Fifty Nifty Takeaways
What do we hope to learn from this series? We hope you will gain a better understanding of the unique characteristics of local government in each state, we hope you will learn that there are others like you who are motivated to make a difference through the public sector, and we hope you will learn that it is best to learn from others’ mistakes than yours.
Our Take on Alabama
‘Bama bangs, Leprechauns, Run Forest Run, “Play Some Skynyrd”, and Jefferson County’s empty piggy bank all come to mind as the 50 Nifty visits Alabama. So who better to lead us through the state than past ICMA president and current city manager of Mountain Brook, Sam Gaston. Before we hand the mic to Sam, here’s a quick primer on the state known as the “Heart of Dixie.”
Alabama is the 30th-most extensive and the 23rd-most populous and has one of the longest navigable inland waterways in the nation. Alabama is unofficially nicknamed the Yellowhammer State, after the state bird. The state tree is the Longleaf Pine, and the state flower is the Camellia. The capital of Alabama is Montgomery. The largest city by population is Birmingham.The largest city by total land area is Huntsville. The oldest city is Mobile, founded by French colonists.
Alabama has 67 counties. Each county has its own elected legislative branch, usually called the county commission, which normally also has executive authority in the county. Because of the restraints placed in the Alabama Constitution, all but seven counties (Jefferson, Lee, Mobile, Madison, Montgomery, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa) in the state have little to no home rule. Instead, most counties in the state must lobby the Local Legislation Committee of the state legislature to get simple local policies such as waste disposal to land use zoning.
Alabama is an alcoholic beverage control state. The state government holds a monopoly on the sale of alcohol. Some counties and municipalities are “dry”, which bans all sales of alcohol in those areas.
- In Anniston, you may not wear blue jeans down Noble Street.
- In Auburn, no person may spit on the floor of a church.
- In Lee County, it is illegal to sell peanuts after sundown on Wednesday.
- In Mobile, it is illegal to howl at ladies within the city limits.
- In Montgomery, it is considered an offense to open an umbrella on a street, for fear of spooking horses.
Mountain Brook City Manager
Education: Auburn University, BS, Public Administration and Auburn University at Montgomery MPA, Public Administration
Experience: Adjunct Professor-MPA Program, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and City Manager, City of Powder Springs, Georgia
Background Check on Sam
Sam Gaston has served as City Manager of the City of Mountain Brook since June, 1993. Prior to his appointment in Mountain Brook, he served as City Manager of Powder Springs, Georgia and held municipal positions in Anniston, Gulf Shores and Decatur.
As City Manager, he serves as the Chief Administrative Officer of the City responsible for the overall operation and supervision of governmental functions of the City. He is responsible for the appointment and dismissal of all employees (except the Police Chief and Fire Chief who are appointed by the City Council), preparation of the annual budget, and enforcement of all laws, ordinances and policies of the City. He serves as the chief advisor to the Mayor and City Council.
Sam received his Bachelors and Masters Degree in Public Administration from Auburn University. He has served as President of the Alabama City/County Management Association, Alabama Chapter of the American Planning Association, the Anniston Sunrisers Kiwanis Club, and Homewood/Mountain Brook Kiwanis Club and he is an adjunct professor in the MPA program at UAB. He served on the Executive Board of the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) from 2005-2008. He served as ICMA President from 2011 to 2012
Background Check on Mountain Brook
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The City of Mountain Brook was incorporated in 1942 and was the first city in Alabama to operate under the Council-Manager form of government. Mountain Brook is in Jefferson County and a suburb of Birmingham. The population of the city is 20,413.
Mountain Brook is a particularly affluent city within the Birmingham metropolitan area and has appeared in several lists of America’s wealthiest communities. Mountain Brook has been listed as one of the 10 wealthiest communities in the United States based on a 2008 survey that calculates wealth above the regular census limit. Mountain Brook is also well known for being the wealthiest city in the state of Alabama. Mountain Brook is often referred to as “The Tiny Kingdom” due to its reputation as an enclave for the area’s elite and the disparity of wealth between it and City of Birmingham where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, according to Census data.
The Mayor serves as the policy head of the City and the City Council serves as the Legislative Body for the community. The Mayor and the five Council members are elected at-large for four-year terms as the governing authority for the City.
Mountain Brook is also the home of the first office park in the nation, built in 1955. This development featured the then novel concepts of ample free parking and low level office buildings with water fountains and landscaped grounds.
Mountain Brook is the hometown of actors Wayne Rogers, Kate Jackson, and Courteney Cox, and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, and Natalee Holloway, a high school graduate who disappeared while on a graduation trip to Aruba on May 30, 2005, in a well-publicized missing persons case.
Best piece of advice from your parents. Always treat others as you would want to be treated and always do what is right.
In a dream world, which bands would headline your retirement party? Rolling Stones and Credence Clearwater Revival
(Complete the sentence) Before I die I want to…. travel to all 50 states.
Three most influential books in your life.
A Purpose Driven Life
Eric Liddell’s biography
If you could FaceTime with five people (dead or alive and not including family members), who would be on the list?
Describe the inside of your car. A little messy!
What’s the meaning of life? To make this world a better place.
Q & A with Sam
Give us two bullet points that best describe local government in your state.
- Behind other states in professional management
- Growing in number of professional managers/administrators, but still have work to do-need more home rule for local governments.
We’ll assume you didn’t grow up dreaming about a career in local government. What was your dream job as a 12-year old? What was your first local government job? How did you end up in local government?
As a 12 year old, I wanted to be a NBA player and a fireman in the off season. I was an intern at a COG. Based on my internship, I landed a position with a COG as a Regional Planner while attending MPA school.
Give us your top three career accomplishments.
- Being able to work for 20 years as the city manager of one of the top communities in the nation.
We often learn from our mistakes. Name one or two career mistakes that you have made that you think we could learn from.
- Taking sides with Council members on a particular issue.
- Hiring the wrong department head.
Our experience has been many of our friends, family, and neighbors are not well versed in what it is we do in local government, many think we are a “planner” or “mayor”. Has this been your experience?
Yes, many people still think of me as the city planner instead of the city manager. My Dad, called me a city planner till the day he died, I guess it is because I started my career in planning.
How can local governments better communicate their role in the everyday lives of the community?
Facebook, Twitter, newsletters and community outreach.
Would you encourage your family and friends to consider a career in local government?
Yes! Very rewarding career!
Hypothetically, if we find ourselves interviewing for a job in front of you, talk about three steps we can take to make a good impression.
- Dress the part
- Be on time
- Know a lot about the community and organization.
Mentoring is such an important part of local government. Name three of your mentors.
- Wayne Campbell, former City Manager of Mountain Brook
- Tom Wright, former boss and retired City Manager of Anniston
(Complete the sentence) In 2018, local government will be… as ever bit of challenging as it is today.
What question(s) should we have asked you?
Who in your family was the biggest influence in your life to enter public service?
My parents , as my Dad was a minister and he and my Mother set a great example in serving others.
- CONGRATS to Mountain Brook’s outstanding City Manager, Sam Gaston, selected as President-Elect of ICMA
Fifty Nifty Profiles
- CO: Robb Kolstad, Management and Budget Director, City of Thornton
- OK: Larry Stevens, City of Edmond, City Manager
- FL: Lee Feldman, City of Fort Lauderdale, City Manager
- GA: Peggy Merriss, City of Decatur, City Manager
- MO: Jennifer Gray, City of Des Peres, Assistant City Administrator
- NE: Larry Burks, City of Bellevue, Assistant City Administrator
- TX: Amy Buckert, City of Balcones Heights, City Administrator
- NC: Eric Peterson, Town of Hillsborough, Town Manager
- MD: Laura Allen, Town of Berlin, Town Administrator
- IL: Randy Recklaus, Village of Clarendon Hills, Village Manager
- NC: Mitchell Silver, City of Raleigh and American Planning Association
- IL: Patrick Rollens, Village of Oak Park, Social Media and Communications
- KY: Laura Milam Ross, Kentucky League of Cities
- AZ: Gabriel L. Engeland, Town of Gilbert, Assistant to the Town Manager
- SD: Sean Pederson, City of Canton, City Manager
- MI: Clay Pearson, City of Novi, City Manager
- WA/UT: Jon Amundson, City of Richland, WA and City of Orem, UT
- CA, FL, OR: Douglas Ayres, Former City Manager of Inglewood (CA), Melbourne (FL), and Salem (OR)
- California: Brian Angus, Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, Chief Executive Officer
- Washington/California: Julie Underwood, Shoreline City Manager
- NY: Jay Gsell, Genesee County, County Manager
- SC: Katherine Hendricks, City of Pickens Administrator
- CO: Tim Gagen, Breckenridge Town Manager
- UT: Rick Davis, West Jordan City Manager
- WA: Doug Schulze, Bainbridge Island City Manager and WCMA President
- IA: Geoff Fruin, City of Iowa City, Assistant to the City Manager
- CT: Roger Kemp, Former City Manager and Current President, Kemp Consulting
- AR: Jeff Dingman, Fort Smith Deputy City Administrator