With three marathons to his name, Grover Beach City Manager Matt Bronson believes there’s an analogy that can be made between the workings of local government and what takes place when an individual sets out on a 26.2-mile foot race.
“Running 26 miles is quite a feat,” Bronson said recently from Grover Beach City Hall where he will celebrate his two-year anniversary as city manager this month. Prior to relocating to the Central Coast from Northern California and before having three children—10-year-old Reed, 8-year-old Chloe and 4-year-old Tyler—Bronson ran the Honolulu, California International and Boston marathons. He also competed in track in college and ran the 200-meter and 400-meter sprints in high school.
“When I ran Honolulu, the official race shirt said, ‘The journey of 26 miles starts with a single step,’” Bronson said. “You can’t think of it as, ‘I’m running 26 miles. You think of it as, ‘I’m going to take a step and another step and another step and just keep on going.’ Step by step. Mile by mile.”
Bronson, who was born and raised in the San Jose area, said in some ways there is a comparison that can be made between long-distance running and the day-to-day workings of local government, which some might say moves at a snail’s pace.
“A lot of times we are running marathons. We are not running sprints,” he said. “If you think about the totality of the goal you are trying to achieve, that can be overwhelming. But if you think about [it as] we are taking a step, taking one direction … and then build on that step by step and then look back, you’ve run a 26-mile race by the end.” With a demanding job and young family, Bronson put marathon running on the back burner, in part, because he simply doesn’t have the time to train for the athletic endeavors, but said at some point in the future he may enter the sport again. For now, he is happy hitting the pavement for a run around the neighborhood and the occasional 10k
when he has spare time, he said.
“It was a significant accomplishment,” Bronson said about completing the trio of marathons. “I would say at this time my hobbies are pretty tame and minimal. I do enjoy coaching and hanging out with kids’ sports teams. I played youth sports after high school and my father was always helping with the teams. I try to emulate (him), follow in those footsteps and help my kids in that regard.”
Bronson and his wife, Samantha, have been married for 14 years. The pair met in college at UC Davis when Bronson, who was majoring in environmental policy and planning, was serving on the student senate and Samantha, a journalism major, was covering the governmental body.
“It was at Davis that I discovered local government,” Bronson said. “I was on the student politician side of the world and realized that early on I had a knack and an interest in organizing, coordinating events and putting on services to support my fellow students. That’s where my niche began to [form].”
In elementary school, Bronson served as student body president, was a part of 4-H and recalls always being an active member of society, even at a young age. He said it wasn’t something that was necessarily instilled in him by his parents, or anyone else. It’s just his nature.
After graduating UC Davis, Bronson attended graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Capitol Hill, where he earned a master’s in public administration with a focus in local government management and budgeting. It was during that time in his life that he began to hone in on how he could best apply his interests, talents and aspirations in a career that would fit his long-term goals. It was also at that point that the California boy determined he wanted to be a county or city manager and wanted work in local government management.
“I have just always liked the idea of working for others on behalf of others, in my school, my 4-H club, in which I was a longtime member, or getting involved in my local community, which is part of my ethos,” he said. “I can’t really point to any one particular reason why. It’s just part of who I was.”
Following graduate school, Bronson spent two years working for the city of Charlotte, which is one of the largest cities in the country that is governed under the council/manager form of government, where the city manager works for the entire council and is the chief execu- tive officer for the organization.
“I got to learn from one of the best managers and organizations in the business, in a very different part of the country,” Bronson said about his 5-year stint with the city of Charlotte. “It gave me a glimpse into a part of the country that most Californians never see, never experience. I got a chance to meet people, to go places that I wouldn’t have met or seen otherwise, and I got to broaden my horizons around local government. It’s not just a California-centric approach.”
The opportunity also gave him the chance to hone his financial planning, budget development and performance management skills, and he developed a niche for community engagement while in North Carolina, as well, he said. After five years in Charlotte, Bronson returned to his native Golden state where he accepted a position with Marin County. He worked in the Northern California county for seven years and joked the move was like going from the “land of Nascar to the land of mountain bike invention.”
“It just had a very strong environmental ethos, environmental protection,” he said of Marin County, where residents are very protective and proud of their community. “They were really careful about the types of amenities and development that were proposed for their communities. Plus, going from city government to county government was a totally different ballgame.”
Bronson said his experience in Marin County, where he worked as an analyst and then assistant to the county administrator, allowed him to broaden his set of work skills while also improving his management skills because working in a county government setting was a much more collaborative process than he had been exposed to in the past.
“You have to work much more in collaboration with other departments, with elected department directors, and understand how you can work together toward common goals without the same kind of structure that city government has,” Bronson explained. He added of his time in Marin County, “I got a chance to really experience what counties do. Counties are so important for protecting those who are most vulnerable, to ensuring a fair and just justice system and to serving those unincorporated areas outside of cities. So those seven years really helped enlighten my career in local government.”
From Marin County, Bronson made the move to San Mateo—one of the largest cities between San Francisco and San Jose—where he spent six years as assistant city manager. While in San Mateo, he also served as the public works maintenance manager “to get a sense of that side of government,” as community development director for six months, and also oversaw key organizational improvement efforts.
“I have a pretty well-rounded background,” Bronson said, who knew in 2016 that he wanted to take the next step to become a city manager. “We were looking at areas that would fit us as a family as much as would fit me as a city manager. The Central Coast popped up as a community, and Grover Beach was hiring for a city manager at that time.”
Bronson and his wife had visited neighboring Pismo Beach and ventured to San Luis Obispo on past vacations to the area but he admits they had never heard of Grover Beach until he applied for the city manager’s position. As he got to know the community, the council, its vision and goals, Bronson said the job seemed a perfect fit for him.
“For my background … it felt like it was a great fit for me as a first time city manager with experience in different size and scale communities, coming in to help implement the council’s vision for creating an even better community (also) in an area that fit the lifestyle interests that my family was looking for,” Bronson said.
Asked if he dreamed of himself sitting behind the city manager’s desk when he was young kid serving as his elementary school’s student body president, Bronson smiled and laughed. “I probably didn’t quite envision it at that level,” he replied with a big grin, noting it wasn’t until he started his internship with the city of Davis that he knew he one day wanted the title city manager in front of his name, as well as all the responsibilities that come with the job, which doesn’t shut down at 5 o’clock.
“I got a glimpse into that world,” Bronson added. “The city manager has an awesome responsibility and a need to be well-rounded in so many areas, to know how to apply policies, goals, visions, ideas into reality, operationalize it. I devote a lot of energy to two things in my life: my job and my family.”
In the two years Bronson has been on the Central Coast, he has enjoyed his time learning about the area, engaging with the community and working for the city of Grover Beach and the City Council, which he called diligent, thoughtful, professional and compassionate.
“We are very happy here, and this is a community that we really like,” Bronson said when asked about the future. “We see ourselves deepening our connection to the community. And for myself personally, continuing to carry out the policy direction of the council. I have been very impressed by our council.”
Bronson also enjoys reading, traveling and visiting the area’s wineries and craft breweries with his wife.