Julia Burrows is the Director of the Governing Institute, where she manages the Institute’s research and advisory operations. Julia served the citizens and City Council of Roseville, CA for 22 years first in the Planning and Community Development Departments before serving in the City Manager’s Office from 1994 to 2010. She was responsible for the city’s economic development efforts, communications division, and Council support as Deputy City Manager/Economic Development Director.
As a recently hired Assistant Planner at the City of Roseville, CA, counter duty was the assigned training ground. Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento, was just beginning to transition from a blue-collar railroad town to a high-tech hub with Hewlett-Packard building a campus and NEC completing a silicon-chip manufacturing plant. Specific plans for thousands of acres of housing, a new regional mall, auto mall and hospitals were approved by the City Council in the late 1980’s. Development activity was high, especially given the affordable land prices and full-service city status.
The front counter is really where we learned to be planners. No more theory, no more term papers, no more reviewing the 1967 Chicago General Plan to see what could have been if Chicago hadn’t ignored its waterfront property. Land use and zoning is the magic language that translates into dollars and jobs for any city. From the illegal car repair shop owner to the slick commercial real estate developer, this was the classroom on how to say no, politely; how to say yes, with conditions, and when we should call across the street to let the City Manager know a big project was on its way.
As the junior planner, I was the POD (Planner on Duty) during the planning staff meetings. The bell would ring, and I would leave the meeting to answer questions at the front counter. One Monday morning, two gentlemen came in; one the investor and one the advisor. They wanted to build a car wash on an acre lot somewhere in Roseville. There was only one desktop computer in the Planning Department in 1989, so out came the big books with the maps and the list of parcels zoned commercial with an allowable use of car wash.
I spent 90 minutes at the counter that morning with these two fellows. And, once in a while, an engineer or parks employee would walk by and call me over for a second. They’d say, “Make sure you ask him for an autograph before he leaves.” Or, “Don’t you know who that is?” I consider myself a fan of sports and reader of celebrity news, but had no idea who the person was. I just knew my job was to help him find a location for the car wash, outline the process through the entitlements and facilitate the investment where allowed.
We narrowed the search to several parcels, made a list of the Assessor Parcel Numbers and photocopies of the maps. I handed him one of my new cards and then asked him for the autograph. He smiled and said of course he would sign the blank piece of paper. He folded it up and handed it back to me, smiling again as he walked out of the old City Hall. I never saw him or his advisor again.
When the planning staff meeting was over, one of planners asked about the autograph.
I unfolded the paper and read “Dear Julia, Get a real job! – Danny Ainge.”
I was mortified. “I do have real job,” I thought “and on this particular day, my job was to answer your questions so that you could invest your paycheck from (your very short stint on) the Sacramento Kings to make a return on your investment. In fact, I would have to say that the one with the real job was the public servant at the front counter, not the one bouncing a basketball for a living.”
I went from mortified to motivated. Every day, for 22 years at the public counter, in thousands of interactions with our citizens and in staffing our elected officials, I answered questions, gave honest and direct advice and consider this service among the most noble calling that I could have answered. I kept the autograph as one scrap of paper among many thank you notes and commendations throughout my career. Local government and public service is a real job making a real difference in people’s lives every day.
I have to admit that when the voice of Danny Ainge used to come across on TNT or these days in an NBA press conference, my family knows to immediately turn the channel. We all just smile and recall the story of the basketball player telling me to get a real job. And, when the Kings play the Celtics, we cheer extra loud for the home team.
Happy Public Service Week to all of you with real jobs!
Update: Danny Ainge has posted an apology via Twitter. It has since been deleted but as you know the Internet cannot be erased.