The Atherton City Council announced late Thursday, Dec. 27, that it has tentatively chosen Mr. Gruber, 48, to lead the town staff, pending the negotiation of his compensation package.
Until recently, Mr. Gruber was the general manager of the city of Big Bear Lake Department of Water and Power. Big Bear Lake is about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, in San Bernadino County.
The Atherton council chose Mr. Gruber unanimously, said Councilman Charles Marsala.
Mr. Gruber said he's well aware of the turmoil that Atherton has been experiencing in the past couple of years, and he attended the City Council's boisterous Dec. 19 meeting.
"I come from an exciting place," Mr. Gruber told the Almanac, adding that in the city of Big Bear Lake, he's accustomed to lengthy council meetings and passionately involved residents. "When I was interviewed, I was absolutely aware of some of the challenges (Atherton's) been facing, and I'm looking forward to making a difference."
Mr. Gruber said he's been interested in finding a city manager job for the past couple of years. He resigned from the Department of Water and Power in November, after having been placed on administrative leave at the end of September.
"There was an allegation made on some employment issue in hiring, it was investigated, we checked up on it, it was found to be groundless, end of story," said Atherton Mayor Jim Janz.
According to Mr. Gruber, a comment was made by one of the department's senior management staff about whether a job applicant was physically able to do the work.
"Because she was asked if she could lift a 90-pound jackhammer, she thought it wasn't appropriate," Mr. Gruber said.
After the situation was investigated, the chair of the department's board of directors concluded that the situation amounted to "a whole lot about nothing," Mr. Gruber said. He was planning to leave the department to focus on searching for a city manager job anyway, he said.
"I think the (Atherton) council feels really comfortable that it was a whole lot about nothing," he said. "My recommendations are impeccable. I come highly recommended, and I think the (Big Bear Lake) community is really going to miss (my wife) Melanie and I."
Catherine Sandstrom, the news director for KBHR, a local radio station, said Mr. Gruber was well regarded in the Big Bear Lake community.
"In my dealings with Jerry Gruber, he's always been a really good guy. His wife is a nice, sweet lady; she's a fifth-grade teacher at Baldwin Lane Elementary and she's been involved in local theater productions," Ms. Sandstrom said.
Atherton's Interim City Manager Wende Protzman, who has led the town since the retirement of Jim Robinson in July, will resume her previous position as assistant to the city manager, and help Mr. Gruber in the transition, according to the City Council's press release. Ms. Protzman was one of three finalists for the city manager position, said Councilman Jerry Carlson.
"The council was impressed with Jerry's many years in a management position, which, with Wende's knowledge of local and regional issues, should provide a positive direction for the town," said the City Council's press release.
Councilman Carlson said he was seeking a strong, experienced manager and Mr. Gruber had the best management credentials of the applicants. Mr. Gruber managed 38 employees in Big Bear Lake; the town of Atherton has about 50 employees, not including the police department.
Former Atherton City Manager Robinson was criticized for his lack of supervision over Atherton Building Department employees by the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury, in a report issued in July.
Indications that Mr. Robinson did not exert his authority over town staff are also apparent in e-mails acquired by the Almanac through state Public Records Act requests, and in an investigator's report on former Finance Director John Johns, who was fired in October following a two-month suspension.
Prior to his nearly four-year stint as head of the Department of Water and Power in Big Bear Lake, Mr. Gruber was the water operations manager and water reclamation manager at the South Walton Utility Co. in Destin, Florida.
Originally from Southern California, he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1979 until 1985.
Mr. Gruber is married with two grown daughters, and has a master's degree in public administration, he said.
"We know he didn't have direct city manager experience, but he certainly came well prepared. He'd read all the materials, all the reports that were available," said Mr. Carlson.
While heading the Department of Water and Power, Mr. Gruber reported to two sets of bosses, the City Council of Big Bear Lake as well as the department's appointed board of directors, Mr. Carlson said. Because of that, Mr. Gruber had to placate lots of people, an experience that should serve him well in Atherton, Mr. Carlson said.
"He's very likable; I think people will be impressed by him, and I look forward to working with him," said Mayor Janz.
The council is expected to take formal action to hire Mr. Gruber after the holidays. Mr. Gruber said he hopes to start work for the town by mid-January, and that he plans to move into the town-owned city manager's house.
Councilman Marsala praised Ms. Protzman's handling of the interim city manager job.
"Wende showed strong leadership," he said. "I do look forward to working with both (Wende and Jerry Gruber) next year."
Mr. Marsala said he hopes the council and Mr. Gruber will address the need for a new town hall and eliminate the temporary trailer housing the building and public works departments.
"That's needed to clean up the way we operate, to have the staff in the same building," Mr. Marsala said.