Michael Penny is the city manager of Littleton, Colorado, a vibrant and unique community located about 10 miles south of Denver. With a population of 42,000, Littleton is primarily residential, but without the suburban feel that typically accompanies a city so close to a metropolitan area. The core of the community is made up of homes, churches, schools, parks, and open spaces. Another aspect of Littleton’s charm is the walkable Main Street Historic District, full of eclectic businesses and devoid of any chains (the Main Street Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998). The city of Littleton has roughly 450 employees, a large figure due to the fact that Littleton’s fire and medic personnel also serve surrounding communities, including an additional 180,000 citizens. Penny, the first outside manager in 30 years, describes Littleton as having a “loving, community feel,” and a “special, unique spirit.”
“Open for Business”
Since becoming the city manager in October 2011, Penny has revamped the economic development focus of Littleton from a conservative approach to one that reaches out to businesses, landowners, developers, and other key stakeholders to ensure progress. Former Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman said, “Changing the way things have been done for decades is not easy. Michael’s leadership skills, knowledge, experience, and stubbornness have complemented his efforts. The results can be seen in our successes.”
Penny’s efforts to bring stakeholders together have certainly been profitable for the community. For example, Breckenridge Brewing Company is constructing its new brewery headquarters in Littleton, bringing with it 60 jobs and creating more than 60 new ones. The planned construction of Littleton Village will be the largest mixed-use project in Littleton’s history, including 900 residential units and 250,000 square feet of commercial property; and King Soopers grocery store redevelopment, as a result of a tax shareback program, will contribute to continued redevelopment of the surrounding area. Penny is proud of his role in rejuvenating Littleton’s economic development. By 2012 the city had received more development applications than it had over the past decade combined. Penny’s leadership skills and collaborative approach to problem solving have put Littleton back on developers’ radars. Penny has truly illustrated that Littleton is “open for business.”
Penny’s dedication and enthusiasm for Littleton’s success have been well summed up by Councilmember Brinkman: “Personally, I have been struck by how quickly Michael embraced the community and how focused he became on how to move Littleton forward. He has spent countless hours reaching out, building bridges, establishing new partnerships, and cultivating new friendships – all on behalf of the city. His leadership has not swayed from the goal and his commitment has not faltered.”
Involvement with ICMA and CCCMA
In 1995, during his tenure in the city of Boulder, a supervisor recommended that Penny join ICMA, citing ICMA’s professional development and continuing education as valuable tools as he pursued his career. After attending a Mountain Plains Regional Summit, Penny realized there was a lot to be gained from networking with other managers. Penny also saw how his involvement in ICMA could be beneficial for Colorado and its communities. Penny successfully ran for the board of the Colorado City County Management Association (CCCMA) in 2004, and has had a seat ever since. In further efforts to market Colorado and the various communities in which he worked, Penny also became involved with the Colorado Municipal League (CML), which led to his involvement with the National League of Cities (NLC). Having served as president of CCCMA and CML, Penny has worked to ensure that communities in Colorado are embracing the council-manager form of government and hiring professional managers.
When Penny arrived in Littleton, part of the city’s transformation was its adherence to the council-manager form of government. Penny advised the council as it adopted its first set of written goals and objectives in many years and instituted City Council University 101. These sessions trained the council on what it meant to be productive city council members by establishing a vision, goals, legislative procedure, and protocols; what the council-manager form of government is; what good public policy is; how teams work well together; and an overview of the ICMA Code of Ethics.
In 2012, Penny was approached by friend and colleague Mark Achen, an ICMA Range Rider who served on the ICMA Credentialing Advising Board. Achen, planning on stepping down, believed it would be beneficial to continue to have a representative from Colorado on the board. As an ICMA Credentialed Manager, Penny was enthusiastic about the opportunity. “I like being a mentor,” Penny said. “I enjoy when I have the opportunity to help other managers become better managers, to think about continuing education and how to better themselves.”
Penny describes the Credentialed Manager Program as being “about continuing education. It’s about acknowledging that as human beings we can always learn, and as managers we are role models for our staff, for our council, and ultimately for our community. It’s about demonstrating that ongoing, continuous education has value. It’s about getting the word out that we are a professional career choice for people coming up in the next generation or multiple generations, and it’s about having those letters after my name, ICMA Credentialed Manager. I’m proud of that, it makes a statement. I tell people I’m a credentialed manager, I explain to them what ICMA is. I’m proud of our tenets and I’m proud of our profession and I think (the Credentialed Manager Program) is one way we can get that statement out to the world. Going through the program, managers take more intentional action to better themselves, which ultimately results in a better community.”
Penny’s Advice for the Next Generation
“Be patient. Have a healthy ego, but know when to flex and when to bend. I am in local government because I can see the fruits of my labor. I can help make a person’s or the community’s life better on a daily basis. My goal when I leave work is to know the community is a better place than it was when I came to work that morning. I would encourage anyone new coming into the program to not get frustrated, but just hang in there, and it’s one of the most rewarding things you could ever choose to do.”
Penny completed an undergraduate degree in criminal justice at California State University, Long Beach, and received a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 2008 he completed the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program through the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In 2009, Penny was voted Colorado CCMA Manager of the Year by his peers, and in 2011 was recognized by ICMA for 20 years of service in local government. Penny resides in Littleton with his daughter.