Welcome to week #8 of the Cookingham Connection. Today, we hear from David Ammons. Professor Ammons writes and teaches about performance measurement, benchmarking, and productivity improvement in local government.
“Treat everyone in the city, friend or foe, as if your success depended on the manner in which you handled his problem. I have often told my employees to consider everyone with whom they talk to be a member of the city council, and by doing this, they will give their best to all.”
I remember years ago working as a staff member in a highly regarded municipal government. Several colleagues and I were huddled around a conference table working on an issue when one member of our group was called away to take a phone call. Upon his return, someone asked, “Was that the mayor calling?” “No,” came the response, “just a citizen.”
Just a citizen.
My colleagues and I were dedicated public servants. We chose to work in government because we considered it noble. Working in government gave us a chance to make a difference in life. Our choice of working in local government allowed us to make the kind of differences we could see and feel every day in our community. We respected the mayor and city council. We respected our colleagues on the city staff. And we respected the citizens. Still, it was easy at times, if you weren’t careful, to take citizens a little bit for granted and even to become a little annoyed by the excessive demands of some and by the criticisms of a few.
Just a citizen.
We could have used a word of advice, just a little reminder, from L.P. Cookingham. Cookingham was a giant among city managers in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, most famous for his service to Kansas City, Missouri, before completing his career as city manager of Fort Worth, Texas. Considered by many to be the dean of city managers, Cookingham was highly regarded not only for what he did—helping to reform Kansas City in the aftermath of the Pendergast Machine and build a progressive city of integrity and promise—but also for how he did it.
Among his guideposts—and he had many—was one that emphasized the importance of treating everyone with respect, whether friend or foe, powerful or not. The guidepost was as follows:
Treat everyone in the city, friend or foe, as if your success depended on the manner in which you handled his problem. I have often told my employees to consider everyone with whom they talk to be a member of the city council, and by doing this, they will give their best to all.
Cookingham engaged with people of high station and low. He forged agreements among community influentials and marshaled support for civic projects. He also endeared himself to people on the street. Colleagues found it difficult to have a serious conversation with Cookingham while strolling downtown sidewalks. Too many interruptions. “Good morning, Mr. Cookingham.” “Hiya, Cookie!” “Hello, Perry” (Gilbert 1978, 234, 245). He not only respected citizens; he genuinely liked engaging with people.
Cookingham’s principles called for evenhanded treatment of all—no special favors for some and indifference or disrespect toward others. He is said to have made this point from the very start, even in his interview for the Kansas City job, declaring provocatively that Tom Pendergast, the then disgraced machine boss, would receive the same treatment in the city manager’s office as the mayor or any other citizen (Gilbert 1978, 245). Everyone was to be treated well and with respect—just as they would treat a member of the city council.
Perry Cookingham had a pleasing way with people—to this I can attest. When I was a young assistant professor at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), we decided to host a conference on the history and contributions of council-manager government. We assembled an outstanding panel of speakers, including the city managers of Dallas, Cincinnati, and Fort Worth. When I suggested that we try to get the retired L.P. Cookingham, others thought it a splendid idea and I was given the assignment.
When I telephoned Cookingham, explained our plan, and told him how much we wanted him to participate in this conference, then still eight months or so in the future, he replied with a slight chuckle, “At my age, I don’t make plans more than a few weeks in advance.” I persevered and persuaded him to accept our invitation.
He came and was a hit, not only with the audience but also with his fellow panelists, this collection of prominent, current city managers. But even before that, he was a hit with my wife and small children. Perry arrived in town the evening before the conference and agreed to come to my home for dinner with my family. At that small dinner, his warmth and grace were on full display. He completely charmed my wife and kids. We treasure the memory to this day.
Today as I read Cookingham’s guidepost instructing his staff—and public officials everywhere—to treat everyone they encounter as they would a member of the city council, I know this was not an instruction he took lightly. I saw him interact with peers and with new acquaintances. I watched him charm my family. This was a man of polish and grace who knew how to treat people well and considered it the right thing to do.
An autographed copy of the book, This City, This Man: The Cookingham Era in Kansas City, is a prized possession of mine, signed not by the volume’s author but by its subject.
Gilbert, Bill, This City, This Man: The Cookingham Era in Kansas City (Washington, D.C.: International City Management Association, 1978).