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Outgoing city manager Pili addresses legacy and regrets


Ifo Pili first heard of Las Cruces just two years before becoming the city’s most powerful man.

He was serving as city manager of Eagle Mountain, Utah, when the city recorder mentioned Las Cruces to him as “a great place to retire.” 

Two years later, Pili saw an opening for city manager of Las Cruces in a headhunter’s email. He didn’t think much of it but remembered Las Cruces from the conversation. But he applied anyway. The application was as easy as sending in a resume. The interview was just as trivial, Pili said.

The following day, Pili got a call from the headhunter, a firm the city of Las Cruces hired. He’d be a finalist for the Las Cruces city manager position, should he want it. Now it was real, Pili said. He’d have to decide if wanted to uproot his family – including his ten children – to Las Cruces, New Mexico.

As part of his evaluation of Las Cruces, Pili packed that family into a car and drove from Eagle Mountain to Las Cruces. It’s an 800-mile drive that takes about 12 to 15 hours.

When he got here, there was something about the City of the Crosses he couldn’t shake. Something drew him here. But it wasn't just the shadow of the Organ Mountains or the great weather. Pili said something was driving him to leave Utah for something different. 

“I think deep down inside, I was looking for a challenge,” Pili said.

Three and a half years, one pandemic, dozens of cannabis shops, one new mayor and a heap of other changes later, Pili will soon leave the city of Las Cruces. He announced on Feb. 28 that he had taken a job as city manager of West Valley City, a community that hugs the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I don’t know if I’m coming home or leaving home at this point,” Pili told a gaggle of reporters at an impromptu news conference on Feb. 28. “All 60 of my parents’ posterity is in the same county in Utah, and I still am in this weird place where I don’t know if I’m leaving home or going home.”

Pili leaves big shoes to fill. The city manager is the most powerful position in city government. Pili oversaw an 1,800-person bureaucracy and a $519 million budget. The decisions of this unelected official affected public safety outcomes, housing development, employee salaries and much more.

Pili started his job in Las Cruces on Sept. 8, 2020. Before his career in city administration, he had a life as a football player. As a teenager, he moved to Utah from American Samoa. He played on the defensive line at Brigham Young University and later in the NFL before changing careers.


Leaving Las Cruces

The news of Pili’s departure came as a surprise.

Unlike New Mexico, governments in Utah do not have to publicly declare the names of finalists for executive positions. Pili has the support of the Las Cruces City Council and mayor, the only people who could fire him.

Pili said nothing pushed him out of Las Cruces. Although the resignation appeared to come on the heels of a public comment rebellion over the city's actions and the killing of a police officer on Feb. 19, fomenting a local political organization targeting council members ahead of the 2024 elections, Pili said he’d been considering a change since for weeks.

Still, it begs the question: Why now?

“It was really the opportunity with this city of West Valley,” Pili said. “I’ve had other opportunities presented to go back to Utah. I started considering it only because… my children. I came here with eight of them. And now I have five. And they’re all going back to Brigham Young University and Utah.”

Pili began seriously considering a return to Utah in November 2023 when a search firm hired by West Valley contacted him. He worked through the process and appeared for an in-person interview on Feb. 12.

“At that point, I was still undecided,” Pili said.

Pili and his family again made the 12-to-15-hour drive back to Utah for the interview.

“When I got to West Valley, we had the interview. And I told my family I was there. All my siblings came up, and we took over a restaurant,” Pili said, marking the number of family members at 50. “That started to really sink in. To see all my siblings again with other kids. And, of course, my daughter was there.”

As Pili and his family returned to Las Cruces, he said he prayed on the matter to reflect about the decision. The following Friday, Pili received an offer letter. He signed it and brought his time in Las Cruces to an end.

City Manager Ifo Pili with former Mayor Ken Miyagishima in 2021.
City Manager Ifo Pili with former Mayor Ken Miyagishima in 2021.

Ifo Pili, organization builder

At the time of this article’s publication, Pili’s successor seems preordained to emerge from city staff. His two assistant city managers, Sonya Delgado and Ikani Taumoepeau, have strong claims, as does his chief of staff, Barbara Bencomo. Pili also leaves Las Cruces of his own accord, not chased by scandal.

Both points are a far cry from how he found the municipality in 2020.

Before his arrival, the previous full-time manager abruptly resigned. Stuart Ed, who began a run as city manager in 2016, left the office just before an audit found procurement violations and other irregularities. The city also settled $1.4 million in three whistleblower lawsuits. The whistleblowers said they were the target of retaliation after reporting wasted public funds, procurement violations and other wrongdoing.

Pili was aware of the challenges that a city moving on from scandal entailed.

“The first thing I knew right out the gate is I had to build trust,” he said. “An essential part of that, probably in any city government but certainly in ours, had to come from basically the third floor, from this office.”

That was the focus for the first two years, Pili said. Through that trust building, Pili said he wanted staff to go from retaliation and whistleblowing to loving where they work and feeling safe in city hall. Practically, that meant giving employees higher salaries and better benefits.

The council and mayor’s support was vital in that, he said.

“Those are the things I needed to focus on because I felt like that was the need,” Pili said, adding that he couldn’t move forward on other initiatives until that was done right.

Pili has not been immune from allegations of misconduct. A lawsuit filed in 2023 from former city attorney Jennifer Vega alleges Pili wrongfully fired her. The city denied any wrongdoing or retaliation in the matter. As of the publication of this article, the lawsuit remains pending.


What did Pili accomplish – and what did he regret? 

A city news release announcing Pili’s departure touted his successes as city manager.

“Numerous General Obligation Bond projects have been initiated and completed during Pili’s tenure as City Manager,” the release said.

Those GO Bond projects unlocked funding for a new fire station, park improvement, the East Mesa Public Recreation Complex and public art. The GO Bond also sent $6 million to an affordable housing trust fund the city uses to support a stunted housing supply.

“The city also has seen several new projects and significant programs implemented, including enhancements at the Las Cruces Innovation and Industrial Park, the start of the LiftUp Las Cruces program and the establishment of a Mobile Integrated Health unit for the Las Cruces Fire Department,” the news release said.

But during his discussion with reporters on Feb. 28, Pili pointed to poverty as a source of regret. Shortly after taking the job, Pili told the Las Cruces Sun-News that poverty and economic development were top priorities.

“As a city administrator, I’ve never attacked those issues before,” Pili told the Sun-News in 2020. “But I’m learning. I’m learning that if we’re looking at poverty, we have to go to the core of some of these issues, and I have to learn about how this city can be instrumental and partner in those areas.”

Pili also pointed to affordable housing.

“The end of the day, no matter what types of jobs you’re bringing in, if you have no place for people to stay that’s affordable for them, it just defeats the whole purpose of raising people’s income levels,” Pili said.

As Pili leaves, he said he feels these goals go unmet.

“I asked the council what they wanted me to work on, and every one of them said we need to move the poverty dial,” Pili said. “Well, that hasn’t been moved, and that’s something that’ll probably continue to bother me.”

The U.S. Census Bureau and most recent American Community Survey estimate that about 23 percent of Las Crucens live in poverty compared to the national rate of about 11 percent. But Pili expressed optimism about the future.

Pili started or oversaw initiatives like LiftUp Las Cruces, the metropolitan redevelopment areas in West Picacho and El Paseo/South Solano and the city’s experiment with guaranteed basic income. He said those will have a lasting effect. 

“You’re going to see some noticeable changes in the literal landscape of the city, but also the way we operate,” Pili said.

City Manager Pili, legacy, regrets, resignation