The Takeaway with Larry Patterson

Posted on October 24, 2012

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Today ELGL introduces a new blog feature, The Takeway which will catch up with those who have retired from public sector work. In the age where our top leaders and managers are retiring in bulk, we will capture their institutional knowledge in this feature. Another goal of the feature is to integrate the “retiring generation” into ELGL to the point that they can serve as a resource or mentor for us during this difficult, traditional time in government.

Onto the inaugural feature where we catch up with Larry Patterson. Larry worked more than 35 years in municipal government, and you might know him best from his time in Bend and Oregon City. “Retirement” is used loosely with Larry as he has served as the interim city manager in Ashland and is currently working for Leland Consulting, where he has handled the city manager recruitment for the City of Redmond.

You retired as city manager of Oregon City several years ago.  How did you know it was time to move on?

This question is perhaps actually two questions in one.  The first is about when it is time to move from a certain city the other and when is it time to retire.  The first is the easier question to answer.   I have always felt the best managers are those that can be effective over several years versus those who come in shake things up and leave.  Though the longer we stay in a position the harder it is to maintain our effectiveness.  After a certain period the changing politics of a community, changing council makeups and battles one has fought takes a toll on one’s effectiveness.  Perhaps that is why they say, “One cannot be a prophet in his own land.”  There is no set time frame  but you can sense your own effectiveness within your community and the strength or waning of support for you as City Manager.  When your sense it is time to move on, it becomes time to let another manager see what they can accomplish.

Keep in mind that my career was marked with good stability.  I spent 11 years in Baytown, 14 in Bend, and 7 in Oregon City.  So how long your timeframe is depends on politics, personalities and your abilities.  But the longer you are in a city they more difficult it becomes to bring change.   Also you develop a consistency of decision-making that your supporters expect.  Changing Councils may demand changes from you, but such changes can confuse the community and erode your credibility from those who support you.  For a City Manager with a family it is hard at times to move because moving children is difficult.  But from the time we are hired if we are doing what has to be done we are always in danger of being fired.

I worked for 5 cities during my city management career.  I left 4 of them on my terms.  Definitely leaving on your terms is the best way to leave.  In Oregon City two factors entered my decision to leave that position.  Mayor Norris pending departure from the Council due to term limits. The other significant issue was the political change in the Council.  The new Council was a reactionary Council to the policies of the previous six years and very opposed to major several projects.  As the sitting City Manager those policies were seen as much mine as the Councils.   Since it was a 5 member Council and the two new Councilor were opposed to those policies, I became a lighting rod of their opposition.  At this point in my tenure in Oregon City I had accomplished most of the major goals the Council had set   Having only having a three major projects left hanging, but obviously with two of those not going forward because of the economy and local politics it was a good time to step aside and see if that change would help the Council dynamics.

As to whether I should retire or look for a new City the decision was fairly easy.  I was at a point in my career I could retire.  I felt I was at the top of my game, my finances were in order, I was tired of moving around and my wife and I wanted to be back in Bend.  It was time for a new chapter in my life.

Your career spanned 35 years in municipal government tell us about three experiences during your career where you felt that you were really making a difference.

This is always a tough question for me, because I have been blessed with a career that has seen many challenges and I like to believe many successes.   I will add the caveat that all of my experiences have been part of a great team of people both elected and appointed.  Please do not interpret these stories as something I did by myself.  I only played one role in the many that were played to make these experiences successful. But to pick three (maybe four) I would say:

Hurricane Alicia — In 1984 I was the Assistant City Manager in Baytown, Texas.  Baytown was a City of over 60,000 with over 1 billion dollars of petro chemical industry in its corporate limits.  Baytown is located on the Texas Gulf Coast and at the head of Galveston Bay. Hurricane Alicia was a Category 3 storm but hit Baytown with the worst-case scenario involving speed and direction.  The City took a direct hit and was devastated.  We had over 60 million dollars in damage to the City.  The water treatment plant and electrical power would remain off for the next 7-10 days depending what section of the City you were in and the City looked like it had been bombed.  We led the City through the disaster, cleanup (which was accomplished in 3 weeks when others took months) and recovery, which involved restoring our business districts and damaged homes, including the total loss of one subdivision of over 300 homes.  We did not lose one life in this disaster thanks to heroic efforts of many of our City Staff and others.

Emergency Ambulance Service — In Baytown in the early 80s we were served by a private ambulance services.  The service went bankrupt and pulled out of the City in the middle of the night without notice.  We went from no service to the City being in the EMS business with crews and equipment in 30 days.  A feat I don’t know if a City could do today.

Growth of Bend — When I arrived in Bend in 1986 the City’s population was just under 17,000 people.  Looking at the future it was not difficult to see the wave of growth coming.  When I left Bend it was a City of 53,000.  We went from a City with an assessed value of a few hundred million to over a billion dollars in assessed value.  We annexed 11 square miles and over 12,000 residents in one election as well as several other key annexation actions (Remember the Old Mill District though not built and Pilot Butte was not in the City Limits at the time of the big annexation).  We diversified the Bend economy and built the Parkway, Portland-Olney cross town connection, Mt. Washington Drive (a western route around that side of the city) and laid the groundwork for the formation of Westside Consortium and resulting road improvement agreement with the City.  This Consortium of 7 developers fronted 21 million dollars, which developed the roundabouts and road improvements on the west side along with the Southern River Crossing (SRX).  Keep in mind the Parkway and SRX were both completed after my tenure so more than just one City Manager was involved, but the foundation and decisions were made or near finalization as well as construction on the Parkway had begun before I left.  Also we built and moved into a new City Hall, replaced the entire fire fleet, built 3 new fire stations and remodeled two others, and put a financing plan in place to build a new Police Station.  When I left Bend it had no general obligation overlapping debt, we had the 3rd lowest water and sewer rates for cities our size, and over $26m in reserves.  This is just a brief glance of the improvements that provided for the growth of the City and its diversification.

Oregon City’s Financial Resurgence
— When I arrived in Oregon City we were on the verge of becoming the first City in the state to go bankrupt.  Over a period of three years we convinced the Council and community of the pending financial collapse of the city, put together a plan to avert that disaster and gained voter approval of annexation to Clackamas County Fire District a move that helped restore the City to financial health.  That is stated easier than it was.  The first plan failed and we had to severely cut the City budget including decisions such as closing the library and scaling the City back to its bare essential, before we were able to annex to the fire district removing a 3 million dollar responsibility from our General Fund.   After the annexation we were able to reopen the library and restore some of the services cut.  Also during this time we grew the City’s economy providing assistance to several employers and provided major improvements to the City’s downtown core and Hilltop Urban Renewal District, which we closed early.  One final success was that we developed along with ODOT a more cost effective plan and gained funding from the state ($22m) to fund the improvements to the I205/Hwy213 interchange.

So you are now on the other side of the fence, in the private sector, working for Leland Consulting Group.  How did this come about?

Over the course of my years in Oregon I developed a relationship with Dave Leland.  This relationship began, as many do for all of us, with contracts with Leland Consulting Group.  I worked with Dave and his staff both in Bend and Oregon City.  I also called on him from time to time when I was in Weatherford, Texas for advice on development questions.  After leaving Oregon City I talked with Dave about my interest in doing some consulting so on occasions LCG has had projects that they asked me to be part of their team.  In addition I do some projects through my own firm LP Consulting, which has included assisting Redmond in their City Manager search and a few other small projects.  I also have served as Interim City Manager for Ashland since retiring from Oregon City.

Give our members and readers two specific steps we can take to make ourselves more attractive to potential employers.

First, become professionals.  This involves many things.  Some are simple such as the way you dress and present yourself, but others more difficult such as how you research, balance objectivity with leadership in understanding and presenting issues.  This one will take time to pay dividends because part of it is building your reputation as a professional. Secondly, develop a good but brief resume and research yourself.   There maybe things you will have to address upfront if you are going to get past the initial screening.  Develop a game plan on what you want to tell the interviewer about yourself and how you will do that in whatever interview process is thrown at you. 

Ever think of pulling a Michael Jordan by coming out of retirement for one more city management gig?

I have learned to never-say-never, but it is highly improbably that I would seek another full-time position.  I remain open to interim positions should the opportunity present itself and I enjoy the consulting I am doing particularly the recruitments I have done.

Who were your local government mentors?

Jim McAlister and Fritz Lanham.  They were the first two City Managers I worked under.  Both had very different styles.  Neither were the ones who advised me how to act.  I learned from their patience with letting me make my mistakes, their gentle guidance and observing them in how they handled people and issues.  Beyond that several of my staff over the years and a few Councilors have taught me as much as I have taught them.  Four Mayors I would specifically mention were Tom Gentry in Baytown, Allan Bruckner in Bend, Joe Tyson in Weatherford and Alice Norris, in Oregon City.  In my career I have also had the opportunity to work with some very skilled private sector executives and watching them handle issues and people was very valuable lessons as well.

Some of us are undecided if we want the responsibility of becoming a city manager, convince us why we should pursue a career in city management.

I don’t know that I can convince or should convince anyone to pursue a career as a City Manager.  You have to know you want to take that step.  You want to be the person in charge and responsible.  You want to be the person when it hits the fan that your community is going to look to for direction.   You must understand that during those trying times you will have to stand in the face of adversity, when it seems everyone is questioning you or disagreeing with what you are saying.  In reality they are not.  They are looking for leadership and want to understand you believe in the direction you are putting forth.  They want to understand you understand the issue and what you are proposing indeed addresses the issue.  They want confidence in your decision making and understanding.  It is a heavy burden and at times you will question yourself, but you have to have a strong belief in who you are and what positions you take.

Having said that, it is a rewarding position where you are at the heart beat of your community, perhaps more so than anyone else, and the decisions you make truly affect your community and lives of the citizen who live in your city and visit your community.  Being a City Manager also gives you the opportunity to meet and work with many amazing professionals and people.

I will leave this question with a quote from Lincoln, “If I were to read much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business, I do the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so to the very end.  If the end brings me out right no one will remember, if the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right will not matter.”

What are the two biggest issues facing local government today?

City finances and leadership.  City finances are not just about how you balance the books and fund what needs to be done.  It involves a close examination of what are a City’s vision and its mission.  What level of service does a community wish, what does it costs and how do you fund that level of service.  Leadership is the other major challenge.  This involves not only how do we insure good people still accept the challenge of public service, but are we strong enough to stand forward and do what has to be done.

Leadership is both needed in elected and appointed positions.  As City Managers how do we provide the needed administrative leadership to help guide Council decision making, particularly in a time when those being elected may not want strong administrative leadership.  Perhaps the most important question is, “If we do not provide strong administrative leadership, do we do a disservice to the City Management profession?”

ELGL has an expanding Central Oregon chapter.  Name three folks in Central Oregon ELGL should hear from at our monthly forums.

There are many to choose from.  If you have particular topics you are interested in let me know and I can suggest some.  I am always glad to visit with the group as well.  But here are a couple you may want to consider:

  • Bill Smith or Mike Hollern — Development in Central Oregon
  • Jim Lussier — Future of Medicine in Central Oregon or Board Management
  • Jim Crowell — History of Central Oregon
  • Gordon Black or John Costa — Publisher and Editor in Chief at the Bulletin

Give us your favorite spots for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Central Oregon.

There are so many choices today it is difficult to recommend just a few, but here are some you need to check out.

  • Breakfast – – – The V (Victorian Pantry on Galveston), McKays Cottage on OB Riley Road, Jake’s Diner Highway 20, Westside Bakery and Café on Galveston, Sparrow Bakery on Scott Street
  • Lunch or Dinner – – – Pilot Butte either location Westside or Eastside, The Crossings at the Riverhouse, Kanpai on Newport, Anthony’s in the Old Mill District, The Brickhouse in Redmond, Pine Taven on the River, Deschutes Brewery and Brother John’s Pub, Jackson’s Corner (Also good for Breakfast), 10 Barrell (Have to try their Sinister Beer), Kayos Dinner House, Baldy’s BBQ on Century Drive, and Three Creeks Brewery in Sisters (Try their Chocolate Porter or their Knotty Blonde beer)

What book is on your nightstand or e-reader?

I usually am reading 3 to 6 books at a time.  I seldom read one cover to cover.  I read a wide range of opinions because it is the only way to gather perspective.  So with that explanation the ones I have open at this time are:

Questions or comments for Larry? Leave them under this blog post or contact Larry at [email protected].

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