Julie Novak, The Novak Consulting Group, tipped us off on our subject for this interview. As a 34-year old local government professional, Dustin Anderson (LinkedIn) discusses his career transition from special projects manager in Greenwich, CT to town manager in Munster, IN.
Your hometown? What is it best known for?
I never really had a hometown. We moved around a lot while I was a child. My folks currently live just south of Fort Wayne Indiana and have for a while now. I guess that is where I’d say I’m “from” even though I only lived there for about five years. It is where the Detroit Pistons came from. All in all it is pretty nice place.
Last concert you attended:
The last non-child or playground-related concert I attended was probably Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks on their Real Emotional Trash tour. Yeah, it’s been a long while.
Book that you’re reading:
I am reading “Capote” by Gerald Clarke. Did you know that Truman Capote and Harper Lee grew up in the same small town in Alabama at the same time? On deck I have “Boss” by Mike Royko. Any suggestions? I love a good book. I am totally ecumenical in my reading.
iPod’s Recently Played list:
I’ve been falling in love again with early R.E.M. – the Murmur through Life’s Rich Pageant stuff. Murmur came out in 1983. Radio Free Europe didn’t break the Billboard Hot 100 that year, but the Culture Club has three tracks on that list. Not to take anything away from Boy George, but there is a metaphor in there somewhere about the present not being ready for the future and history getting it right in the end.
Last movie that you saw in a theater:
Disney’s “Bears” with my son. His review: “I liked the popcorn and fizzy pop.” I have small children and heretofore getting out of the house on an adult adventure has been difficult. As a result, most of my pop culture consumption comes on the go via Twitter et al. I’ll watch an episode of something or other on Hulu occasionally. Lately I have been catching up on the original Twin Peaks. It holds up phenomenally well. Just beautiful. I would highly recommend it.
What’s one piece of advice that you wish you had taken?
“This your first time eating wasabi? Might want to go a little easier there.”
What are you afraid of?
We all make mistakes. That is just a fact of life. I think that acting as if though this wasn’t a fact as certain as gravity shows either a profound lack of self-awareness or an other-worldly level of vanity. So I don’t really worry about making a mistake per se. What I am afraid of is that a mistake that I make might hurt someone in a way that would be otherwise avoidable.
What do you aspire to?
Personally or professionally? My initial reaction to that question is “to never stop growing”. I have had the opportunity to work with many different kinds of people in my career thus far. Some of those folks were older. I hope that I will have the verve and acuity to bring the heat in my 80’s. Life is a long road, and I want to see all of it.
Three biggest differences between Connecticut and Indiana.
Connecticut has no county government, so the local governments provide a wide menu of services to its residents. We also had very little intervention from the State. Yes, there were the rules and regulations that defined the parameters in which we could operate. Yes, there were the unfunded mandates that all municipalities have to grapple with. But on the flip side, there was a lot of flexibility and autonomy in how we were able to meet those challenges. We had our own tax assessor and tax collector. The legislative body could impose any number of taxes if they chose to do so. The mill rate was established locally. Conversely, there is no home rule for local governments in Indiana. The way we are forced to budget by Indianapolis is just wacky. We actually have to submit our budget to the State and they approve it and then we are dependent on them for certain revenue streams that are distributed via the County at levels to be determined. We also have significant property tax caps. So we are fairly limited in ways that we can fund the services that our residents desire.
Another difference is the level of engagement with residents. Our budget process in Connecticut was a quite literally a nine-month exercise in civic engagement. With an elected 133 member representative town meeting (RTM) as our legislative body and a 12 member partisanly elected finance board (BET) – each with their own standing sub-committees – the Town’s staff was constantly working on the budget document. The BET would set the mill rate in April and the RTM would adopt the budget and mill rate in May. At each stage Town departments produced presentation and participated in detailed hearings regarding their budget request. The BET has the legal authority to increase or decrease any line item in the proposed budget. The RTM has the legal authority to only remove funds from any line item in the proposed budget. This is the Readers Digest version. The budget was adopted in two readings here in Munster. Public comment lasted about three total minutes over those two meetings.
Finally there seems to be more of an appetite to try different solutions or ideas here in Indiana versus my particular corner of Connecticut. People seem much more open minded about how a municipality might choose to deploy its resources – so long as the outcomes are positive.
How do you leave a job without burning bridges?
I was transparent in my motivations and work. I left everything cataloged for my replacement. Melissa Jones, former ICMA Fellow in Lexington Massachusetts, is going to do fantastic things. I fully expect in four months everyone in Greenwich will say “Dustin who?” I looked at my role and position in the organization through the lens of the “campsite rule” – leave it in better shape than you found it. I think that is important in an long-term endeavor. Life is entropy. We should try to control for what variables we can control and let go of those variables that we cannot while through it all realizing that we are all transitioning. That is why I am such a big fan of systems. Systems and processes allow all the hard work you and your team do to continue. So rather than starting over, my replacement/upgrade can build on those successes and reach even higher heights.
Walk us through your first week as town manager. What are you trying to accomplish?
I wanted to meet as many people in my organization as I could. It was my goal to get in front of every person that works for the Town and spend at the very least a few moments with them. On a parallel track I also was carving out time to meet individually with my Council and other board and committee members that are important resident-volunteers for Munster. This went on for a number of weeks. Perhaps in my second or third week, I started meeting with neighboring jurisdictions and regional entities. I then moved on to various civic organizations and businesses.
I needed to cultivate an appreciation for where the organization was and what was important to my residents. I am the first new manager in a few decades, so there was no small amount of caution, curiosity, and trepidation about my arrival. I needed to establish who I was and what I was about. I probably talked more in those first months than I had in the previous year – every day all day constantly and actively listening while also consistently staying on message.
If I am a citizen of Munster, what are the local government issues that I care the most about?
Schools, snow, traffic, and parks
At what age, did you think you wanted to become a city manager?
Probably around 23. While Michigan has a strong city management culture, I was really young while I lived there. My awareness of the outside world was pretty limited – I was more interested in grilled cheese sandwiches and The Duke of Hazard. In Indiana we moved around a number of places, but none of them had a manager. The Indiana code doesn’t even allow cities to have managers. So . I didn’t even know someone could actually have the job to run a city until I moved to Keene New Hampshire. I really liked the community governance vibe in New England – there were so many great communities out there I became seriously interested in why some communities thrived while others faltered. That led me to graduate school where I met Orville Powell and that was just that.
In your opinion, is local government prepared for the ongoing wave of retirements?
What are a couple of challenges that you have faced that we could learn from?
Broadly speaking – own your mistakes. A wrong decision if caught in time is merely an “error”. Fixing it requires humility and may be mildly uncomfortable. If left unattended, that mistake become “a problem”. Try to sweep that under the rug and you get “a real situation”.
Don’t be a martyr. Avoid “real situations” at all cost.
What question(s) should we have asked?
- Are you happy?
- What are you most proud of professionally?
- In what ways do you utilize technology in the execution of your duties?
- What was your favorite vacation?