By Haley Sawyer
South Pasadena Review
When South Pasadena interim City Manager Sean Joyce was studying at Cal State Fullerton, he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend out for dinner.
So, his father gave him a weekly budget of $35 for the two to plan a dinner. Together, Joyce and his girlfriend watched cooking shows, bought ingredients and re-created the recipes. Now married, the couple still cook together.
Once again, Joyce finds himself in a similar situation of limited resources as he moves from the position of city manager in Irvine to his second time as city manager of South Pasadena.
“I was quickly reminded … the resources are modest,” Joyce said. “I had to adjust immediately, and I knew that coming over. I never forgot how modest my beginnings were.”
But also much like his college days, he’s once again working with people who care deeply. They care about their community and the work being done.
“You have to appreciate how involved folks are, and people feel a real stake in everything that we’re doing,” Joyce said. “It’s important to communicate with folks; it’s important to talk and to listen.”
Joyce was named interim city manager in late September. He first began his city manager career in Sierra Madre, then moved to South Pasadena, where he served in the role from 1996-2004. He then became city manager of Irvine, where he stayed until his retirement in 2018.
He succeeds previous City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe, whom the City Council severed from with a year remaining on her contract. Controversy swirled during DeWolfe’s tenure, mainly surrounding city finances.
The interim city manager is choosing not to focus on those events, but rather on what the current situation is and how he can best maintain trust with South Pasadena residents.
“I’m just going to tell the truth, diplomatically and courteously, but I’m going to lead by example,” he said. “I’m going to demonstrate more than lecture. I don’t own any of the problems that existed before I arrived. I own the responsibility for addressing problems as I confront them, so there’s no need for me to be defensive about anything. It’s just, take an issue on, take a matter on and be courteous and act like the person my mother taught me to be. That kind of guides me every day. That’s not an adjustment I have to make coming out of retirement.”
The decision to come back to South Pasadena was an easy one for Joyce. He still has friends here and the community and the people who serve it remain largely the same.
In terms of dealing with a community economically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Joyce feels well-equipped for the challenges ahead after facing the Great Recession in Irvine.
“When you lose 12-15% of your annual revenue in a day, just in a day, you’ve got to react swiftly,” he said. “And I learned to engage with employees to develop solutions. People are doing their job every day thinking about how they’re doing their job every day.”
Joyce communicates regularly with the City Council as well as other departments. With Black Lives Matter protests dotting the summer and fall, some South Pasadena residents are urging police reform.
“I am working with the chief, and directly or indirectly with others in the police departments, to contextualize the era that we’re in, to try to create an atmosphere for growth and awareness,” Joyce said. “We will revisit how police departments do what they do. And it’s important that we listen while people implore us to listen to them. And my role in doing that is to help. Help police leadership understand that and be supportive of that learning curve and also supportive when there is fine work being done.”
Subsequent to this interview, Police Chief Joe Ortiz announced his retirement, paving the way for Joyce and a City Council that is largely new to kick off these reforms with a new slate.
There may be change on the horizon in South Pasadena, but Joyce knows that some things remain consistent no matter what.
He still cooks with his wife. He’s still a father to his daughter, who was a baby when he began his first stint with South Pasadena. As one of seven children, he still vies for power with his three brothers.
“That was my great inspiration for local government management,” he said. “Be in charge of something, dang it.”
He still has his sense of humor. South Pasadena has its own unique character as well, and Joyce is eager to explore it and build on it.
“I genuinely care about the community and folks who live here,” he said. “Working in Irvine for so many years, I always remembered my time here and a good part of the foundation of my career was laid in South Pasadena. Mistakes were made here that I didn’t have to make again because I got to learn from them. Occasional success. It’s great to be back.”