retiring city manager Andy Okoro praised at tribute – San Bernardino Sun

It’s easy to paint Norco with broad strokes. It’s a city where patriotic colors fly, where cowboy hats are so popular that even the Bob’s Big Boy statue wears one, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1 and where the population is 56% White.

Yet for the past nine years, Norco’s city manager has been a Black man who is a literal African American: He immigrated from Nigeria.

Andy Okoro had a rather improbable journey. And on Aug. 29 he’s retiring after 19 years in the city’s executive ranks.

I went to Wednesday’s City Council meeting in part for the discussion of a 45-day moratorium on warehouses, which passed 5-0 with little comment. The meeting was billed as Okoro’s last, and I was curious about that too.

There was a low-key reception for him prior to the meeting. Rather than a sheet cake, individually packaged mini-bundt cakes were available, plus coffee, outside the council chamber.

Okoro was chatting with developer Patrick Daniels when I caught his eye and introduced myself. I told him it was nice to meet him, even if he was on his way out.

“Norco has been great to me. It’s a great and unique community. The people here are passionate about their town,” Okoro told me.

He’ll turn 62 in November and felt it was time to let go of city responsibilities. He made the announcement in March and, after a recruitment, Norco hired Lori Sassoon away from much-larger Rancho Cucamonga.

Okoro arrived in Norco  — nicknamed Horsetown USA —  in 2003 as deputy city manager and chief financial officer.

“It still had a lot of the rural feel. Most of the streets were not well-paved. We had trails, but the city lacked the money to maintain them. There were problems with water quality,” Okoro recalled.

Commercial growth has been concentrated along the main corridors. That’s provided the revenue to keep Norco’s large-lot, low-rise, horsey feel intact.

Neighboring Eastvale, Jurupa Valley and Riverside have all boomed while Norco’s population of 27,000 has remained virtually unchanged over two decades.

“The population over that period has grown by a thousand. If you take out the prison,” Okoro added impishly, “there may be a net loss. That’s the way the folks here want it.”

With pressure from the state to add housing, Sassoon and the council may have their work cut out for them accommodating growth while keeping the essence of Norco intact.

“The next city manager will be focused on how to maintain this lifestyle,” Okoro predicted, “and how to find the economic development revenue to support it.”

I’d been curious about Okoro since seeing his name and photo on the city’s website a couple of years ago and doing a double take. When I asked him about his roots, he brightened.

“I was born in Nigeria and went to high school there,” he said. He came to the United States in 1980 to go to Wichita State University.

(When he found himself in Kansas, I imagine him telling his dog in wonder, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Nigeria anymore.”)

He earned a master’s from the University of Houston in accounting and finance. A college friend moved to L.A., liked it and encouraged him to relocate. A Chino resident since 1994, he worked for the city of Pasadena, Metrolink and the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority before arriving at Norco City Hall.

There was uncertainty on his part and everyone else’s on how the relationship would work. Almost everyone, Okoro said, has been respectful, even when disagreeing with him, and “they have welcomed me with open arms.”

His heavy accent has presented problems at times until listeners got used to its rhythms, he told me.

Or as the cowboy-hatted Berwin Hanna, a former mayor, put it later that evening during a public tribute to Okoro: “When we first started meeting with Andy, we kind of had a little accent problem.” Okoro and the audience laughed. Hanna continued: “We worked that out where we could understand each other.”

It might not qualify as a cavalcade of stars, but a parade of politicos and bureaucrats trooped to the microphone at the start of the council meeting to lavish praise on Okoro.

Kelli Newton takes a photo of Andy Okoro with the Norco City Council after a tribute at Wednesday’s council meeting to the retiring city manager. From left, Greg Newton, Robin Grundmeyer, Okoro, Katherine Aleman, Ted Hoffman and Kevin Bash. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Council members also took turns, sharing insights — he loves soccer, In-N-Out, rollercoasters, walking and collecting swag bags from conferences — and complimenting him for his calm under pressure.

When Kevin Bash, the longest-tenured council member, began to speak, Okoro joked from his seat: “This is the one I’m dreading.”

When Norco’s city manager left in 2013 for a better job, the council was stymied about how to fill the position. Bash said it was Hanna’s idea to approach Okoro. It was a challenging time.

“He saved Norco,” Bash said flatly.

“The reality is, financially we were dead,” Bash said. “I didn’t know where the money was going to come from. We had depended on the auto mall, which basically collapsed in the downturn.”

Okoro and the council lured bigger businesses to town — Hobby Lobby, Tractor Supply, CarMax — to generate revenue, built up reserve funds and persuaded voters in 2018 to back a one-cent sales tax.

Among the visible results during Okoro’s tenure: better streets, a sheriff’s substation, a veterans memorial and the SilverLakes equestrian and sports complex, home to 24 soccer fields, five horse arenas and a 10,000-capacity concert stage.

Okoro has a less-heralded achievement.

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