OAKLAND -- In the latest upheaval at City Hall, Fred Blackwell announced Wednesday that he is resigning as Oakland city administrator just one month after being handed the job.

Blackwell is leaving Oakland to take the reins of the San Francisco Foundation, a Bay Area-wide nonprofit with a $1.2 billion endowment.

Blackwell, 44, will continue working in Oakland through mid-June, when he will be replaced on an interim basis by Henry Gardner, who served 12 years under the former title as city manager during the 1980s and early 1990s.

While Gardner, 69, is popular and well-respected in the city, Blackwell's sudden departure is an apparent blow to Mayor Jean Quan, who is seeking re-election, at a time of near constant turnover at the top levels of her administration.

Fred Blackwell, Oakland’s new city administrator, answers questions during an interview with this newspaper at City Hall in Oakland, Calif.,
Fred Blackwell, Oakland's new city administrator, answers questions during an interview with this newspaper at City Hall in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Blackwell replaces Deanna Santana as the city's top administrator. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

The mayor released a statement Wednesday congratulating Blackwell and praising Gardner, who would run the city through the beginning of next year.

Quan promoted Blackwell from assistant city manager last month after agreeing to part ways with Deanna Santana, who she hired in 2011.

Blackwell said Wednesday that running the San Francisco Foundation, which disperses about $90 million worth of grants a year to five Bay Area counties, was too good a job to pass up.

"I was in the unenviable position of getting both of my dream jobs offered to me almost simultaneously," he said. Blackwell said he got the job offer last week and had told Quan he would likely take it.


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As a native son, who spearheaded major developments both in Oakland and as the former Redevelopment Director in San Francisco, Blackwell carried the hopes of many Oakland officials that he would thrive in the notoriously demanding job and bring stability to a city that lacks a permanent police chief and has now churned through the three top officials Quan hired.

However, Blackwell said he didn't think his departure would be a devastating blow. "I'm a firm believer that the city the size of Oakland does not revolve around any one person," he said. "What I conveyed to all the staff is that I'm confident that Oakland will be fine without me."

Gardner, who lives down the block from the house where Blackwell was raised, said he agreed to become interim city administrator during a Wednesday meeting with Quan and Blackwell.

He said his goal is to stabilize the 4,000-worker organization and to motivate them to do their best. "There is no magic wand, and I'm not a miracle worker, but if the mayor feels I can be helpful on a short-term basis, then I am quite willing to try," he said.

Gardner's appointment was hailed in several corners of the city and from council members who worked with him over two decades ago.

Police union President Barry Donelan called him "a consummate professional."

Former Councilwoman Marge Gibson-Haskell said Gardner was a great "big picture thinker" and that his management skills might soften any political blowback Quan faces over Blackwell's departure.

"Henry is such a 'Mr. Smooth' that between now and the election, there will be no waves," she said.

Still, Blackwell's departure underscores the turmoil in City Hall under Quan's stewardship. Gardner will become the fifth city administrator to work under her, and Interim Chief Sean Whent is the fourth police chief, counting the two-day tenure of Capt. Anthony Toribio.

"No public or private organization can be successful with this level of turmoil," said former Oakland City Attorney John Russo, who is now city manager of Alameda.

University of San Francisco Political Science Professor Corey Cook said voters typically don't concern themselves with who occupies top city management posts, but that Quan could be in trouble if voters feel there is chaos at City Hall.

"It's a fairly easy attack for her opponents to say, 'look how many city administrators she's been through,'" he said. "If it fits a broader public perception that she can't steer the city in a clear direction that will hurt her."

The San Francisco Foundation had conducted a six-month nationwide search for a new director after Sandra Hernandez left in October. Hernandez made $345,711 in 2011 -- far more than the $231,654 Blackwell made last year. The foundation's board Chairman, Andy Ballard, said he was thrilled to land Blackwell, but would not disclose his salary.

"Fred's a collaborator and a leader," he said. "As we narrowed the list down he was the clear choice."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435