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.
“Sometimes the road less traveled…is less traveled for a reason…”
When modern philosopher Jerry Seinfeld uttered this saying, he probably wasn’t describing a youngish City Manager, aging by the second in hour four of a City Council meeting, or a desperate Planning Director searching for the right words to stave off a variance request for a 500 foot setback request– in an historic downtown district– five days after Council adopts a form based code. But, we’ve all been there. So, how did we get here? What keeps us coming back? Every story’s different, but mine starts in a little Town Council chamber in Virginia.
My father was the “Chief of Police” in a one-square mile town in Virginia, far enough north to say you were from “northern Virginia,” but too far west to be telling the whole truth about it. The Police Department consisted of him and one other part time guy. On Halloween, the Mayor would swear in the Fire Department as Constables to keep local rascals in order during trick or treat. My Dad used to come home and tell the best stories about Town Council meetings. I remember him talking about 45 minute debates around buying a $100 toolbox. I used to watch reruns of the Andy Griffith Show and assume that’s what his day was like; and for the most part I was right.
So, when I got to college, I started looking for a major. It was the mid 90’s, so all of my friends were either IT or business majors. These were the days when I thought “the internet” had something to do with all of those CDs that AOL would send in the mail, so IT didn’t capture my imagination. Business sounded better, but it didn’t really light a fire in me. I started thinking back to those great stories my Dad used to tell, and I looked at the catalog to see what government classes were out there. There was a course called State and Local Government, which was part of the Department of Public Administration.
That was probably the first time I saw either of the terms “local government” or “public administration.” I scanned the major and it was a really cool blend between government, which I had always had an interest in; and business, which everyone concurred had a versatile “real world” range of applications.
From the first class, I was hooked. My State and Local Government professor was an adjunct, and was the Town Manager of an adjoining Town. He told lots of the same stories my Dad told, and conducted budget exercises, tours of the treatment plant, and lots of other “hands on” activities that really immersed you in the business of government.
In my last year of school, I met my first real mentor. I went to work as an intern in the “Birthplace of the City Manager form of Government,” Staunton, Virginia. I was assigned to the Economic Development Department, and the Director put me right to work. I worked on parallel projects developing the data basis for the City’s strategic plan for economic development, and on a restaurant and retail recruitment program. What hooked me was that the Director and staff treated me like any other staff person. I attended Management Team meetings, met regularly with the City Manager and other department heads on my projects, and really was a part of the team. At each turn, the Director made sure that I understood how the most menial task (more Excel entry than I ever thought possible) rolled up into something impactful to the community. After the internship, he offered me an entry level position in the department. We still keep in touch, and he still provides me with the same positive reinforcement on my career goals and current projects.
So, back to the four hour Council meetings and 500 foot setbacks. The greatest experiences from internships and entry level positions can only partially buttress you from the screaming voice on the other end of an increased property assessment or errant parking ticket call. To be honest, there are plenty of weeks that we see far more of those calls than ribbon cuttings. So, why get out of bed on Monday morning?
For me, local government is the only place where you can almost literally see the impacts of nearly every decision you make. From that first entry level job, when a hotel that I helped recruit was finished and changed the downtown landscape, as well as the City’s bottom line; to supporting the rebirth of a struggling downtown in the rust belt, I can see my fingerprints everywhere. It’s sounds cheesy and super-cliché because it is. The decisions we make, and the work we do really makes a difference. We work at an actionable scale, where even systemic issues can be managed with teamwork and focused investment.
I hope that I’ll have the same impact on the next generation of interns and entry level staffers that all of my mentors had on me. And I hope that I can continue to experience the great feeling of seeing a decision that I was a part of translate into great economic and community success.
That’s why I answered the alarm clock this morning. Well, that and the fact that the puppy would have made a huge mess on the carpet if I hadn’t.