How do you transform a city like Mayberry into the image of a professionally managed city? What is economic gardening? How does Oktoberfest define a city and a region? Eileen Stein, City Administrator of Mt. Angel, Oregon is well qualified to answer such questions. At least until a Fortune 500 company comes along and scoops her up. Local government should be so lucky — the time is now, and this is Local Government’s New Normal.
Local Government’s New Normal is an original ELGL blog feature by contributor Dan Englund that provides an educational, supportive lens into the “new normal” of local government by examining local issues, solutions, and stories from compelling government professionals and their cities or counties. In this episode, we hear from Eileen Stein, City Administrator of Mt. Angel, Oregon.
ABOUT MT ANGEL
The City of Mt. Angel is within about an hour’s drive of Portland to the north and an hour’s drive east from the beautiful Oregon coast, yet mere minutes from a series of ten waterfalls in world renowned Silver Falls State Park. The city geography boasts an area of 1.14 square miles that houses a population under 4,000 people. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in rich history. The city was originally settled in 1850, then soon filled in by large numbers of immigrants from Bavaria some thirty years later in the 1880’s, and eventually home to Benedictine monks — all before it was officially incorporated as a city in 1893 which set it on its current trajectory today.
Per the latest census data, about one third of the households have children under the age of 18 living with them, and half the households are married couples living together, while another 25% have someone living alone who is 65+ years. Bordered mostly by lush farmland, employment is uniquely rural and economic development is sparse in comparison to Salem, the nearby Capital City. The five largest employers in Mt. Angel are Wilco, Providence Benedictine Nursing Center, Mt. Angel Towers, Highland Laboratories, and the Mt. Angel School District. However, the most unique attraction to the city is its distinctively charming, Bavarian identity.
Eugene has the Ducks, Portland has the Trailblazers, Beaverton has Nike, Hillsboro has Intel, and Mt. Angel has Oktoberfest. In fact, it’s the largest Oktoberfest west of the Mississippi and it was included among the Top 10 Oktoberfest List in 2013. And then there’s the Glockenspiel, a must see attraction towering in the middle of the historic Swiss-German inspired downtown.
MEET EILEEN STEIN
The City of Mt. Angel operates under the council-administrator form of government. The mayor and city council are elected to be the legislative and policy-making body for the city and a professional City Administrator is responsible for day-to-day city operations. So to help us understand local government’s new normal in Mt. Angel, we sat down with Eileen Stein, City Administrator.
Eileen came to Mt. Angel in July 2013. While she is new to the community, she is certainly not new to the profession. Prior to her new post in Mt. Angel, she served as City Manager of Sisters, Oregon for 11 years. Her 20+ years of local government experience also includes several positions with the City of Springfield such as Senior Management Analyst in Public Works and Assistant to the City Manager/City Recorder. She is a member of ICMA, OCCMA (where she served two terms as President) and volunteers her time as Practitioner in Residence for MPA students at Portland State University’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government. Eileen has a Master’s degree in Business and Public Administration from the University of California, Irvine.
Our take on Eileen Stein is that if she wasn’t working in local government, she’d be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But instead of stock options, she chose local government by virtue and she is certain to leave behind a more important (though perhaps less infamous) legacy for it. Local government is lucky to have talented, innovative leaders like Eileen Stein whose bottom line is public benefit while working towards a better future for all generations. She means what she says and does what she means.
WITH EILEEN STEIN, CITY ADMINISTRATOR OF MT ANGEL, OREGON
1. Most compelling current issues: At the outset, we asked Eileen about the most compelling current issues she’s working on and some of the potential solutions in play. She gushed about the potential of the city, but highlighted the need for revamping the city budget, policy improvements, advancing intergovernmental relations, and rebranding the city’s image.
“Mt. Angel is at an interesting point in time. In its early years, Mt. Angel was quite a vibrant city and has a long history of civic pride and engagement. Isolationist decisions in its early history caused commerce to go elsewhere when highways to Silverton and Woodburn were completed. Yet, with its longstanding faith and agricultural traditions, and extensive family networks, Mt. Angel kept thriving. Today, a new generation of Mt. Angelites are returning to raise families here…or are continuing to do so. So, too, are people choosing to retire here in the peace and comfort of the town’s Benedictine tradition and heritage, whether the draw is the Mt. Angel Abbey, Mt. Angel Towers or the Providence Benedictine Nursing Center which offers some of the best nursing care in the state. It’s a gem of a town, but needs polishing and rebranding. It’s a critical time for Mt, Angel, for reinvestment in aging buildings and infrastructure, for finding its economic identity, and for building a new foundation for its future. But before this happens, the municipal foundation needs rebuilding. Goals for 2014 include updating the city charter, developing financial management policies, revamping the city budget and fund structure, revising personnel policies, upgrading equipment, starting the process to build a new city hall and reaching out to build intergovernmental connections and regional strategies.”
2. Coming out of recession: The Great Recession put fiscal constraints on cities and local governments across the nation. Eileen spoke about how these issues impacted Mt. Angel while demonstrating how the city’s fiscal frugalism and conservative financial reserve helped them through such challenging times.
“Mt. Angel was affected the same way other cities were. The housing boom brought new infill development and subdivisions, all of which stopped when the bubble burst. Like other communities, we’re seeing a pickup in permit activity again. However, because there is such a culture of fiscal conservatism, bordering on frugality, the City of Mt. Angel fared quite well during the recession. The City has envious reserves, and decisions are needed about how (or whether) to use them to make new investments in aging facilities and equipment, and play in the broader regional context. In many ways, Mt. Angel reminds me of Sisters in my early years there. It is a city ready for a renaissance.”
3. Local government communication: With many local news sources cutting down on their days of delivery and citizens turning increasingly to the internet for news; we asked Eileen to talk about her organizational communication strategy. She provided an awesomely candid and refreshing viewpoint on how Mt. Angel and local governments communicate, including fax machine metaphors.
“Mt. Angel’s website was recently updated, thanks to the hard work of Kelsey Lewis and the good folks at Aha Consulting. There was a point when I thought websites would go the way of fax machines, but I think there will always be a role for them as the basic platform for information about an organization, at least as long as we interact in the digital world the way we do. Other forms of social media just seem to augment and point people back to websites. I am not convinced that Twitter will last forever, nor do I see Mt. Angelites being among the Twitterati set. It is hard for small cities to keep up with all the technological evolution, so one has to try and predict which technology is fad, which is here to stay, and which one makes most sense for the population you’re serving. We still do a good old fashioned newsletter which is inserted into our good old fashioned weekly newspaper, posted on our good old fashioned bulletin board outside city hall, and posted on our new modern website and Facebook page. And, like others, we hear that’s how people get their best information about what’s going on at city hall… that and the weekly tradition of ‘community outreach’ on Fridays at Tiny’s Tavern whereupon civic rumor and innuendo is either confirmed or denied. I am intrigued by the idea of using reverse 911 for messaging about city construction projects and street closures, for example, rather than just for emergency announcements. We are also in the process of converting some basic forms (e.g. utility applications) into Spanish to better serve this part of the our population.”
4. Economic development strategy: For this particular topic, we were full of questions and short on our own answers. Economic development is vital to successful communities, yet the words themselves have become buzzwords rivaling modern day political rhetoric. “Economic Development” seems to lead news headlines as the most important, most tangible goals for improving economies, including localized, civic economies. So of course we had to ask Eileen how she defines economic development*; its challenges; and about the potential opportunities. [*Spoiler Alert: we hope “Economic Gardening” is the next new, big, hashtag: #EconomicGardening.]
“I like the term ‘economic gardening’ because it implies you are growing your own. We were pursuing this strategy in Sisters with a much focused economic development strategic plan. Mt. Angel is not as isolated as Sisters, so being part of the part of the larger mid-Willamette Valley region means people aren’t as dependent on finding work right in Mt. Angel, but it also means the city has to carve out its own identity. Mt. Angel has industrial lands, with rail access, which are not fully utilized and can be the source of new jobs. We just became a joint enterprise zone with Silverton which is one of several ways we’re exploring more cooperation between the two cities. Mt. Angel has its Bavarian theme, its Oktoberfest tradition and a brand new Festhalle; so theme-based tourism is something that can be further developed …and ought to be. Of course, agricultural will always be part of the regional economy. I also see the opportunity to tap into the Mt. Angel Abbey with its world famous library and develop more theological, spiritual, literary and historic based tourism and events. I see the possibility that the baby boom generation will become more reflective as they face their end years. We need to develop an economic development strategic plan and pursue strategies that make most sense for Mt. Angel and which brands it.”
5. Best projects during your tenure: Doing great work is exceptional, intrinsic motivation. We asked Eileen about a couple of projects that she felt best defines her tenure with Mt. Angel.
“Since I am still so new here, I don’t have that much to describe my tenure with the City of Mt. Angel, but I am proud of being able to get the amendment into Silverton’s enterprise zone so quickly. We have a prospect considering a parcel in our industrial park far an ag-based business needing rail access and it was great to demonstrate our quick performance on getting that zone amendment in place as a good faith gesture. I am also excited by the conversations (Silverton City Manager) Bob Willoughby and I are having with our mayors about ways our two cities can work together, share resources and better meet service needs. [The two cities are only four miles apart.] One of the most satisfying projects I worked on in Sisters was building a new City Hall. It is so cool to get to contemplate and design the civic space of a community and not everyone gets the opportunity to do this. Now, it appears I might get to build a second one!”
6. Management Style: Local government management involves managing externally and also the employees within the organization. Eileen gave us an epigrammatic look into her personal management style which involves multiple dynamic layers including local government employees, the community itself, and the governing, political council.
“In a small city there’s no choice, you do all three. In the large cities I worked in, it was most successful when there was a manager attending to the community and council (external) needs and an assistant manager attending to the organizational (internal) needs, or vice versa. But in a small city, the manager needs to be well versed in community, council and organizational politics. We all desire to be treated with respect, dignity, grace, and mercy, and we hope to be dealt with honestly and fairly. I figure if you can achieve this with people, no matter whether a vendor, citizen, stakeholder, councilor, or employee, then you’ll have a positive and productive interaction. When that hasn’t succeeded, it is usually because there is a hidden agenda involved which is challenging. If I can discover the motivation behind someone’s request, position or behavior, whether sincere or not, it gives me insight into how to break down barriers, create connection, build relationship and foster a good outcome.”
7. Best Story: It’s been pretty serious until now, but we know that odd or silly things can, and definitely do, happen in local government; so we asked Eileen for one of her best stories. Ever found a bear, sleeping in your most popular, town-square tree?
“We have to be prepared for anything that might come our way. In Sisters, with it situated in the forest, there were frequently deer in town, especially during hunting season. But I will never forget the time when a bear wandered into town and took a nap in a tree in the popular Village Green Park. This created quite a stir and attracted a crowd while waiting for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to arrive. The bear was eventually roused (tranquilizing him and risking him fall out of the tree and injuring himself was not an option.) He was wakened and cajoled out of the tree and ‘guided’ back to the forest with a crowd and TV crews following like a parade. It was a fun (and dangerous) moment.”
Now here’s a “round robin” style question from your local government peers:
1. Question from Erik Kvarsten, City Manager of Gresham: “In ten years, how will your day be different and how will the services we provide be different?”
Answer from Eileen Stein, City Administrator of Mt. Angel: “In 10 years, Mt. Angel will continue to be known for its Oktoberfest tradition, but its Bavarian theme will be much improved in the architecture of the buildings downtown and there will be more services, retail shops, murals and art galleries that feature iconic and German artisans. A new town square will replace the current city hall which will be relocated in a more visible location. New industry will serve the agriculture and culinary needs of the state and beyond. Efforts to regionalize and coordinate services with Silverton might mean a joint park and recreation district, joint library district, joint public safety district, joint marketing efforts and lodging for weekend getaways to see amenities in the area such as the Oregon Garden, Mt. Angel Abbey and Library, Homer Davenport Days, and with biking trails and transit linking the two cities.”
2. Question from Scott Lazenby, City Manager of Lake Oswego: “What do you enjoy most about your job?”
Answer from Eileen Stein, City Administrator of Mt. Angel: “Envisioning an outcome for a community and achieving it. Likewise, building up a staff into a high performing organization.”
TNT: Ten New Takes
1. If there were a freshman level university class on City Management 101, name 3-5 items that should be included in the curriculum?
“First, there should be a refresher on the three levels of government and how they are different, with particular emphasis on the fact that city government is non-partisan. Naturally, there should be a discussion on the types of services offered at the local level and specific skills in financing and budgeting, community and economic development, public works, public safety and disaster management, media communications, and interpersonal communications. Conflict management is a particularly important skill.”
2. Name one or two of the biggest issues confronting local government in the next five years.
“We need to prepare for the retirement of the baby boom generation. The institutions, policies, and infrastructure that were built to accommodate this huge demographic group are old and need to be rebuilt to serve the following generations. The big question they must ask themselves is what kind of legacy do they intend to leave for their children and their children’s children. Will they expend their wealth on themselves or invest it for the future they will leave behind?”
3. We often learn from our mistakes. Name one or two career mistakes that you have made that you think we could learn from.
“If I do get to build another city hall, I can think of a few features I would change or do differently. Regarding council relations, some very good advice I once received was to remember that when elected officials are no longer in office they will likely continue to follow or stay involved in civic life. Find ways to stay in touch and solicit their advice because they made a huge investment of their time while in office (and may even run for office again.) Find ways to keep the relationship and doors open.”
4. Respond to the concept of schools as means of economic development.
“The first words that come to mind are ‘of course!’ — Of course, they are intertwined and critical to a successful community, especially higher education.”
5. Name the best book(s) local government leaders should read.
“The Trust Edge by David Horsager. I especially like the chapter about how to restore trust when it is lost. This is a must read for elected officials and staff.”
6. What artist, song or album do you listen to when you want to get in the mood about coming to work?
“My faith is important to me, so typically gospel and worship music helps me prepare for a day that I expect to be difficult. One of my favorites is a new rendition of ‘This is the Day (the Lord has Made)’ by Travis Cottrell. Anything he sings is inspirational to me.”
7. Give us one of your strategies for successful #WorkLifeBalance
“I draw my rest and refreshment from my family. It is about quality time, not quantity. I struggle with this at times. But when you’re home, be home.”
8. Hypothetically, if we find ourselves interviewing for a job in front of you, talk about a few steps we can take to make a good impression.
“Hopefully you are committed to the job and community you are about to serve. If you don’t like the community, don’t apply because you will spend so much time serving it. There needs to be some harmony between your values and the prevailing community culture. Show me you have done your homework to understand what the community is about, that you have taken the time to learn about some significant issues facing the community, and have some ideas about how to address them.”
9. Ask me a question I should ask other local government professionals that would fit within this format which you want to know the answer to.
“If you could peer into the future and see all of the events and issues that would come your way as a city manager, would you choose this profession again? Why or why not?”
10. Ask and answer a question I should have personally asked you with regards to this interview?
Q: “Describe one of your favorite moments at work.”
A: “When I was hired in Sisters, the mayor at the time stated that they wanted to take Sisters from the feel of a Mayberry to a professionally managed city. After several years of transition, the moment of realization that we had achieved this and had a high performing organization, especially with a small staff, I was profoundly pleased at a job well done.
Please continue to stay tuned, ELGL. And as always, stay savvy.
-Dan Englund, ELGL