What is an Assistant to the City Manager? In between other duties as assigned, council meetings, and a bewildering assortment of public inquiries, ELGL members identify the essential functions of the position.
Assistant to the City Administrator – Lebanon, MO
Ben DeClue’s (LinkedIn and Twitter) path to local government has been anything but ordinary. Perhaps it began when he was a student studying Political Science at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, where he was elected Chairman of the Student Government Assembly. His education and interests eventually led him to serve as a top aide to a Missouri state senator before he himself was elected City Councilman in his hometown of Crystal City, MO.
While serving as Alderman Ben had the unique opportunity to lead the process of selecting the community’s first City Administrator. Taking part in the process solidified Ben’s interest in local government. In 2013 he enrolled in the M.P.A. program at Lindenwood University. Since then Ben has completed multiple internships at communities including Crystal City, Des Peres, and Festus. In December he took on the role of Assistant to the City Administrator for Lebanon, MO.
Ben is looking forward to completing his MPA in 2015, but this only captures part of his story. He has pursued a variety of local government oriented experiences, each contributing something unique to his skill set. His past experiences include founding and operating a farmers market, obtaining a certificate in Planning and Zoning, serving on the local economic development corporation board, and preparing a regular column focused on public policy for Suburban Journals.
My first job was.….
…My first job was working at my hometown municipal pool. I was a concession stand worker and made so little money it wasn’t funny. In retrospect, it was an excellent way to learn that you don’t get rich working for local government!
The last concert that I attended was……
…..I’m not a big concert person. I think the last concert I attended was a symphonic concert in Chicago with some friends back in 2006?
I am currently reading……
….for about the millionth time, “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud. I also have “Blue Highways” by William Least-Heat Moon and “Life on the Run” by Bill Bradley on my nightstand. I read these three books once every year or two and get something new out of them every time.
My favorite restaurant is…..
….in Lebanon is Madison Street Grill. A steakhouse that makes accommodations for a vegetarian like me has to get my vote, right? Plus they have one of the best beer selections in town.
What are three projects you are currently working on?
I’m working with our Downtown Business District to finalize our DREAM Initiative program. The Downtown Revitalization and Economic Assistance for Missouri (DREAM) Initiative provides select communities with access to the technical and financial assistance they need to accomplish their downtown revitalization plans. This is probably my favorite project on my plate right now- I’m a big fan of Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns model of development and am very excited to serve as a resource to help a traditional downtown.
I’m currently working with my IT department to convert our entire CIP program from a collection of Word Documents and PDF’s into an MS Access database. Rather than have departments filling out Word documents every year, the conversion should automate a lot of the CIP generation and prevent projects from accidentally being left out or mislabeled. The Access database will also allow for management-level report generation and analysis of upcoming capital outlays.
My third project is a doozy. I’m in charge of our CMMS/EMS adoption project. Still in its infancy, we plan to include our fixed assets, linear assets, fleet management, inventory, work orders, and GIS functionality into a single software solution. My biggest task right now is establishing our inputs, then working with different departments to develop implementable plans for integrating those inputs into whatever system we choose.
How do you interact with City Departments?
I mostly tend to interact with departments on a management level as projects come up or they come to me with requests. I serve as the gatekeeper to our City Administrator, so getting time with him requires people generally to go through me.
Who do you report to? What is your place on the Org Chart?
I report directly to the City Administrator but have no direct reports under me, except when so empowered for specific projects.
Aside from a City Manager, who are three professionals or peers you connect with on a regular basis?
I communicate quite often with several professionals outside of the profession, but not so much with anyone other than City Mangers inside. This has started to change recently though.
- Kent Duncan is an attorney with the US. Department of Veterans Affairs.
- Chris Adkerson is a Principal with Mercer.
- Megan Harris is the Search Engine Marketing Coordinator for OVC Lawyer Marketing and also a freelance writer, editor, and social media manager.
Did you attend any conferences as a student? Do you attend any now?
My MPA program is online so I didn’t attend any conferences as a student but I now attend the Missouri City Managers Association (MCMA) conference meetings in my current position. I’d love to go the ICMA conference one day as well.
How do you recommend reaching out to someone for career advice?
It can be really intimidating to make contact with someone you don’t know, but my advice is to just do it. Be mindful of the other person’s time- for instance, I’d start with emailing as opposed to cold calling or just showing up somewhere, but it’s been my experience that most people in our profession are more than happy to give some advice to someone coming up the ranks. That said, be prepared to possibly be ignored or overlooked, or to receive answers you may not want to hear.
Best three questions to ask when connecting with a City Manager?
- How did you get from there to here? ex. How did your career develop?
- What skills or experiences should I work to develop in my first position to be successful long-term in the city management field?
- How do you balance work/life? City management can be stressful with long hours. Finding ways to help keep that balance at an early stage in your career can be invaluable.
Getting the Job
Preparing for an interview, three pieces of advice.
Remember that going for a job requires a community to be a good fit for you, not just you being a fit for their needs. Dig as deep as you can about any community you’re interviewing with. I’ve been known to read multiple years worth of articles about city meetings and activities to make sure a community would be a good fit for me. In an information age, there’s really no excuse not to.
Be confident in yourself. There are going to be positions where you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find you’re a finalist despite perhaps not meeting every requirement listed for the job. Bottom line is you belong in that room- don’t fear the other unknown candidates!
Plan, plan, plan. Know exactly where you’re going, who you’re meeting with, what you’re going to wear, and what you’re going to take into the interview. Interviews are stressful enough without worrying about trying to find your lucky tie or directions to the interview site just before you’re trying to get out the door. Take care of the details a couple of days before hand and watch how much less anxiety you feel the night before a big interview!
How many jobs should I be applying for?
There isn’t a set number, but remember that every application you put in should feature an original cover letter and a resume tailored for the position. Couple that with the legwork you should be doing to determine how good of a fit the job is for you and vice versa, and that’s a fair amount of work. In my experience, taking the shotgun approach and applying for every job out there without any real preparation or research only seems to waste everyone’s time.
What job titles should an MPA student be considering?
I wouldn’t worry about the title so much as the job function- does the position fit your skill set? Will you be in a position to succeed? I’d look for anything from Management Analyst to Assistant To as a good first job.
Most difficult thing about getting the first job?
Undoubtedly, 100%, the most difficult part about getting the first job is dealing with rejection. City administration is such a competitive field these days- the profession in many areas remains very flat and competition is fierce for any opening. It can be especially frustrating to see someone already in the profession get a job you interviewed for when you’re still trying to get your first. Just remember- it’s almost never personal.
One day you’re a student and one day you’re a gainfully employed City employee, what changed?
I’d say the biggest change was finally being able to apply my experience and education into actual work and see those results. Your free time goes way down, but I wake up excited to go to work every day and there is no feeling in the world like being happy with your job. Expectations and stress are high, but that’s all in the game. I’m also very mindful of enjoying my time with a buffer between me and the city council. As a former councilman, I know the special kinds of pressure that are placed on someone sitting in the big chair.
What skills do you rely on most to be successful in your job?
Communications, time management, and writing are skills I use every day. No two days are the same, but these skills seem to be useful in just about every situation I find myself in. I’m also a big believer in using MS Access to manage large data collections in the absence of dedicated software. It’s not a skill everyone has, but I think it’s worth learning for just about anyone in the profession, even at a basic level.
Best practical experiences vs. Academic experiences.
Pay attention to developing your Excel and Access skills- you’ll use them a lot more often if you feel comfortable with them and they make your life a lot easier on any given project. It’s also worth noting that, unlike academia, there is no syllabus or rubric to follow for completing projects in a city. You have a lot of latitude in your approach to a problem- use your imagination and revisit your completed work from time to time to see if it can be further improved!
The project I’ve worked on so far that has helped me develop the most is the CMMS project I referenced above. It’s been on the stove, so to speak, for almost 3 years now. I’ve had to do a lot of reading and research to get to square 1 and it’s up to me to figure out how to get it moving forward again. This project will test my leadership, organizational, and communication skills like no other project I’ve yet handled in my professional career.
“Assistant To” Archives
- Chris Floore, Macon-Bibb County, GA
- Nate Broman-Fulks, Carrboro, NC
- Chantal Cotton, City of Oakland, CA
- Ben McCready, City of Rock Island, IL
- Mary Van Milligen, Town of Woodbury, MN
- Julie Eckenrode, Town of Carrboro, NC
- Ryan Adams, City of Irving, TX
- Nathan Mosley, Wheat Ridge, CO
- What Exactly Is an Assistant to the City Manager?