Carol Giovanatto: Up through the ranks

When Carol Giovanatto walks into a room, the air almost vibrates with her style and confidence. Her wardrobe is impeccable, her work is meticulous and her personality resonates with homespun charm.

For the past 12 years, Giovanatto has been in charge of the City of Sonoma’s finances, a tough spot when the economy spun downward and revenues declined.

Now sitting in the city manager’s chair, Giovanatto has additional challenges. But that’s nothing new for a woman who changes her own tires, repairs her own automobile and once served on a pit crew for a race car team.

“My passion for stock car racing began back in high school when I attended races at Ukiah Raceway,” she said. But it wasn’t until 1975 – the year women were allowed in the pits – that she became a member of the “grass roots” crew.

“I fell into it purely by accident. They were down a crewmember, and I knew how to use a wrench. I still love the sound of an impact wrench. And I never broke a nail.”

Although this “hobby” turned into lots of weekends at local short track raceways all over Northern California and Nevada, she never drove the cars, although a favorite birthday present was racecar training at the Richard Petty Driving School in Las Vegas.

Sadly, NASCAR never called, although she remains a huge fan.

“I did everything,” she said, recalling her short track stock car experience. And if you ask her what she’s done in city government, she might answer the same.

She started with the City of Cloverdale at the age of 19, in the position of account clerk. In the course of the next 26 years she served as airport manager, recreation director, public works director, transit manager, finance director and assistant city manager.

“I had not planned to make a career of local government,” she said. “But year after year, I fell in love with it. Any time there was a job to be done, I stepped up to be considered – paid or not – and I worked my way up.”

She wanted to go to college, but work kept getting in the way and she never got there. “Over the years I’ve taken classes and attended seminars specific to city government, but most of my learning has been through mentors and just doing the job.”

After her marriage ended, she decided to look for new opportunities, and in 2001 she was hired by the City of Sonoma as finance director. In 2004, she was also given the title of assistant city manager, and in the course of her employment was interim city manager twice.

She was surprised and honored when she was offered the position of city manager last year.

“I was the one who asked for a one-year term. My reasoning was that if I didn’t establish a solid relationship with the City Council, or if they didn’t think I was carrying out their vision, I could walk away.”

Her year ended and her contract was renewed with accolades, this time for a longer term.

“In the past year, my proudest personal accomplishment has been stepping out of my comfort zone and speaking to local groups. As second in command, that wasn’t something I ordinarily did,” she said. “In terms of the city, I am most proud of the council’s goal setting. Sixty percent of the goals have been completed and the rest are underway.”

In the coming year, she hopes to do a strategic planning session with the council and the public. Because economic issues were in the forefront, a lot of ordinary tasks were set aside during the recession, things like bringing the fee schedule up to date. Now that those have been completed, the council can move on and discuss Sonoma’s future.

“We can’t ignore that we are a tourist-based community,” said Giovanatto. “But at the same time, we must manage our growth. Measure J (the half-cent sales tax measure approved by voters) will sunset. Where will the revenue to replace it come from? Those two issues are critical looking forward.”

Other issues that will require attention include the expiration of the urban growth boundary, viewing the tasting room issue in the context of economic development, creating diversity of businesses (not just in the downtown), the future of the cemetery (an issue that refuses go away) and water. On the immediate horizon will be an updated Circulation Element of the General Plan, a water rate study and modifications to the special events policy.

But whatever is the issue du jour, Giovanatto feels confident that it will have a thorough airing and lots of discussion. “We’re in a good place right now. We have a high level of public participation, we’re in a good financial position and we have excellent planning,” she said. “People outside the city limits often feel like we’re their government. We have a good relationship with Supervisor (Susan) Gorin’s office and can intercede on their behalf. Their sense of community is here.”

She also has found that she enjoys dealing directly with the City Council. “My job is to supply the best, most detailed information I can give them. This council is very thoughtful. They often have diverse views. When a vote is 3-2 it is based on sincere beliefs.”

Giovanatto still lives in Cloverdale where she serves as an elected official on the board of the Cloverdale Fire District. This, she said, has given her additional perspective on how elected officials feel and insights into the operation of the Sonoma Valley Fire Authority. In May, she married her fiance of three years, Michael Pigoni, a long-time Geyserville resident, who is a fire battalion chief in El Cerrito.

Still, some residents have been critical of her long commute, thinking she should live in the city that she manages. But in an age when long commutes are the norm, neither Giovanatto nor the council find it to be a hindrance. It allows her to remain close to her married daughter and to care for her 87-year-old mother, who still lives in the family home.

Giovanatto spends what free time she has cooking and doing crafts. She no longer grows grapes (once sold to Ravenswood), but she and her husband still have an extensive garden, that she personally tends. “I never go anywhere that I don’t come home with a plant.”

Cultivation is also part of her job, but in Sonoma she’s mentoring her staff, trying to give them new opportunities.

“I’ve worked for 12 city managers in my 38 years in city government and I learned something from all of them,” she said. “I evolved through good mentoring. I hope I can do that with the staff.”

Being a “roll up your sleeves” type of person, she’s still a stickler for detail and recently found a $3.5 million error the state had made, which they reluctantly corrected in the city’s favor.

Does she regret never pursuing her NASCAR dreams? “I’ve driven an actual NASCAR Sprint Cup car,” she said. “My fast time was 126 miles per hour. I didn’t want to get out of the car when it was done.”

But after 38 years in city government, she knows she made the right choice. “As my dad always said, I went to the school of hard knocks and I have no regrets.”