Institutional Knowledge with Bill Monahan, Part 2

As a part of the Institutional Knowledge project, we are recording the wisdom and experience of retiring and retired leaders in local government. If you know someone who could add something to this project, let me know! You can reach out to me on Twitter/ LinkedIn or send me an email.

Former City Manager of Milwaukie, OR & Tigard, OR

Knope of the Week: Bill Monahan, City of Milwaukie


As a part of the Institutional Knowledge project, I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet some incredible government leaders. One of those leaders is Bill Monahan. I had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about his experience as a public servant over the course of several years. This is Part Two of my interview. Here’s Part One of my interview.


Would you encourage a student to work in local gov? Why?

I definitely would encourage a student to work in local government if public service meets their career goals and they want to have the opportunity to make a difference. Until I attended graduate school to be a planner, I had never attended a city council meeting or planning commission meeting. My working knowledge of decision-making, and how to affect it, was purely theoretical. As soon as I was hired as a planner and assigned to staff the conservation commission and parks board, I was seen as an expert whose opinion was valued. Soon, I was advising the planning commission, zoning board of appeals and representing the mayor making presentations to the city council. It occurred to me: other than local government, particularly as a planner, where else can a young staff person have the opportunity to speak in public meetings making recommendations that help shape a community? Where else are you exposed to both friendly and hostile comments from citizens and groups that require you to think on your feet?

Of course, not every local government employee wants to be a planner and experience the fun I described! But, in most cases, local government employees have some close interaction with the public as part of their job. They are given the opportunity to work for a cause – delivery of public services that are needed by community members – that should be fulfilling for anyone.

Local government provides an opportunity for people to perform public service at the level that affects citizens the most, in an environment where local government employees and officials are most reachable and accountable to the citizens. It can be the most rewarding and challenging of positions. I do not encourage a student to work in local government if public service is not their goal or if their prime motivation is earning a huge salary while working few hours, when and if they want to. That student might do well in another field.

What is your advice for an early career professional when they experience challenges? 

Take every challenge as an opportunity to stretch and learn from the experience. I believe that we grow stronger from adversity if we take the time to reflect on the experience and make a conscious effort to move forward, correcting whatever we can so we don’t repeat a mistake, or using the knowledge gained to do better the next time. Early in my career I was asked to take on some assignments that no one else in the organization was either trained or inclined to do. I took those challenges as learning opportunities knowing that my employer was glad someone was willing to do it, and knowing that any success could be seen as a major accomplishment. My success in completing these assignments led to rapid advancement, more exposure to other interesting challenges, and confidence that I could take on even more – like law school and a career as a city manager or international consultant.

When I had challenges that were not new opportunities, rather challenges caused by lack of funding to properly complete a project or resulting from superiors in whom I lost trust, the same advice was true: stretch and learn. Be accountable for your actions, do the best that you can, demonstrate honesty and integrity, and take on the challenge to completion.

If you could go back in time and do anything differently, what would it be and why? 

I would try harder to fully engage to learn new skills to a high level of competency more completely than I did when I was younger. Growing up, my parents did not encourage me to stretch to learn things like play a musical instrument, perform, or seek high attainment of skills or knowledge. If I did not like something at an early stage, giving up was acceptable. In school, while I always did well, success came without trying too hard. I could always do well in a test without really putting in a lot of effort, nor did I retain a lot of knowledge. As a result, when I went off to college, I was ill prepared to compete with more highly organized and prepared students who had been challenged earlier in life. So, I had to catch up and reorganize myself during my college days. Much of my real learning took place on the job as I felt my way along and through the efforts that I made to learn outside of work. Essentially, I feel my learning curve and the foundation of my career knowledge would have been stronger if I had been more focused and challenged when I was younger.

You’ve done some work outside of the United States. How were the experiences there different from your work here? The same? 

I have been very fortunate since 2002 to work on several projects in other countries. ICMA has allowed me to grow as a consultant, trainer, teacher, and team member through projects in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Russia, and China. The experiences have been different because in most cases I have been placed into a team with other professionals who I had not previously worked with to complete tasks both in a short time frame and in a foreign setting. These experiences have really helped me to grow and build my confidence.

In some settings, I have had to adapt to adverse conditions, budget limitations, or circumstances that required great flexibility in order to achieve the objectives of the program. Of course, since I have been an invited participant in these projects, and not in charge with authority to make decisions that drive the projects, it has been humbling and required that I be a better team player – not the boss. Since I was a city manager when I began international work, adjusting to being a team member working under rules and protocols outside my control required much effort on my part. I have found the work to be very gratifying as well as extremely helpful in my career as a manager and attorney. I guess you could say it has helped me to be more grounded, more flexible and nimble, and enjoy my work more.

The experience has been the same in the sense that the local government officials and employees who I have had the pleasure to work with have all proven to be extremely committed to improving public service delivery to their citizens. The commitment to service is truly amazing, both in the private and public sectors of the countries I have worked in. I have observed workers in other countries who perform their tasks well for exceedingly long hours with dedication that I envy. People everywhere I have traveled consistently demonstrate a desire to learn and create better lives for their families and communities.

I wish I had had the opportunity to do international work earlier in my career. In the future, I hope to work on projects and train aspiring students and local government officials in foreign countries, particularly China. Based on my prior experience, I know that working in an international setting allows someone like me to stretch and continue to learn while sharing knowledge with receptive learners.

What project/ accomplishment of your career are you most proud of? Why?

My wife and I both devoted most of our working careers to public service. We are pleased that our two daughters have completed their college educations and are employed in public service careers. So, the accomplishment that I am most proud of is helping our children, and hopefully some of the co-workers who I have had the good fortune to speak with about their career paths, to see public service as a calling that can be rewarding in many ways. I hope that I have helped people grow in their public service careers while making their constituents satisfied with their efforts.

Earlier in my career my answer to this question might have been a construction project or a successful land use approval confirmed on appeal. But, as I neared closure to my public service tenure, I kept reflecting on the fact that it is the people that make the work worthwhile. The staff members you hire, direct and mentor, the citizens or clients you serve, and the elected officials you report to all make up a community that you as a public servant have the pleasure to be a part of to undertake and achieve both routine and great things. So, the accomplishment I am most proud of is that I have had the chance to influence my children, co-workers, and others to try their best to be involved in community building and public service.

Anything else to share? 

Yes, I continue to be encouraged and amazed at the effort ELGL and its members give to providing information and support to students and public service professionals so that they can be even more effective public servants.


Have you learned something new as part of your career in local government? Or do you know someone who has had an outstanding career in local government? We want to hear about it! Contact Jacob Johnson to nominate someone for the #InstitutionalKnowledge series: Twitter | LinkedIn email