She was not there for the birth of the city of Santa Clarita back in 1987, but she did come on board early in its childhood, and she’s been there ever since as the city grew to become the third-largest in Los Angeles County, behind only L.A. itself and Long Beach.
Gail Morgan went on the payroll in February 1990 as the city’s first public information officer … employee No. 127 on an all-time roster that’s now well north of 6,000.
Talking Santa Clarita history with Morgan is like talking American history with a member of the George Washington administration.
But as of Dec. 27, Morgan will take her 27 years of institutional knowledge into retirement, as she steps down from a job that’s now called communications manager, a title that’s evolved like the city itself over the years.
Sitting in her office at City Hall this week, Morgan said she doesn’t expect to get weepy on that final day – but she offered no such guarantees about her retirement party that’s scheduled for Dec. 2.
“This job has been one of the absolute highlights of my entire life,” Morgan said.
Back in 1987, the unincorporated towns of Canyon Country, Newhall, Saugus and Valencia were stitched together to become Santa Clarita. The new city had a name, but not an identity.
That was the first big task for Morgan, then known as Gail Foy, when she joined the city three years later following stints doing public relations for several hospitals and then her own PR firm.
“Let’s get Santa Clarita on the map,” she recalled then-City Manager George Caravalho telling her.
“We were known as ‘that place over by Magic Mountain,’ ‘’ Morgan said. “We needed to brand.”
And so to get Santa Clarita into the public consciousness, she would hold press conferences every Monday at City Hall – this was only a short time after the building, formerly the Valencia National Bank building, was bought and transformed into City Hall.
“You will have news every Monday,” Morgan said with a smile as she recalled Caravalho’s marching orders.
She would also write press releases – on an IBM Selectric typewriter. She would disseminate them by fax – technology that was “a big deal” at the time, she recalled.
Morgan also began the city’s first “Concerned Citizens Hotline.” It was an old-fashioned, analog telephone answering machine on her desk. First thing every morning, she would listen to complaints and suggestions, then dispatch the proper city workers to remedy or answer them.
That answering machine has evolved into the “Resident Services Center” on the city’s website, which has handled some 19,000 issues, big and small, so far this year.
Indeed, a lot has evolved since those old days.
As the city grew from 147,000 in 1987 to about 225,000 today, Morgan’s job grew to include oversight of the website, plus all manner of audio, video and graphics elements.
Her salary has grown as well. She started at $37,000 a year, and the communications manager’s job now pays between $114,000 and $138,000, depending on hours worked, according to the city’s website.
Along the way, Morgan said, there have been lots of highlights, lots of challenges, lots of good memories and lots to be proud of.
She had nothing but praise for the numerous city managers, mayors, council members and other city employees with whom she’s worked – people who helped Santa Clarita become, in 2006, Money magazine’s No. 18 in the top 100 places to live in the U.S.
“We’re known for being a very well-run city,” Morgan said. “We have a Triple-A bond rating, a balanced budget, a 20 percent reserve fund.”
She recalled with a smile some of her personal highlights, such as when she conceived the idea of a “Hairdressers Luncheon” in 1999. Local hairdressers were invited in, and city officials picked their brains for intel on how the city could be run better – a deft way to take the public pulse in the days before social media.
“I figured, everybody talks to their hairdresser,” Morgan said. “It became the source of a lot of good input.”
She also came up with the idea, in 2003, of a “cookies and milk” citizens summit with then-Mayor Cameron Smyth – with attendance boosted by a Morgan-inspired ad that featured a milk-mustachioed Smyth below the headline, “Got Mayor?”
One of the biggest challenges, she said, was the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
“The city was hit hard,” she said. “The (Interstate) 5 bridge went down, and we were isolated. But people got to see what a well-run city can do. We got funds, and we rebuilt.”
What’s next for Morgan, she said, is a lot of travel, plus some work as a PR consultant and teacher.
She and her husband of three years, a retired teacher, plan to move to Oxnard and then explore the world, starting with a trip to Europe.
“I haven’t traveled very much,” Morgan said. “I was always working.”
Mayor Bob Kellar said, “She is definitely going to be missed.”
“She has been an absolute delight to work with over the years,’’ said Kellar, a 16-year City Council veteran. “There has never been a time when I could not go to Gail and sit down at her desk and pick her brain and get her insights.
“She’s always been on top of her game. She always knows what’s going on in the city of Santa Clarita.’’