Podcast: Management & Neighborhood Engagement with Cynthia Barber, Tallahassee, FL

Posted on June 11, 2021

Cynthia Barber - GovLove 2


Cynthia Barber
Deputy City Manager
City of Tallahassee, Florida

Making a difference. Cynthia Barber, Deputy City Manager for the City of Tallahassee, Florida, joined the podcast to discuss infrastructure projects and how the City involves the community through their Neighborhood First program. She shared how Tallahassee earned LEED certification and how hurricane plans were used during COVID-19. She also highlighted two youth leadership and development programs, TEMPO and TFLA, that have made an impact on youth in the community.

This episode was recorded from the Florida City/County Managers Association (FCCMA) 2021 Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Learn More

Neighborhood First Program Tallahassee

Tallahassee Awarded Coveted LEED Gold Certification

Tallahassee Future Leaders Academy


Episode Transcript


Ben Kittelson  00:08

Hey ya’ll, coming to you from Orlando, Florida, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben kittelson, consultant at Raftelis and Gov Love cohost. We’re on site at the Florida City County Managers Association conference this week. We have a great episode for you today talking all about Tallahassee, so. But first, the best way to support Gov Love is to become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. Now, let me introduce today’s guest. Cynthia Barber is a Deputy City Manager for the City of Tallahassee, Florida. She’s a position she’s been in since 2019. She’s been with the city since 1991 though and has held roles as director of environmental policy and energy resources, assistant city manager for community engagement and public safety, and general manager for utility, business and customer services. So with that, Cynthia, Welcome to Gov Love, thank you so much for joining us. 

Cynthia Barber  00:58

Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here. 

Ben Kittelson  01:00

Yeah, we’re excited to have you. So we have a tradition on the podcast to start with a lightning round where we get to know our guests a little better. So my first question for you, what was the first album that you bought?

Cynthia Barber  01:11

Okay, I remember that, it was with my own money. I’d started working at 15 and I purchased a Teddy Pendergrass album, and it was the life is a song worth singing.

Ben Kittelson  01:21

Nice, nice. Alright, and since we’re on site in Orlando, what is your favorite Disney movie?

Cynthia Barber  01:27

Bambi is my favorite of all time, yeah.

Ben Kittelson  01:32

Wow. That’s great. That’s it, that is a classic. Alright, and then is there a book that you give us a gift, or anything like that?

Cynthia Barber  01:40

There are two professionally, the book is Encouraging the Heart. And it’s a guide a leaders guide to recognizing and rewarding employees and making sure it’s specific and it appeals to who they are and their heart, not everybody is motivated in the same way or by the same thing. So it encourages you to get to know the people that you work with. And when you reward them, or you recognize them to do that in a way that would be most meaningful to them. In my personal life, I give mostly a copy of the Bible.

Ben Kittelson  02:09

Really? Okay. Very cool. That’s a that’s a that’s a good book, like learning how to, like interact with or, and give recognition to employees. That’s, I feel like that’s stuff that folks can always learn more about. Awesome. And then I was like to learn about how people ended up in government. So I gave a little bit of a summary of your career path. But how, how’d you end up in your current role? What was your path to local government?

Cynthia Barber  02:31

In my current role or in public service? 

Ben Kittelson  02:33

All of the above.

Cynthia Barber  02:34

Ok, in terms of municipal services and ended up with the city, I wish I could tell you that it was a real profound moment, as the role that I said, you know, one day I want to live here, stay home, and serve my community. While I love what I do, and that exactly, that’s exactly how I feel today. It actually was a result of being right out of college and a very difficult job with the state of Florida that involves certifying residents for financial assistance, Medicaid, food stamps, and it was a tough, tough job. And so actually, my husband, got a little tired of me coming home every day just really beaten, worn, and lamenting about my day. And he put in an application for me, with the City of Tallahassee, as a matter of fact, he put in many of them. And the day that I showed up for my interview, I said I was relaxed. And I I lost track in my mind as to which position it was because there was so many of them. And because there was a delay in the process for the interview, one of the folks on the panel came up to me and said hey, I’m gonna give you this job description to review while you wait for the interview. So that helped me nail that interview. But it is something that I love to do. I’ve I started as managing a team of 10. Today as a Deputy City Manager, I have close to 2,000 employees, when you add on all of our permanent employees and our special services, employees, multiple departments, Fire Department, police department, parks, recreation, neighborhood affairs, so it’s basically been a process where I mostly have gone and applied for the all the jobs of the times I’ve been with the city I’ve applied for two jobs, I’ve failed many, but it was through just really demonstrating a skill, interest and effort, a commitment and a lot of jobs were created. And I was like please merge in departments, create new departments. No, I’ve that’s really been my pattern, I’ve been given brand new departments and a charge to make, you know, to meet certain goals and I’ve done it. The environmental department was an example. I was taken out of an area I’d been very comfortable, it had been like, built my team. I knew the job. I could do it in my sleep. I knew it like the back of my hand and one day the City Manager said I’m reorganizing, I thought well, that’s nice. And so she-

Ben Kittelson  04:56

This is gonna affect you.

Cynthia Barber  04:57

Yeah, we had a meeting and it at first it was very minimal impact me. And so I saw and I went in and I talked to my team. I said, we’re reorganizing. I said, and so unfortunate, you’re leaving the department, but you know see it as an opportunity to learn to do something different. And I could hear it knock on the door, and I knew my boss’s knock. And I just yelled to him, I’m in the middle of a meeting can, is this important? And he said, Yes, it is. So I knew I was like, okay, that’s never good. When at the time the Assistant City Manager is banging on the door. And he let me know that the impact was different, that I was leaving the department and not the man I had just coached up to this role and so when I went back, and I told my team, and so he just turned it all back on me. You know, see it as an opportunity to do something different, to learn more.

Ben Kittelson  05:44

The same speech you were giving to your employee. 

Cynthia Barber  05:47

So that’s kind of been my pattern, merging of departments creating new departments, establishing the city, in that particular arena. And that’s what I was charged with was sustainability. And, like, yesterday, the pinnacle of that was receiving an international award for the work from the LEED city certification, which is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Yeah. And it talks about, it’s broader than just green buildings, like people think. But it’s the way that the city does business. And it actually it’s who we are. We have a lot of long term programs that we’ve implemented mostly around energy. So there’s energy conservation programs, we have something called the reach program, where we actually identify neighborhoods where there were older homes, that could use some upgrades that would help with their energy savings and make them more environmentally focused, as well as save some money. But that is so much broader than that. We We also, we also implemented 62 megawatt solar farm at our airport, the largest in the world, at any airport. It deals with our interactions with citizens and making sure that we work on an individual level where we work with families to improve their quality of life, we have a number of programs to address that. It deals with other programs like curbside recycling, just a myriad of things, the way we conduct paperless processes to minimize the impact to natural resources, but also to save travel impacts to come to the office, they have to conduct that work. So we have extremely proud of the water conservation programs, award winning and not you know, we have a lot of I’ll say that a lot because we have a lot of award winning programs. One of them is I think about personal pollution, talks about the impact of non point pollution on our on our water bodies. And so that’s very, so that’s one of our long term programs, we give rebates, energy rebates, we make modification to homes, we have loans. So it’s just a myriad of things. And the good thing about it, it is in deeply entrenched and embedded in our culture. So every department thinks about what is that impact when they are doing their business from our nationally recognized award winning green fleet program, electric buses, you name it, Tallahassee is, is really, we we’re a leader in that area, we’re very, very proud of it. So that was the the job that I basically told the City Manager, I don’t want that job. And she was like, I don’t know what about this makes you think this is like a choice? This is the job I need you to do in this time. And, and she told me that they, you are to ensure that through this department, the city becomes known as a leader locally, statewide, regionally and nationally. And we did all of that. In 2012 President Obama recognized me on for the work that I’d done to lead the effort as a champion of change for greening of America’s cities and towns, we this one, this international award is the icing on the cake.

Ben Kittelson  09:04

That’s awesome. So I’m curious, what does it take like to shift or to get the organization buy in and to like, change the culture to think about green and sustainability?

Cynthia Barber  09:13

It was challenging in a lot of areas, particularly, again, back to having a routine being very, very comfortable with that. And then being told we need to do something different and thinking about it differently. At that time, there was more of an impact potentially to the bottom line, particularly if you didn’t do the research. It could cost you a little more. So some of our enterprise departments were like not hearing that it’s very nice but as your job not ours, but it was it was that the biggest thing the thing that helps is coming from the top setting the tone, the city commission, having that leadership there, the city manager having that as a as a priority, incorporating it in the performance expectations. And we developed a, worked with our departments to develop something called the green print where we developed like our document, our blueprint same the way a blueprint would be used for other projects, construction projects and those kinds of things. Here’s how we can achieve these things. Here are the basic areas we want to achieve, whether it is waste reduction, it’s energy conservation, how do we achieve those things in individual departments, and so as opposed to mandating it because that, that’s very difficult to say. So here’s here are the priority areas, you tell us what we can achieve in these areas and we were the first gold certified green city in Florida, as well, with the Florida green building coalition. So it went and really, they were they were so nervous about it. But when I conducted the initial assessment, to see how green we were, we qualified for the certification immediately, so the work, there was so much that we were doing, the process allowed us to capture it, to monitor it, and to be very intentional and focused on it. So we were doing it, like really, I didn’t realize that was considered green. And then we really wanted to focus on the people piece. A lot of people think it’s just the environmental, but there’s an environment, there’s the economics of it, and there’s they’re the people impacts. And how do you do that. And one of the great things about the LEED award is that it does address the social equity piece, which is very, very important. And that’s a lot of the work that we’re doing now is whether it’s working with our homeless population, we’re working with our disenfranchised youth, and our, our tempo program, and working with some of our traditionally underserved communities to address really public safety, but through infrastructure enhancements, and community engagement, they have to own it. How do you own this? Because if I build it, without any input, it could potentially become a place in a neighborhood where undesirable activities take place, when a neighborhood owns it, they plan for it, they have neighborhood activities for it, they pay attention to it, it’s less likely to become a burden on the community.

Ben Kittelson  12:12

Oh, that’s fascinating. So it’s like an intersection of sustainability, community engagement, and in that case, public safety? 

Cynthia Barber  12:18

Yes, absolutely. 

Ben Kittelson  12:18

Is there an example of like, I don’t know, if you have one offhand, that’s like, this is the kind of project that that that, where all those three things met?

Cynthia Barber  12:24

Oh we, we have a number, a number of them and one that we had a grand opening for just about three weeks ago is the part of the capital cascades, Park extension and the FAMU Way. That’s it’s called FAMU Way, FAMU is a Florida A&M University for agricultural mechanical University, is a historically black university University in Tallahassee, where I met my husband actually. But it is, when the road was built that you have to imagine it required some shifts, some land acquisition, and things that traditionally there was some distrust, particularly from the African American community, here you come and you need land, when we know how that works, it’s probably not going to be fair, I’m not going to get the value of it and really, it’s a part of African American culture, just parting with land period, is it can be troublesome it can be for anybody, particularly for a lot of people, the land is the only wealth that you have. So the City Manager promised at that time that it would be the most beautiful road in Tallahassee. And I have to tell you, that it is and the community owns the whole FAMU was like, they were not even on board initially. But what we thought about is how do we engage all of the various the churches, the residents of the community, the university and created a community centric team to help design the road and build the features in the road. And I can tell you, there’s a circle of FAMU Way that you would believe that FAMU built it themselves as a part of the structure of the university. They take great pride in it is at the entrance of the campus. There are two of them going on to the campus and and they take graduation pictures. So if you were to Google FAMU graduation photoshoot shots, you would see them taking pictures there. There’s walking along there, so we have a number of those projects. And tomorrow in my presentation, I’ll be talking about one that’s more neighborhood focused, FAMU Way borders, the bond community, which I’ll be talking about tomorrow as a part of my session. And the work that we’re doing to enhance the infrastructure in the community makes a direct connection to FAMU Way. So now you have all of this safe, beautiful walking space that can also be used for event space. It has a lot of parcels on the side of the road that can be used for small gatherings and community events, shelter, picnic shelters, benches. A Lake Anita is also another area just held the inaugural, a community led inaugural event for emancipation day where folks gathered, that used to when I was a child, I went to FAMU High and it bordered this area was a canal that bordered the campus. It was a dreadful canal, there were many accidents there. Just and it just was unattractive. So even saying we would improve that was a not enough to initially build the trust without bringing the players to the table. And they said, Listen, we’ve had enough of that canal, because we thought, what about we put, we improve it, but we put a small, like trinkle like a flow, a small flow, they wanted no water, no, absolutely not. We want it gone. And so we, it was covered. And so it runs underneath the road. And that was something that was really, really important to them. And we’ve seen development happen in and around that area, again, walking, people getting healthy, meeting their neighbors, the connection, the family, it’s just a wonderful project that turned that whole area around. There’s business development in and around that area as well as residential enhancements along that area. That’s fascinating. So I guess the, maybe the common thread through these is like bringing people in or the community in and stakeholders in early into the process and let them drive kind of what’s included. Is that the? Early in the process, absolutely. Because when there are issues or concerns about it, neighbors talk to each other about it, they because they know they were involved is like, hey, we thought we really liked this or we wanted this. I’d like to see more of it. And they understand. They can’t say the city just came in and did this. We, that’s not who we are as an organization anyway. But we have learned that it is, it just goes so much better. Because the community defends the projects, community defends the projects, that community advocate for the projects, the community supports the work that we’re doing. It’s not it’s not as hard to make the case. Even when we go to another area somebody sees Oh, well look what they did in this community. Look how well they worked with that neighborhood. And we do, we work with our neighborhood organizations, we work with nonprofits, we work with individual homeowners. We, we think it’s important that the vote, that our individual neighborhoods voices are at the table. We want their participation in not only what happens in their neighborhood, we want them to be vested there. But also understand we are one community, we need everybody to care about every part of the community. I should care if there’s another part of the community that does not have what it needs.

Ben Kittelson  17:45

Yeah, yeah. So I’m curious. So before I took my current role, I was working for the city of Durham, North Carolina. And whenever we did, like community improvement type Project streetscaping. There’s always pushback around the concerns over gentrification and like this is going to cause land values to increase. So what’s that conversation been like in Tallahassee?

Cynthia Barber  18:02

Yeah, absolutely. That is, that is a concern. And we’ve heard it as well. And again, engaging the neighbors, this one that I’ll talk about we’re working in for the it’s called the neighborhood first program, we’ll be I’ll be talking about that tomorrow we’ll work in in some of those traditionally, African American neighborhoods that are very concerned about that. So that’s why we’re working with the neighbors, you want to help us determine what you want to see in your neighborhood. With it in mind, you want some you want some changes, but you also want to maintain the character of the neighborhood and you want to still feel like this, you don’t want to walk down and says, I don’t even recognize that place. I don’t see anything that represents me, my family, my grandparents, what they built, what they gave to this community, I don’t see it. And we’ve found that when you involve the people who live there, that’s less likely to happen. But it is something that we’re very concerned about, and that we would try to put in that step of involving the neighborhood. And and I always say we want to improve it for the people who live here as much as anybody who might want to come, but we want you to stay. We want this improvement to be something that would keep you here would want your children to stay here and generations after to stay here. And so that’s our approach, and I still believe it is largely due to evolving the neighborhood. You know, quite naturally, there’s going to be some change in the city and some areas, but we work very hard to try to make sure that it’s that our community reflects the diversity and that people don’t uproot, because they can’t afford it because of any work that we’ve done,

Ben Kittelson  19:47

Yeah, yeah. Well, it seems like you’re doing what you can to or what the city can control, right? Like you can’t control land values increasing necessarily, but you can control how connected people feel to the community. That’s fascinating. Cool, very cool. So not to like totally shift gears but, so you talked a little about some of the environmental work you were doing. Is there anything else kind of when you were serving as the director of environmental policy and energy resources that you could share about?

Cynthia Barber  20:15

Yes, the the planning piece, I think was really important, getting my peers on board, because it was almost like a here she comes again, scenario, and I didn’t like having that feeling because, you know, 

Ben Kittelson  20:25

She’s coming to make us do more work. 

Cynthia Barber  20:27

Make us add this, make us add that, so getting the plan, involving my, my co workers in in that process was good, but there was some project some really good things that happened in Tallahassee. We were, we were responsible for the brownfields program. And we’re really proud of the work that was done there. It allowed us to go in and clean up the area, a really important corridor that runs between two major universities, Florida, A&M University and Florida State University. by cleaning that up and turning it over for, for redevelopment, it’s it’s created this vibrant corridor between our two campuses, but it’s also downtown. These Superfund site that we were given responsibility for that was another one of those conversations. Hey, we have a new project manager for the cascade Park cleanup. And I was like, oh, wow, that’s great. Because I had been out there for some years back and forth between agencies between departments. I said, Well, who is it? Boss looked at me says it’s you. I said, Oh, my God, you have to be kidding me. I said, this cannot be happening. And he said, Oh, you guys can handle it. And I had an awesome environmental manager that took the reins and took responsibility for but we were able to take what was a significant, the Superfund means that involve multiple agencies, there was significant contamination on site, we cleaned it up over 82,000 tons of contamination were removed. It is a world class Park, on another award winning park. We received, before there was any development on it, the fact that we even were able to get it cleaned up and had a vision for it, we received the first ever excellence and sight reuse award for that. We also were recognized as a community, as a for our brownfields program, one of the best in the region and the country. Because we were able to really take these burns and turn them over, we have now three hotels in the game Street corridor, we just finished development, private development of a hotel, on the cascade Park, business, entertainment, residential, all of that in a place that had become contaminated. Historically, it was valuable to the community. It was where my mom’s high school football team played their, their football games, it was a valuable piece. And then by connecting it to capitol cascades, Park and Lake Anita that we just talked about, FAMU Way in the biking trail all the way to the coast. So that work, I’m really proud that the work that we we did as a team, we can ride through the community and see the benefit of that for generations and show that you know, you’ve really made a difference. So those were some of the kinds of things that we achieved in addition to the recognitions. And we always said that the recognitions were nice, but that’s not why we do the work. We do the work because we want to make the difference in the lives of the people who live in our community. And we want to make a difference in the environment for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren and their grandchildren and beyond. So that’s why and if we get an award or recognition on top of that, that’s just icing on the cake, but it’s certainly not, that’s not why we do the work.

Ben Kittelson  23:49

Yeah. How has the likes resiliency sustainability work changed, I guess, for maybe when when you started in that role versus where the city’s at now?

Cynthia Barber  23:58

One of the things that we did was after a major hurricane in Tallahassee and it had been the first- 

Ben Kittelson  24:06

Hurricane Michael right like pretty recently?

Cynthia Barber  24:07

 Yes, hurricane Hermine and hurricane Michael and Irma.

Ben Kittelson  24:10

It’s hard to keep track. 

Cynthia Barber  24:12

We’ve, we’ve had our share over the past few years, we should be traumatized, but we’re not.

Ben Kittelson  24:16

That’s the thing about Florida, people are like, it’s just part of the-

Cynthia Barber  24:20

And we came out, when we when we worked our way through the storm, you know, we said, you know, we are resilient. We looked at each other and say we really, really are because it was it was terrifying. The power outages, the tree damage, the damage to our electric system. All of that was somewhat shocking to our community. They hadn’t experienced anything like that in many years. And it was determined that we needed a resilience plan. I’m responsible, one of my areas of areas of responsibility is emergency preparation. And so we determined the commission gave direction that they wanted to see us with a plan, a resiliency plan, and it was mostly With a thought around storms, in most people’s minds, but for us, it was thought of as being broader than that. And thank God we did because we, COVID COVID. We had to, we had to enact some processes during COVID, as well. So we thought as being broader. So we undertook number one, we said, let’s, let’s make a commitment to it. Let’s get a resiliency officer hired who can come in here and assure a process of developing a resiliency plan. And we knew that we couldn’t do one for the city government, in order to be successful, it had to be a community resilience plan. Well, we know what that is. That’s engagement 101 again, we know you can’t do that without involving, and we involved 1000s of people, because you had to get your agencies that you would need to work with, you have to get your the citizens, the neighbors that are impacted to identify the vulnerabilities and the threats. And they were much broader than than weather impacts. And then when you look at the existing vulnerabilities, like poverty, and you overlay that with other kinds of things, that the impact to a person who was also living in poverty, so a storm impact to me would be, you know, would be bad. But a storm impact is somebody that’s already on a fixed budget, that barely has enough to pay the current bills and utilities facing food loss, trying to get in a hotel if they had to vacate, how all of those kinds of things. So going through a very strategic process, and we hired an awesome Young lady to usher that program in place. And she did, that’s one of the things also that we were recognized for, for having a resilience resiliency plan, but one that incorporated all the various types of vulnerabilities and included participation from all the neighborhoods. So that piece is a change, having that broad resiliency plan, which included sustainability, but it was much broader than that. And then, again, the the inculturation, of sustainability in the organization, where it’s not just my job to think about it. Everybody focuses on that in our organization, it’s a priority for our government. A clean energy program that which makes a long term commitment to sustainability, energy reduction, is is another part of the commitment. So it’s just, it’s just as I like to say, it’s not what we do. It’s who we are.

Ben Kittelson  27:37

Yeah. So you touched on something that I found, I have found fascinating, like seeing cities kind of respond to COVID. It seems like organizations that have focused on resiliency, focused on continuous improvement or innovation, like they’re almost like, prepared themselves to deal with any thing that might come their way. Is that the experience that you had in Tallahassee was when COVID came, were you more prepared than than maybe you would have been otherwise?

Cynthia Barber  27:37

Well, I tell you, we’ve had, we’ve faced a number of challenges, and all of them seem to be right before we say, yeah, we we had to deal with this. But we’ve never had to deal with that. And shortly before the pandemic hit, I was talking with the city manager, I said, Well, the good thing is, we’ve dealt with everything else, but we haven’t had to deal with a pandemic. 

Ben Kittelson  28:17

You’re the reason, okay.

Cynthia Barber  28:18

Yeah, I’m not allowed to make that statement anymore. But we, we had a conversation, they said, you know, there’s a potential that there could be this pandemic. And at the time we knew of no cases, but our community, we don’t wait to be hit. We act quickly and precisely. And so a community leader, that’s what I love about Tallahassee. Good ideas come from all over the community. We have vested people who care. And so our community leader pulled together a lot of the leaders in our organization, our hospitals, all of the health care providers, our Leon county schools, our state agencies, our city, our county, pulled us all together to say, Hey, you know, this thing could be real and when would it be real for us? And we say what, when there’s a case in the region, anywhere in the region, it might be real for us. As a city, we have what we call coop plans to continue continuity of operation plans. On an annual basis, we make sure those are in place, mostly related to big storms. But that same model works for other types of situations, including COVID. What are our essentials, what are our essential services? They have to continue, they don’t get to go home. They just have to figure out how to work safely and get the job done. People still expect to see police, they still need fire services, we cannot leave garbage on the streets, particularly in COVID. We had to take extra care during COVID to make sure we handle sanitation properly. Our utility customers need access to the customer service teams. And so how do we do all of that? Well, we it was, I won’t say that it was easy, but because it took a lot of thought, a lot of energy, but we were basically able to to switch a lot of our operations, including our call centers, HR operations, procurement, a lot of that we can switch it to remotely, people could do it from home, we modified our workforce, it was important that we understood workforce preservation was going to be the most important thing that we could do. So how do you within your various departments make sure you keep your workforce safe, because we end up with a spread of COVID in any of those, those critical most critical functions, it could bring the operations to an halt, halt, and we can’t do that. Our community depends upon us. So working on that piece of workplace work preservation and we put that in place. Also thinking about here’s what I do every day, this is who I am, but it’s it’s a different scenario, it’s one that we’ve never dealt with. And and most of us, you know, we’ve had parents who they may have, and grand, great grandparents who may have dealt with the flu pandemic of 100 years ago, and so but we’ve never dealt with that, so what do we have to be prepared to do something different? The city of Tallahassee constructed the first testing, mass test site in Tallahassee for one of the hospitals to operate, and then we provided the fire chief as a liaison to help help with logistics and help to operate it. Then we also, the fire department set up the largest vaccination site, vaccinating on over 30,000 people over 60,000 vaccines administered as a drive thru, one of the smoothest operations.

Ben Kittelson  29:27

Just EMTs like giving the vaccine? 

Cynthia Barber  31:37

Yeah, just doing it. I mean, they they did an outstanding job. That’s really how do we see ourselves differently? What is, how do, what does our community need us to do right now? We also, like, you know, we’re a university town, not that we have a lot, let’s say, Well, I like to say I don’t like to say we are a university town, because there’s so many of us, who it’s home for us who are not students, but we have a large student population. And they are very, very important to us and a vital part of our community. We’re also state capitol, we normally have a lot of legislative, traffic and business, there’s a significant impact to business when the students are sent home and half the and told to to go to school virtually. So that’s there goes, all of the incidental kind of things they would do from hair salons, barber shops, shops, restaurants.

Ben Kittelson  32:29

Businesses that rely on the nine months student population.

Cynthia Barber  32:33

Yeah, as you can imagine the service industry that was painful. that’s the same for legislature. That’s the same for the cancellation of football games, basketball game, city sponsored parades, and events and festivals that draw people from all across the country for Florida State and FAMU football games, and activities for parades, there was an impact. So the city did step up and was a part of an effort to help alleviate some of the financial pressure on our nonprofits and small businesses. And we actually provided some cash supplements totaling about $2 million to help small business and help bridge the gap there. I saw many things, some of us with our favorite restaurants, I have a lot of them.

Ben Kittelson  33:19

I felt like I kept a couple of businesses going. Yeah.

Cynthia Barber  33:23

I mean, I that was my job was, and several of us, several of us said, you know, we want them to survive it. So individuals rallied behind some of their favorites and supported them, ordered, ordered food, actually, we gathered the cash supplements, gave small payments, a couple of $100 to our favorite servers and restaurants. And that was happening all over our community. I could have cooked at home. But if I could help keep people employed, and I saw mass efforts that you see organized on social media. That’s the kind of community we are. That’s why I love Tallahassee. And we’re still doing that, some of the businesses are still struggling that don’t have enough employees, some of them, they’ve had to relocate to other jobs, other communities. So we’re still trying to support our local businesses the best that we we can

Ben Kittelson  34:13

Yeah, yeah, that that was fascinating hearing about the response and how the city has been able to to adjust. I’m curious to like after, you know, a year plus since the pandemic like really settled in, what do you think some of the like changes that have happen will stick around? What do you think some there are some lessons learned?

Cynthia Barber  34:30

There are some lessons learned, we learned that we don’t all have to be in the same space all the time in order to be productive. We’ve done really, we’ve run calls. I started my job with the city in 91, responsible for a call center. And if you had ever told me back in 1991, that you could run that operation from someone’s living room, I would tell you that we just can’t do that. But that was one of the things that we learned, we did, so I see that that’s something that will stick around that where there is the opportunity to be productive, that we will do that remotely. We also run a number of youth programs. We have our tempo program, we have another one called, we have a summer employment program called Tallahase future leaders, we call it TFLA program where we employ some youth. And last year, my director who’s responsible for that program called me and said, Miss Barbara, based on the pandemic, I believe we’re going to have to cancel the TFLA program. And I was like, No, we can’t do that. You know, I tell him that all the time. No we can’t or yes, we have to. So I said, we can’t I said these kids, because here’s what struck me. When we were talking to the temp to the TFLA kids one day we asked them to raise their hand for what they use their money for it raise their hands, the majority of them said food and electricity. And so these were 15, 16, 17, 18 year olds helping paying bills at home. So that resonated with me, this is not kids planning on buying gaming systems or tennis shoes, or getting my hair cut. They were buying, they were helping their family with the essentials. And I thought if no other time, they need this money. And in addition to that, we’re going to extend the period that we normally would pay them by a couple of weeks, we normally don’t pay them to do orientation, I said, well, that’s not fair, they need to be paid for orientation, because they, you know, they’re, they’re dedicated that time, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But it was a way to help them, they were going to be learning something. So we converted the TFLA program to a virtual platform. And we were able to do the virtual tour, they normally do tours with our electric utilities and other departments. We did virtual tours. We also had them too, we shifted a little bit and they were able to take certifications online, courses online that they could use to help them whether that was a food service certification, or what have you. So we we leverage that. So we’ll incorporate more virtual activity in TFLA moving forward as well. So there’ll be a combination of it. And because the kids and we also made sure everybody had connectivity, that was part of, you know, our responsibility. Some of these kids had transportation challenges. So if they can do a bit of participate in the program, and do part of that remotely, and it still can be productive to them and add value to the city, then we’ll, we’ll continue to do that as well. So those were some of the lessons that we learned, that will continue to support some of the events that we did. So that whole virtual element and being able to do things remotely, really taught us Hey, this is a way that we could do business that will serve our environmental interests, as well as focus on we also like to focus on the individuals, the employees that make up the organization, and how their lives are impacted. And we had families who were able to, only able to survive and strike the appropriate balance because of the flexibility that was offered. We may find outside of COVID, that there are circumstances where families may find themselves that could benefit from that type of flexibility.

Ben Kittelson  38:14

Yeah, yeah. It’s one of those like, Hey, now it’s a tool in the toolbox. It wasn’t as scary as we thought it was a year and a half ago.

Cynthia Barber  38:22

No, not, oh, yeah. A year and a half ago, we were like, this is the end that they’ve been talking about.

Ben Kittelson  38:28

So you mentioned the tempo program. Can you talk a little about that? What is that?

Cynthia Barber  38:32

Yes, it’s one of my one of my favorite programs, and I hope none of my other program managers get to hear this podcast, but I it’s like, I love them. I love them all and love them differently. But but this one is this one is one that tugs at my heart. First of all, we have an energizer bunny that’s responsible for the program. His name is Kimball Thomas, Dr. Kimball Thomas. He is a former high school principal. And so he has a real passion for serving kids. So he’s, this was his brain child. And it’s called Tallahassee engaged in meaningful productivity for opportunity youth. You’ll hear a term called disadvantaged, disadvantaged youth, we like to use the term opportunity youth and those are young people between the ages 16, 17 and 26 or so. And we’ve kind of blurred the lines with age because we feel if we can help somebody, if they’re just outside of that age, we still want to try to help them. But they’re basically our young people who have left school without a GED or diploma. They are often unemployed or underemployed. And in many cases, they’ve had contact with law enforcement. And we we, we wanted we were trying to address public safety. And with the recognition that you cannot address public safety by just arresting people.

Ben Kittelson  40:00

Yeah, you should get the root cause

Cynthia Barber  40:01

You can’t police people, you can’t just police ourselves out of the challenges of public safety, we have to figure out how to address some of the root causes. When I’m looking at that, and I’m also looking at data that shows me that that same age group of minority males are oftentimes the victims of crime or the perpetrators of violent crime. How can we break this cycle? And is that, I can see that education and employment was a key to that. And so Kimball went out in the community, we call him the street principal now.He went out into some of the neighborhoods, actually found young people sitting in the park when they should be in school, or you know, sitting on the bench just goofing off and talked to them. And I remember one of the first young ladies, we’re very proud of her. She’s fully employed now. And, and got her her education completed, but she didn’t believe it, that you could do this for me for free. A lot of them come from experiences that they’ve been let down before. And so they did not believe this man I’ve never met before, first of all.

Ben Kittelson  41:08

Just walked up to me in a park? 

Cynthia Barber  41:09

Second of all, it’s the summer and this man is out in here in hot bottom, polished shoes, a suit and a tie. It is something that right about this man. And so she said, I don’t believe you. And he said, No, it’s true. You can call it, call this number. And that first year we had a goal to sign up 75, 75 people in the program. And I believe that my last count, we were somewhere around 1600 in the program, and just yesterday found out that the governor signed off on a budget that included additional funding for TEMPO so we’re excited about it. But we we sponsor, and we sponsor directly. And we’ve created partnerships to pay for our GED classes for these young people. So our first year we had 12 TEMPO graduates, we were so excited to you know do it ourselves. Then we’ve had a class of I think 20 something and the last classes we were really excited about there were 30 some odd students, so like a total of 60 altogether. To date, I got my report, as of yesterday, we have 62 that will graduate from the TEMPO program on with their GEDs. Many of them, our students have gone on to higher education, four year colleges, some in trades, some are working, but these are kids we found on the street corner, some would have otherwise and had been involved in crime. And we’ve know when they’ve been engaged with us that they have not reoffended. So, next step is to figure out at what point beyond the program are we finding that they may need more assistance, so is looking at one year out, two years out, three years out, what’s been the pattern. So as we build our team, that’s that’ll be some of the data that we look at to see, are there other connection programs that we can create for them beyond getting their GED and getting a job for them, the city has employed many of these kids. In fact, the police department recently employed one of the TEMPO kids for one of our community service officers, that will work in cases where it doesn’t require a sworn armed police officer because we’re also trying to deal with that sentiment as well that sometimes police officers show up for scenarios where they are not required. And things don’t always go as well as they, you know, they could if there was a mental health person on on on that team. So yeah, we just implemented a crisis response team for that purpose. And he was hired not for the Crisis Response Team, per se, but as one of those community officers to take one of these I mean, it is so heartwarming to see these kids. Kimball, Kimball cries, I call him Kimball, Dr. Thomas cries when he talks about it, because he has so much passion. He sees the disruption from that cycle that could have occurred. We have had situations where, and this is what I like about it, when I look at a graduation picture and I see this one little guy that’s turned back within his seat, just as bright eyed as he want to be that’s in a cycle that but for this assistance, and that could it could be different. So you’ve got his mother that’s graduating his aunt that’s joined the program, the uncle joins the program and the mother who’d, the mother, his grandmother who didn’t have her GED, ask for assistance. I see a change in the future for that young man. That’s what I love about the program. And he sits there so innocent, and I see him and I see all the bubbles of potential threats and potential opportunities. And we put an X on everything. And we thought we draw a direct line from him to every opportunity with this program. And so that’s what we love about it. That’s what gives me chills about and when we get the letters back, saying we changed the lives of these young people. And yesterday when Dr. Thomas received the good news, he went back where he started to an area we call, it’s on Texas Street, there’s the housing development he went to, and was walking, just sitting, just taking it in that it started with one young person in this neighborhood. And he ran across a former student of his from Gaston County, Florida, that had dropped out of school. He signed him up yesterday, he signed him up for the program. And his, he took a picture with him and his mother, and the mother’s saying, I’m so glad to see you. I need for him to be productive. I need for him to get off the street. This is going to change his life. So when we question whether the work we do matters, whether it makes a difference, that’s when we know it does. And so, we’re excited about the TEMPO program.

Ben Kittelson  45:52

That is beautiful. And we will put a link to the, I think there is a page on your website about it. So folks can find out more if they’re interested. That Yeah, that’s beautiful. So you touched on this, like, it seems like it’s a, the TEMPO program is a component of the like, or could be a component of a larger reimagining of public safety and like, you know, finding different ways to deal with people other than the criminal justice system. So I know this is less heartwarming and more like nitty gritty and nuts and bolts. But like, when you were starting that program, where does it sit in the organization? Like how do you staff it? Like what does, if someone if another city wanted to do something like, how would that work?

Cynthia Barber  46:31

So, yes, it did start out of a desire to reimagine public safety. That’s Kimball and that family.

Ben Kittelson  46:39

That’s awesome. That’s a great photo.

Cynthia Barber  46:42

It’s started out of a real recognition that we could not police ourselves out of this, we were challenged, the this is, these trends are not going in the direction they need to go in. We can keep adding officers, we’re not going to get there because we need the community’s help. These folks need programs and initiatives that address the root causes. So Kimball reports directly to me, let me let me back, he reports directly to me, but so does the police chief. So I have the police chief, I have the fire chief. So there was a recognition number one that anything that law enforcement could do, TPD could not do it alone. So let’s get our let’s get the public safety collective. So that was something that was started where we have all the law enforcement agency heads in the community, the local ones. So we had the university police office, police chief, we had our police chief, the Florida FDLE police chief, the state attorney, all the various players, and everybody wanted to wanted to do the same thing. How do we change? How do we make our communities safe? How do we change things so that they don’t want these young people coming into the system either. And so we developed a program called the neighborhood public safety initiative, where we got into our neighborhoods to work with them, get them engaged, but the TEMPO program needed to be elevated to at least an executive, reporting to an executive. 

Ben Kittelson  48:03

So it got more attention, it got more priority.

Cynthia Barber  48:06

Mote attention by a reporting to, to me as the deputy, or it needs to be at that level, or the ACM assistant city manager. And then what we have in the police department, also have the Human Services area, so many of the areas that need to work together to make it because we were already doing community policing. And we were making some strides in community policing. But the the business of policing, some parts of it is, is not viewed in that way. It’s really not that way. But sometimes we have to make arrests and do other things, that no matter how well you do or how kind you are it’s not viewed as community policing. Okay. So having those areas together, we gave me a lot of flexibility. But the way our organization works is that we work across teams. So it wouldn’t have really mattered if it worked for another assistant city manager, but we needed it to be at a certain level in the organization 

Ben Kittelson  49:04

So that you could make the connections and work across the portfolio.

Cynthia Barber  49:06

Yes, yes. So it is a vital part of, of our organization. We have volunteers in the community that assist us, we also have a lot of people in the organization in the, in our organization. We just were a were successful in establishing a nonprofit to help generate attention and funds for the TEMPO program. So that we can take it to the next level, we envision an engagement center where we can offer tutoring services, and all kinds of support services and a one stop shop kind of scenario. 

Ben Kittelson  49:07

So there’s room for growth. 

Cynthia Barber  49:45

There’s room for growth.

Ben Kittelson  49:47

Super exciting. Awesome. So yeah, we’ll we’ll link to to the websites so that folks can learn more about TEMPO and then and that’s really exciting. We’re approaching the end of our time together, but we have a traditional last question on Gov Love. So if you can be the Gov Love DJ, and you can pick the exit music for this episode. What what song would you pick?

Cynthia Barber  50:06

I would pick this song that I really liked by Beyonce. It called, it’s called I was here. And I remember, and I will not admit this, because I don’t know if the statute of limitations has passed for, in the bathroom where you would write, Cynthia, I mean, Bill, you know, you write bill was here. And, and we did that, it was silly. I thought, well, they did that, then I thought it was silly. Why would Why did we do that? Why is we want is somebody to know that we were here we made a difference. And when I think about the work of public service, and that we do it, I told you, we don’t do it for awards and recognition. We do it because we want to know that we made a difference and this song talks about I was here, I lived, I worked, I made a difference. And so I think that’s what I would that would be my closing song because I I believe that what we’ve talked about today, points to the difference that the 3000 comrades, my comrades at the city of Tallahassee, give every day to our community coming in year after year after year for some of us, for me, I’m approaching my 30th year with the city and give so much more than what most of the people we serve can imagine. And there are things in the community, the roads that they use, the sidewalks that they use, the parks that they enjoy. When you flick your light switch the utilities come on because somebody that cared, worked and made a difference. They were here. So that’s why I would do that.

Ben Kittelson  51:46

Yeah. That’s beautiful. And it’s very rare that the song selection ties the whole interview together. Kudos to that. So that ends our episode for today. Cynthia, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me. I feel like we could have talked for hours, so you might have to come back.

Cynthia Barber  51:57

Thank you for having me. I’d love to do it. I love talking about the city that I love and the organization that I work for and love as well.

Ben Kittelson  52:04

Yeah. For our listeners, Gov Love is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter at the handle @GovLovePodcast. Subscribe to Gov Love on your favorite podcast app. And if you’re already subscribed, go tell a friend or colleague about this podcast. help us spread the word that Gov Love is the go to place for local government stories. And with that, thank you for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.

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