What was your local government moment? What keeps you in local government? Who have been the influences in your career? We take a deep dive into these questions by asking you (the practitioner) to tell your local government story. You can sign up to participate in the bi-monthly feature at Finding Local Government. Thanks to Matt Wojnowski, City of Altus, OK, for developing and coordinating the feature.
Like many of my esteemed colleagues, I got into local government on accident. I wouldn’t say it was a ‘mistake’, per se, but I was headed in another direction when, somehow or other, local government got into me—all I could do was follow. Now that I’m here, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
My college experience was varied, to say the least. I started as a physics major. Then I decided to be a pilot. I was tempted to study recreation management, which I imagined to be the study of hiking and rafting and climbing mountains all day, but I didn’t have enough money for new skis that particular semester. Eventually, I concluded that the logical thing for me to do was to become a professional something. What that meant exactly I still didn’t know, but I decided to study economics in the meantime to keep my options open and build my resume for graduate school.
As a senior almost three years later, I still did not know what graduate school to attend. I liked helping people, but the idea of medical school was disgusting. I had enjoyed my business classes, but business school seemed so heartless. I knew a whole lot of lawyer jokes, but I suspected they might not be appreciated as much at law school. I was stuck.
Then one day I ran into a good friend at church. I hadn’t told him of my conundrum, but suddenly he started telling me about his graduate public administration program. He was learning about applying business principles for the good of society. He was talking about helping people, planning for better outcomes, public information, Pareto efficiency and tax policy. This was all one job?!
From that first conversation, I was smitten. I applied to several schools and attended the urban management program at Arizona State. Trust me when I tell you there’s no better way to learn about how government works than from a faculty of Devils. I was constantly impressed by the principled knowledge and professionalism of the city managers that taught my courses. I’m still reminded of their stories often as I navigate the challenges in my community and seek to leverage their experiences to find better solutions than I might come up with on my own.
One of my mentors at Arizona State was the city manager of Phoenix at the time. He had some of the best stories—I’m not making that up—and he was always quick to give advice that would help us succeed in our careers. Among many other tips, he suggested that we look for employment that allowed us to be generalists. I found such an opportunity in Ashland, Virginia, locally known as the Center of the Universe, and have been enjoying working across department lines ever since.
Other mentors I have had may not have known they were mentoring. While a student at ASU, I attended a full year of citizen academy sessions in my home town of Queen Creek. There I met and came to admire John Kross, a town manager with a brilliant mind and incredible memory. He was always well informed on any topic a citizen might bring up and could usually respond with detail and bring up a few other issues he thought that citizen from their particular neighborhood may want to follow in the future. Watching John interact with people reaffirmed that I wanted to be a city manager.
Here in Ashland, I’m constantly grateful for the guiding influence and mentorship of our manager and deputy, Charles Hartgrove and Josh Farrar. These gentlemen have encouraged me to get involved at every level, answered my good questions and my dumb ones, trained me to lead and trusted me with significant and meaningful assignments. They have supported me in my career goals and shared advice on when and how and where to reach them.
My path into local government wasn’t always clear, but now that I’m here I really can’t imagine doing anything else. I work with people who are united in a common cause and who are passionate about making their corner of the world a better place. My workplace is human—a place where people care about people for more than what they are worth and my coworkers know the names of my kids. I am engaged with interesting, challenging and meaningful work. I get to meet new people and I’m constantly learning. Best of all, working in local government has allowed me to balance the work I enjoy with family hikes, volunteering, developing new hobbies and an annual trip to the beach. I wish I could take credit for it, but like I say, I got into local government on accident.