Civic Leaders is an exclusive local government web-interview series hosted and operated by Springbrook Software, produced by the VOLSTA Media Network, and syndicated on ELGL. Each month the show shares a candid look into the challenges and triumphs experienced by passionate public employees that are committed to their calling.
Since 2008 Debbie Smith-Wagar has served as the assistant finance director for the City of Tigard, OR. Previously, she worked for Moss Adams and the City of Newberg, OR. Debbie can also be found teaching governmental accounting at Portland State University.
In this episode, Debbie discusses:
- How she decided to take on a career of public service.
- Her most stressful challenges year-to-year.
- Career advice for those on the fence between public and private sectors.
- How we can work toward correcting the public’s perception of government employees.
Can’t watch YouTube at work? No worries, here’s the transcript of the interview
When and how did you decide that local government was your calling?
I was working for a CPA firm, and I was doing a lot of different types of audits. I was auditing construction companies and some other not-for-profits–but a lot of our audits were local governments. I became very interested in the how complex local governmental accounting is compared to say, accounting for construction or a bank or accounting for different for-profit firms. I became very interested in local government and the complexities of it and I slowly over time I developed a knack I guess, for lack of a better word, for local governmental accounting and just sort of eased into it over time. And as I became more familiar with it, I became more comfortable with it, and the more comfortable I became with it, the more I got to know it. So it wasn’t a sudden aha moment where–“Oh this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life…”, it was a “oh, I kind of like this, and this is really interesting and now I’m learning more about it…” and slowly over time I started to become actually an expert in my field, which felt kind of weird and when one day, I had been going to all these conferences and all of the sudden they were asking me to be the speaker at a conference, that was when I kind of knew I had arrived and that was what I wanted to do.
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
When did the gravity of your responsibility as a public employee first hit you?
When I first worked for the City of Newberg, every year I would meet my auditors at the door and say “You’re not going to believe what happened this year–I had the weirdest things happen…” And I would start to tell them about it and debate about how I should handle these with my financial statements. And so I think probably some of those early years with the audit, I stressed more than I probably should have–because it all works out in the end–you get your audit done and everybody is happy when it is all said and done.
It’s a lot of work, and it’s something that is really easy to stress out about before you finally learn: “You know what, every year there’s something that is a little bit odd, and every year you work through it–and every year it all turns out OK.”
So those early years of doing audits, where it really fell on me to be responsible for the audit, I think those were the most stressful for me, and probably were my most difficult years. I’m not sure there was one in particular that I could single out as being the worst, but I had times were I would just go home and just think “I just can’t do this anymore, because I’m not going to be able to figure out how to report this, and its all going to be horrible…” and I’m not really quite sure what I thought in my head was going to happen… but it all worked out in the end and it always does.
THE RIGHT PATH
What do you tell young professionals considering a career in the public sector?
Well its interesting you ask me that because I actually teach governmental accounting at Portland State University and the class is a required class for seniors and graduate students. We talk a lot about what it’s like to work for a local government and I encourage a lot of them to consider it; because back when I was twenty years old and I was talking governmental accounting in college, my first thought was: “I am never going to do this–it’s confusing, it’s different from all the other types of accounting that we’ve learned up until we take that class–and so I just thought I was never going to do this. I was going to learn enough of it to get through the CPA exam, and then I never wanted to ever hear about governmental accounting ever again. What I found out though, was something I mentioned earlier that’s very interesting: It’s complex, there’s never a boring moment, every year is different, every year we have different things we have to figure out how to report in our financial statements…and so as I actually ended up in governmental accounting I found that it was a very interesting and very rewarding area to work in. So what I would tell people that are twenty years old and just starting out–whether they be already in local government or if they’re going to work for a CPA firm, or anything else, I’d say just keep your mind open.
What can be done to correct the public’s perception of government employees?
I would like to encourage people to get involved. If local government is something that they are interested in at all–if they want a better community, for people to get involved in the local community. People complain a lot, people like to blame government for their problems. Well, you are the government–the government is yours and you are the government. So I would really encourage people to get involved in local government in one way or another. And if they are really interested in becoming government employees, then be a government employee, and fight the perception that we’re lazy and that we don’t work hard–because, we aren’t lazy and we do work hard. I would really encourage people to get involved and to see for themselves that there’s a lot of personal satisfaction in local government work, and as part of that then, you can also be one of those people who says “You know what, we’re not lazy and we do work hard…” To actually get involved and to fight that argument…I think is really important.
What really makes a commitment to public service worth it?
I think it’s all worth it because at the end of the day I can say that I did something for the community–that I was able to make a difference…maybe in a really, really small way…but that I was able to assist and be part of something bigger than me. To be able to find a way to get a project financed so that some capital project get done that might otherwise note get done–if it had been for some creative thinking on my part. To be just a part of something that like I say, is much bigger than me and it’s going to live on beyond me.
I look back at old financial statements and know that the people who’ve prepared those statements are retired and have moved off to warmer climates–I go through those and I look at them and think “Those live on basically, forever…” because those financial statements we’re required by state law to keep them forever–and so to think that I’m part of something that’s going to live on longer than just me being here–I like that, I like that part of my job.
READY FOR MORE
What’s next for you and the City of Tigard, Oregon?
I think for the City of Tigard, what I’m really looking forward to is that we’re growing. Tigard had been landlocked for a number of years and we recently added a lot of acreage to the city; and it’s bare farmland, so we’ve literally been handed a clean slate to be able to develop a new community out there. And it’s been so much fun to work with the developers out there and our planning department and everyone [who will work on] what that’s going to look like. And so I think Tigard is growing again, and I think that’s really exciting for my staff to be able to look at that and say you know “Tigard’s getting bigger and we have new things coming towards us, how are we going to account for those things, what is Tigard going to look like in the future? And are we headed down the right path?” A lot of people have a lot of input into that and what that future community is going to look like, and that’s really exciting for the City of Tigard and its really exciting to be a part of that and for my staff to be a part of that as well.