The Takeaway with John Anderson, Troutdale City Manager

Posted on March 21, 2013

Former city and county manager John Anderson is enjoying the type of retirement that will be the envy of many ELGL members. John plays tennis a few times a week and goes downhill skiing as often as possible. He also enjoys canoeing and has taken a number of trips, including a cruise on the Danube River, river boats in England and vacationed in Tuscany, Italy. Whether these adventures can top the excitement of being a city or county manager is up for debate.

In our interview with John, he shares his accomplishments and takeaways from more than 35 years in local government. John has set a lofty standard for the next generation. All we ask of John is please send a postcard from your next adventure.

John Anderson

Former City and County Manager

City of Troutdale, Benton County, and Polk County


Background Check

I graduated from high school in Minnesota and got a BA four years later in Minnesota.   I was a junior in college before I first heard about city management.  I went directly from college to the University of Penn in for a MGA in City Management.  I did an internship in and was hired by the City of Salem as administrative assistant.  Then, being drafted, I enlisted and spent two years in the Army at Fort Ord, CA.

After the army we wanted to go east and I was hired by a consulting firm in Reston, VA and worked for two years becoming a Vice President.  I wanted toreturn to city management and took an assistant city manager’s job in Oxford, OH.  I became city manager three months later.  After two years I decided to try teaching at the college level as full time PhD student with a teaching fellowship.  After 18 months of that I was finely ready to make city management my chosen career.  We wanted to live near family in Minnesota when our daughters were young so I was city manager in two cities covering eleven years in MN.

Then we returned to Oregon where I have held two county administrator jobs (Polk and Benton Counties), before retiring as City Administrator of Troutdale in 2008 after 35 years in city and county management.

You retired as city manager of Troutdale in 2008.  How did you know when it was time to move on?  

At 62 I thought I’d work until 65-66 maybe longer, but by 64 I was ready to retire.  It was the wear and tear of 35 years in a chosen career that fit my skills and temperament.  I loved the variety of the work and challenges.  I enjoyed going to work “nearly” every day.  For me  at 64 I found I really had to focus hard to handle facts at public meetings, etc.  I have no idea if anyone else noticed it, it was never mentioned, but it was something new that I hadn’t had to deal with before.

Do you ever get tired of being retired?

No, I stay very active.  I am on three non-profit boards, volunteer on Oregon City’s Transportation Advisory Committee, work Rotary international grants, ski, play tennis, canoe, hike, read and spend time with our adult daughters and two grand kids.  I have also dabbled in some local government consulting some for pay and some volunteer.

Tell us about three experiences during your career where you felt that you were really making a difference.

First it is helpful to know that I was a “fix it” manager having followed managers who were fired or forced to leave in all the positions except Troutdale.  That being the case simply making things run well, setting goals with the council and accomplishing them with staff’s help was appreciated by council members and staff.

Since its formation Polk County had only passed one 10 year road bond issue and no levies giving it a very low tax base.  In the May 1996 election, the very last election day to increase a local government’s permanent tax base under Measure Five, Polk County passed a 38 cent per $1000 of assessed value increase in its permanent tax base (a 50% increase), and replaced the 10 year road bond with a 10 year jail construction bond (no increase to the tax payer).   Both passed by about 60%.  There was incredible work done by the County Board and many others, and I learned a lot about conducting successful revenue elections in Oregon.

I was hired by Benton County in part because of our success in the May 1996 election in Polk County.  Priority #1 was fixing the $1.5 million hole in Benton’s General Fund as a result of Measure Five.  So my first task was to assist the Board in Creating a Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee, staffing it and preparing for an election.  We successfully passed a five year operating levy stabilizing the general fund to every ones great relief.

In Shakopee, MN an old river town on the edge of the Minneapolis & St. Paul metro area, much like Troutdale, they had had three false starts on downtown redevelopment.  It took six years, but we successfully re-aligned a state highway and redeveloped two blocks while rehabilitating most of the balance of the core of downtown.  The lesson I learned there was that it takes more than 3-4 years in a city to successfully address the complex problems that so many of our communities face.

On the flip side, can you talk about the most difficult experience you encountered as a city manager?

In Polk County, after having eliminated the Finance Director’s position because of tight budgets, I had more direct responsibility for the day to day preparation of the Annual Budget.  As Budget Officer I had prepared a balanced budget for the 1997-98 Budget Committee hearings in March.  The Budget Committee completed its hearings with a recommended budget in hand anticipating one brief follow-up meeting scheduled in May would be sufficient to conclude their work and send it to the County Board.  The next day a respected department head stopped in my office and said, “Anderson I think you blew the estimate for the ending fund balance for the General Fund.”  I had!  So two days after the March Budget Committee meetings I had to explain my error thus starting a second round of proposed budget reduction.  There were many anxious days for the next 3.5 months as I waited for the final June 30th General Fund ending balance numbers.  The lesson I learned was that it pays to acknowledge your screw-up early, and while people won’t be happy they will give you credit for being forthright about your own screw-ups.

In the May 1998 Primary Election in Benton County we had a near meltdown in the election process on a par with the fiasco the occurred in Florida in the November 2000 presidential election.  We didn’t have “hanging chad” but had 10 volunteers ironing ballots so the scanners would read them. As a home rule county the appointed County Clerk reported to the County Administrator.  The County Clerk’s position had been eliminated by the County Board in the 1997-8 Budget, and was vacant when I arrived.  There was also disciplinary action pending with the senior elections clerk, again started before I had arrived.  She resigned with one weeks notice in mid December.  The only other full time person in the elections office resigned a few hours later giving the same one week notice. So we had no full time experienced election managers in the office and we were facing both a March and May election.  Several County staff familiar with the situation felt the two who resigned wanted an election meltdown to hang around our necks. 

The mistakes we made were plentiful, but in the end we made it work.  How?  A call to county departments for help brought a huge response.  Plus, while in Polk County I had built good relationships with the Elected County Clerks in Yamhill and Marion County.  They provided loaned staff and expertise that guided us through the election process with the media asking about election problems almost daily.  We even faced a partial recount with full media coverage not unlike Florida.  The Board kept saying “we know you can fix it Anderson.”  And with the help of the Yamhill and Marion County Clerks and Benton County staff from numerous departments we made it.  It was a big lesson in the value of building relationships.

In the next few years, a number of high quality city managers in Oregon will be retiring, do you feel enough has been done to cultivate the next generation of city managers?

No, but the solutions are hard to come by.  First, as we all know many intern, assistant to or assistant city manager positions that were available to my generation are gone do to budget cuts.  Some Oregon managers are finding ways to blend general administration jobs like those lost with department head positions as Scott Lazenby has done, but we need more.  Looking back I should have worked harder to create career ladder positions.

Second, it is my sense that Oregon doesn’t attract many experienced managers from other states.  Maybe LOC and AOC should check this out. Having experience in MN and OH I have some views about the problem that perhaps aren’t apparent to managers who have spent their whole career in Oregon.  Oregon salaries are lower and though offset by generous benefits and retirement plans moving from another state means you have to have longevity in Oregon to make up for the lower salary.  Oregon’s initiative process is a big deterrent along with the State’s micro-managing finance & budget laws.  Managers in very few states have to deal with both of these conditions.  On the family side Oregon’s K-12 reputation is spotty, its unemployment rate is high and the State’s per capita income is nearly always between 3-9 percent below the national average.  Not that attractive for a manager’s spouse looking to replace the job he/she leaves to come to Oregon.

Give our members and readers two skills that we should work on to make ourselves more attractive to potential employers.

First, managers need the skills and INTENT to “enable city councils to be effective public policy makers.”  Let me ask a question.  How many times have you heard a staffer or even a manager mouth the phrase … “we did it to make council LOOK GOOD?” This sound condescending to me, and when I heard it from staff I stopped and explained that it was our job to enable Council to be effective policy makers.  So, tools that you as a manager can introduce to enable council members to be better public policy makers (e.g. completed staff work, effective agenda preparation, strategic planning, a variety of decision making process, etc.) are critical to their success and hence your success.

Second, managers need to have the tools and INTENT to insure that ALL department operations are functioning well, not just those they personally enjoy or that council wants fixed.  It was frequently my experience as a “Fix it” manager that whole departments were off the prior manager’s radar screen.  A good tool to start with is regular quarterly performance measures for ALL departments.   Even if some performance measures are limited in their usefulness, it forces you to sit down quarterly and discuss what is and is not working in the department.  I always liked the Management By Objectives (MBO) tools.  None of the six local governments I was hired by had ACTIVE city or county   wide performance measure.  Two, Troutdale and Benton County had both given it a try.  Usually push back from department heads or staff stopped these efforts.  I think managers frequently allow efforts to establish accountability to be characterized as “micro-management” and then back off.  But, maybe most cities and counties use performance measures and my experience as a manager was unique.

Third, managers need to enable employees to be effective and efficient.  If lacking the tools, e.g. technology, equipment, budget moxie, training, union flexibility or skilled first line supervisors then you need to figure out ways to help employees get the tools they need.  Management By Walking Around is a good place to start.  In the Ohio City I managed I learned we had 24/7 coverage at the WW Treatment Plan … but it wasn’t required in the plant operations manual or state law so we ended it.  In my first Minnesota city the Utilities Department covered WW Treatment operations 5 days a week 14 hours a day.  We ended that as well after installing some lift station alarm systems.  In both cases City Council had felt these departments were strong because they had few complaints!

Ever think of pulling a Michael Jordan by coming out of retirement for one final manager gig?

NO!  I’ve dabbled in a few small paid and volunteer contracts and that’s as close as I want to get.  I’m spending more time on pursuits that I had no time for when working.

What about running for elected office?

NO.  I admire all elected officials who put themselves in the public arena with the very real potential of alienating friends and neighbors.  They are truly under appreciated.  The closest I’ll get is an appointment to a city advisory committee, such as the Oregon City Transportation Advisory Committee.

Who were your local government mentors?

Ted Gaebler the co-author of “Reinventing Government.”  I first met Ted when doing my internship in Salem, OR. Ted is currently City Manager of Rancho Cordova, CA near Sacramento.  Ted and I do have differing management philosophies.

Larry Wacker retired City Manager and long time Assistant City Manager of Salem.  Larry was the Personnel Officer in Salem when I interned there and thoroughly immersed me in the key building blocks of good HR.

If ELGL talked with those who you supervised in your career, how would they describe your management style?

Well, when I take the Meyers Briggs profile I’m usually an INTJ. 

From feed back over the years I’ve heard the following terms: High energy, task driven, focused on what’s best for the city, good listener, fair, good teacher and courageous (the latter from a consultant that worked with numerous city managers).

Give us three suggestions for speakers in our 2013 Speaker Series.

What I’d like to recommend is the Texas City Manager (I think he is a consultant now) who gives talks on what I think is the Carver Method for effective city council.  It’s perhaps dated now, but it is one of the best I ever heard.  Trouble is too few managers take it upon themselves to get council on board and train council and staff in the tools that make it work.

Anything you would change about your career?

No.  I initiated annual evaluations of the manager in the all positions I accepted except Troutdale which already had them.  I was also the first to have a written employment agreement in all but Troutdale which already used them. I was fortunate to have elected officials who would level with me during annual evaluations.  That’s when I most often learned that I needed to work on something.

In my second manager’s job the council told me during my first evaluation that they appreciated what I had accomplished, but I was too task driven, and that I needed to spend some informal time letting staff get to know me better and me them.  I have worked on that most of my career.

Fortunately I was able to maintain a healthy work- family balance throughout my career.  We had the luxury of deciding where the family wanted to live and then I would find a management position in the area.  In doing that we occasionally put family and geography ahead of salary. 

While most of my 35 years pre-dated pagers and cell phones, I rarely had to respond to calls at home from council members, the press or anyone about work.  Why I don’t really know, I guess I was sufficiently responsive during office hours.  I know I never spent time on the phone sounding out council members about agenda items so perhaps that accounts for some of the difference.

What book(s) is on your night stand or e-reader.

  • I would recommend the ICMA Code of Ethics for your night stand and e-reader.  I would also recommend managers incorporate it in their employment agreements so council members will see and review it with you at least once a year.
  • “Community and the Politics of Place” by Dan Kemmis and “Semi-sovereign People” by E.E. Schattschneider  helped me better understand politics. Schattschneider was a political scientist and Kemmis was mayor of Missoula, MT.
  • I think “Reinventing Government” by Gaebler and Osbourne is still relevant and a good read.
  • “The One Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard helped me better understand how to delegate.
  • “The Road Less Traveled” by Peck helped give me a broader appreciation for the ICMA Code of Ethics.
  • I enjoy reading the mysteries of Oregon native, William Kent Krueger, who now lives in St. Paul, MN.  His mysteries are set in the northern MN iron range.                          

Additional Reading

The Takeaway Rewind

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