By Luciana Chavez, Special to the Office of External Relations
Stephanie Dietz wasn’t handed the Merced City Manager reins. No, they were suddenly flung back, and she hustled to snatch them out of mid-air.
Former city manager Steve Carrigan was fired on July 20. Dietz, then assistant city manager, took over on July 21.
“In all honesty, we’ve been assessing where we are and moving forward,” Dietz said. “That was the job I was asked to do and I’ve grabbed onto that with both hands.”
The Merced College, Fresno State and National University graduate had worked 3 1/2 years as the assistant at that point. She already had a deep feel for the priorities of city hall, and how to attack the new job.
Dietz will tell you she manages all manner of situations and crises at city hall thanks to the academic training and nurturing she received at Merced College.
“I think of the women who’ve [had to choose between] caring for family or pursuing higher education,” said Dietz, who was a single mother when she enrolled. “Merced College gave me a chance to do both successfully.”
Dietz took an English class with professor Eric Caine that changed her academic career. How? He refused to accept mediocrity from her.
Students were dropping out of class left and right, when Dietz got a B on her first paper. She asked the normally demanding and cantankerous Caine why.
“He said, ‘You’re very bright and I will not accept this level of BS from you,’” she said. “He actually said the word, not the letters.”
Dietz got an A in that class and two others Caine taught. She said it was the first time in awhile that she’d completed something difficult.
“He knew there was more to me than I realized,” she said. “He made me the writer I am today. He gave me the skills to organize my thoughts. He taught me how to create material that has depth but is easy to read. I didn’t realize how big of an impact he had on me until years later.”
Joining the workforce, Dietz unwittingly began preparing to lead a public agency, taking jobs with increasingly higher stakes in social services, county government and then higher education.
She spent over 10 years within Merced County, implementing the first drug dependency court working for the mental health department, and, with the county’s executive office, overseeing revenue sharing with its six incorporated towns.
She worked three years at UC Merced as a personnel analyst, recruiting lecturers, teaching fellows, postdoctoral fellows and researchers to campus.
“It wasn’t the traditional path to this position,” Dietz said. “But that broad experience with different bureaucracies allowed me to see how they all overlap and intertwine.”
Four years ago, by then a married mother of two, Dietz became Merced’s assistant city manager, facing everything from broken sprinklers at the dog park to large logistical challenges like helping homeless residents.
Then Dietz became interim city manager four months into the COVID-19 pandemic. While the world paused and retreated, that gave everyone some time to think. Since then the city’s ace crew of 550 employees has rebounded, fired up to fix situations wrought by the virus.
“That was the only way to face this crisis and stay sustainable,” Dietz said. “We didn’t want to waste a single opportunity because we need it all in Merced.”
For example, the City has brought food banks to create food distribution hubs and churches to safely deliver food and prescriptions to homebound seniors.
An initiative called Ready to Open has helped small businesses safely re-open, and an outreach plan called Mask Up encourages people to wear masks.
“[We had to be] accessible and responsible, and meet each other in our moments of need,” Dietz said. “Even with the pandemic, we’ve found ways to shine and grow.”
You might feel oddly motivated reading Dietz’s words. It only takes a few minutes before you hear the passion, see the strong handle on issues, and smell the skill at navigating government.
“I’m lucky to be able to do this work,” she said. “It brings me joy serving the city and working to make it a better place.”
Dietz took over in an emergency, but does she aspire to land the job full time?
“Yes, it is my desire to earn the position as permanent city manager,” Dietz said. “But I serve at the pleasure of the Merced City Council and the community, and will continue to do so for as long as I’m there.”
We highlight Merced College alumni doing well in this space. Just know that Dietz doesn’t sit on line item accomplishments. She embraces the process and the partnerships that make it work.
“I think it’s important to relate [Merced College] back to work we’re doing here,” she said. “It’s critical to Merced’s success. Coming from the College and being a success only reinforces the need for all of these partnerships to grow and evolve. The College’s vision and values align with Merced goals. I only see both places growing stronger as we work together.”