Member Spotlight: John F. Connet

We are where the rubber meets the road in local government. Citizens need to hear our stories to understand that government can be a good thing.

ARTICLE | May 18, 2016

John F. Connet is the city manager of Hendersonville, North Carolina.

How did you become involved in local government?

I'm a second-generation city manager. My father was city manager in several localities in North Carolina and Tennessee, and all I've ever wanted to do is work in local government. Helping people, watching communities grow, and providing a high level of service to the citizens, to make them part of the greater community made me excited about the profession.

What attracted you to Hendersonville?

I wanted to work in Hendersonville because it's a beautiful place to live and great place to raise a family. My family is originally from Western North Carolina, which provided the opportunity to live in a small, close-knit community, but have the challenges of a bigger community.

We have about 14,000 residents, which is the largest city I’ve managed. And we have a large tourist population, so we serve a much greater number of people. We are close to Asheville, so the mountains, outdoors, and the whole craft brewing culture bring in the tourists.

Have you always worked in smaller communities?

I started out entry level in a larger North Carolina community of about 30,000. But as a manager, this is my third community, and I've always served in communities with less than 14,000 population. I like to be hands-on, so working in a smaller city gives me the opportunity to be involved and make a big difference. I get to work with each department versus just being focused on the administrative side, so it's been very positive for me.

What is a typical day in your life like?

A day in the life of a city manager, as you know, varies from day to day. It depends on the next phone call and can range from dealing with something as simple as somebody's garbage didn't get picked up, to something as large as a major emergency or event. I could jump from going in that day working on budgets or administrative items, to responding to a critical incident in our community. It's never a dull moment and it really drives me to enjoy what I do.

What advice would you give to someone just graduating from college?

I would tell them that they need to develop leadership skills, that leadership is key. We learned the technical skills in grad school and in college but, to fine tune your leadership you have to be persistent; to realize that you're going to have good days and you're going to have bad days and to stick to it. Stick to your ethics, stick to your values. Local government management is a great career and working for citizens, you get a lot of joy out of it. It may not happen overnight, but after five or ten years, you'll look back and see all the great things you've accomplished.

What do you think are the most important qualities that a local government manager should have?

Strong leadership skills and thick skin because there is always going to be somebody who disagrees with you. And also be willing to constantly learn. I learn something new every day, and I think if you go in with the idea that you have all the answers, you know everything, you'll struggle a little bit. So, I think you really have to have that ability to say let me be open-minded, let me work with other managers, constantly communicate, network, and just develop the skills to improve every day. And I think if you do that, you'll be successful and move forward in your career.

What has been your experience with ICMA and the North Carolina state association?

My experience is that it’s a very tight-knit group of managers and great for networking. We all deal with similar problems, so if I come across something that I may have not dealt with before, I have built connections with managers in communities my size and much larger that may have dealt with those issues. The opportunity to network through the associations with city managers in larger communities who have more resources than we may as small communities allows me to pick up the phone and call the manager’s office in Charlotte, or Raleigh. I wouldn’t be able to do that if it wasn’t for our associations, building that network and those connections.

I think what we've seen with the international organization is you get to network with folks in larger jurisdictions. And also the resources available to us through ICMA are much greater and making those contacts across the country and across the world are beneficial. It's an opportunity to learn from each other and realize someone in California may be dealing with the same issue as we are in North Carolina. Having those discussions around the table at ICMA and learning from each other through the networking, educational workshops, training, and website have been helpful.

Describe the challenges you have faced over the course of your career and how your membership in ICMA or NCCCMA have helped.

I think there are lots of challenges that I have faced during my career, whether it’s a natural or economic disaster, like the one we've faced the last five or six years.

I think more importantly we've seen challenges from the change in the type of individuals being elected to our governing boards. The polarization that we're seeing with our political candidates makes our job just that much harder. The ability of council members to work together has become harder because of it.

I think that the discussion about the change in political candidates has been going on within ICMA for at least the last ten annual conferences. The conversation has included collaborating and learning how to deal with different personalities, including those elected officials who come in with single agenda items, think they know how to run government, but may not have that experience, and who may not be as community-minded as our elected leaders used to be.

The economic challenges will come and go, the natural disasters will come and go, but we are where the rubber meets the road in local government, and we have to maintain that trust.

Because of the lack of trust at our state and federal levels, I think the most exciting things in the profession are our ability to interact with the citizens, and what we're doing with our performance measurements and better budgeting, really trying to educate residents. Tell the citizens our story, like what we saw in Life, Well Run, because we do a lot of great things. We have a lot of great people working in our organizations, and when people throw out the term “bad government,” they don't realize government is the person that is picking up their trash every day. We need to tell our stories and let the citizens know that government can be a good thing. We're doing a good job for them based on the resources that we have. It excites me to talk about the leadership the local governments are providing to help our citizens, not only in our communities, but in our states and our country.


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