his 30-year career coming to a crucial moment as he stewards the divisive “active adult community” Green Valley Village through development. Pro-business community members work to hastily greenlight the project to bring an economic boost to the town, while liberal advocates desperately point to the venture’s environmental detriments. Brad must resolve these conflicts on two battlegrounds. Within his own team, he mediates between young and idealistic Planning Director Megan Cain and data-driven, development-friendly Public Works Director Dipak “Dee” Sharma. In Santa Ynez, ex-hippie Councilwoman Kay Nance and the Nettler family of ranchers represent broader clashes between liberals and conservatives in a small town. Together, these skirmishes reflect the breadth of the impact of local city planning issues; Brad’s struggle to resolve the Green Valley Village conundrum convincingly portrays the challenges and importance of effective city management. In addition to Brad’s immediate trials, however, Thompson tells a second, more intriguing story: the history of water management in California. Over the course of the book, Brad learns—from his in-laws in rural California, a senior citizen who survived the St. Francis dam failure, environmentalists—that water, the state’s most important resource, has been manipulated by large contractors for decades, leaving naturally lush areas dry. Readers can learn along with Brad that “where water is concerned, it’s always about money and power.” Passages about the history of water and city management in California can leave this novel feeling a bit like a work of nonfiction at times (acronyms and initialisms like IS, BDCP, and EIR abound), but it’s absorbing nonfiction nonetheless. Those fascinated by the quiet heroism of bureaucrats should be naturally drawn to Brad; anyone interested in the history of California’s development will likely learn a great deal as well.
An engrossing, in-depth look at the challenges of city planning in California through the eyes of a public servant.