Last week I wrote a blog post that was intentionally provocative — titled “Change or Die”. Pretty dramatic words that tend to get attention and spark a response — and you didn’t let me down. I received a thoughtful, candid reply from a Kent resident who challenged the City government to practice what I was preaching and demonstrate some changes from within before I start expecting people in the community to change their ways. I get a fair number of comments like that as I roam around town so I wanted to give you an inside look at how your city government has changed that may not always be obvious.
I’m convinced that living in a city is a lot like being a parent — we’re so close to the action that we don’t always see the changes that happen every day. We’re busy, distracted and at times exhausted with the daily obstacles that pop up each day that we don’t always take the time to notice our mini-successes. And that’s too bad because it’s a long road to prosperity for cities and if we don’t occassionally take time to look back on what we’ve done, no matter how small, we miss those little milestones that can be more meaningful than the really big life events because they happen unexpectedly in small sentimental steps.
So consider this post a visit with grandma who sees all the changes in our kids that we miss in the hustle and bustle of our life as parental units.
If you think your city government is the same as it’s always been, think again.
New City Manager
It may sound a bit self serving but it’s a significant change when a city hires a new city manager — and that’s what your Kent City Council did when they hired me 18 months ago. I realize that whether you consider this a good change or not can be a matter of debate, but it doesn’t change the fact that hiring a new city manager is a significant change for a city — so score 1 for Kent on the Change-O-Meter.
Not only am I the new guy on the block I was also hired from outside the state so I came in with no Kent history or preconceived notions which means I don’t have any particular baggage that can tend to favor the status quo rather than a having a bias for what’s best for Kent. In other words, change is more likely when you’ve got someone who comes in looking to run the best city government possible – not prove or disprove some historical political argument. Score: Kent Change 2.0
As the city’s chief executive officer I am in a position to set the tone for the organization and make sure the people that work for the city share that tone. I’ve always believed that you hire the best people and get out of their way so they can do their job — but I also maintain certain expectations about how we run our city business. The hard part as the new manager is that you inherit a staff that may or may not share those performance expectations because that may or may not be how things had always been done. I think the Kent City staff would agree that I’ve been patient with giving people the time to adjust to my leadership expectations but I have also had to make changes in personnel when we couldn’t find a common ground. Here’s a short list of personnel changes that have happened in my first 18 months:
1. Hired a New Public Service Director – Gene Roberts. Gene is not brand new to the city as he has worked his way up through the organization but he is part of a new era of city management that understands the importance of both the technical side of city government and the people side. Gene has a remarkable ability to work with citizens, businesses and the university to talk through differences and find ways to move old problems forward.
2. Hired New City Engineer — Chris Tolnar. Chris is new to city government and that was one of the reasons I was so interested in hiring him. He has all the engineering credentials we could ever need but more important than that he has worked in the private sector which means he brings a “client” mentality to working with citizens and developers on their projects.
3. Community Development Director has moved on. It’s never easy when two successful professionals find that their differences in management styles and leadership philosophy are incompatible — but it happens in business and in cities too. As the position that leads the cities economic and community redevelopment programs, this change in personnel has already led to changes in approach with developers and their projects in Kent.
4. New City Building Official — a new hire. Our new building official will start in December and I’m excited about the fact that before being a building official in another city he spent years as a contractor which means he knows what contractors need to be successful in Kent.
5. Changes in Budget and Finance — We’re in the process of hiring a new Tax Commissioner and a new Controller which are 2 out of 3 senior positions within the budget and finance office. Consistent with all of our other hirings we’ll be looking for the combination of technical knowledge and people skills so that we not only serve people’s functional needs but we also know how to work with people as clients.
6. Smaller Workforce Overall — It’s important to remember that we’ve cut $1.2 million in staff costs over the last 8 years. Today we operate with a workforce that is 10% smaller than it was in the late 1990’s yet our service demands steadily grow each year. Whether we’ve advertised it well or not, we are doing more with less than ever before in Kent.
In summary, out of the 5 departments in the city we’ve changed 2 department heads and a half dozen of their senior staffers in my first year and half. And the positions in question are the one’s that run those services that have the most contact with citizens and business so we are working hard to send a message that this is not your grandfather’s local government. Kent Change-O-Meter Score 10.0
And in case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve worked hard to use technology (like this blog) to broaden access to information and increase your chances to interact with your city government. We’ve spent an unprecedented 10 months studying our budget challenge in depth with a panel of citizens and city council. We’re holding traffic calming meetings in neighborhoods. We’re collaborating with the university in more ways than every before. For the first time we’ve reached out to the corporate leaders in Kent to get them engaged in our community. We’ll be opening the Middlebury bridge in a month (weather permitting). The old hotel is finally being remodeled. We’re loaning an employee to jumpstart the Downtown Main Street program in Kent. Despite criticism, we put parking on the bridge to help the businesses in the area that urged us to find them more parking. Kent Change-O-Meter = 20
I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished but more important I’m proud of the direction we’re heading as a city. I think we are practicing what I’ve been preaching. We have lots more to do, but I’d argue that we’re off to a great start.