Member Spotlight: Sandi Fowler

When a natural disaster struck, my new job changed almost immediately. The experience was absolutely transformational.

ARTICLE | May 10, 2016

Sandi L. Fowler is the assistant city manager of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

How did you get your start in local government?

I chose city government as my course of study in college when I was 18 years old. My school counselor suggested that city management was a great profession because no matter where you lived, there would be city government. I moved to a city with the commission form of government and started working for them, but after 16 years our city changed to the city manager form of government.

What advice would you give to people starting out or interested in pursuing a local government career?

One is do it. When I talk to peers, or just people in the community, many times they do not even know what we do. They do not understand it. That encourages me because I think that our jobs are magical. Services should happen automatically, as if performed by magic, like the water coming out of the tap, trash getting picked up, or the streets being paved. I like when residents take city services for granted because that means I am doing my job well. On the other hand, that also means that people do not see what we do, what might draw them to the profession. I always have fun when people visit my work and I tell them to come try the job. My experience has been over the past 26 years, that if they did not have a love of public service at the beginning, they get that public servant bug, realize they love this, and decide to stay in local government.

They are surprised by the diversity and breadth of issues and tasks we face every day. Few jobs have the ability to change if you don't like what you're doing. With local government, wait 10 minutes and you will be doing something else.

What would you say to encourage women to join local government management?

Local government is a great profession. I am a little perplexed about why women are not getting to that top job. I would encourage women to tell each other they can do it, and to take on the challenge of entering local government management.

Having women in the profession and advancing to the top job is very important to me. I think that as we learn about gender inclusion, having cities led by women is something that we should absolutely strive for, because of what gender differences provide for management. Everything we do, including leading cities, working with elected officials and citizens, and other tasks involved in running a city are impacted by those gender differences. It is very important that we get all of these strong, creative women into management jobs, so that we can benefit from the positive impact that having women in management brings to our lives.

I've learned recently that many women feel like they should not try for a job if they do not know the entire job. Men are more likely to look at a job description and if they have performed about half of it, will put their name in the hat. Whereas a woman would say, wow, I have never managed this particular service.  We may look at a new position, and see the requirement to have run a marina, and then think we must not be qualified for that. Yet we need to look at what we have done. We have run parks, golf courses, and aquatic centers, among other things. I would guess that we could learn how to run a marina if we got that job. I think we need to encourage each other to take the risk and say go, go be in charge. Go be the city manager.

What excites you about local government right now?

I am excited by the diversity of work in local government. I get up in the morning and think of all the normal assignments I have to do, the things that run a city. But then I think about what else local government entails. Right now, one of my projects is restoring a 1936 post office mural, which has taught me a lot about art history. The artwork is a Works Progress Administration-era mural that was covered over due to controversy in the fifties and sixties when the building was a federal courthouse. We used local funds to hire a restoration expert to come in, lift the outer layer of paint off of this mural, and restore the original painting. Who would have ever thought that in local government I would have art historians congratulating me on this opportunity to give back art to our community, and our society? In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, we are doing that. Thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts and state grants, this became a possibility and now the mural is open to the public.

How did you get involved in ICMA?

When the city of Cedar Rapids adopted the council-manager form of government in 2005, right away our first city manager encouraged me to join ICMA as a way to learn the profession since I had worked in a different form of government, and to gain professional knowledge about the kind of work we do. ICMA became a very quick and easy way to become acclimated to the council-manager form of government.

How has ICMA helped you during the challenging times and what benefits do you get out of your membership? 

First, through networking. You just meet people who do what we do. And we are in Iowa. We do not have a large metropolitan area with many cities around us, so there aren't a lot of people that do the same work that I do. Going to ICMA to find peers was really helpful. I also immediately used the website and their resources like the books and articles, to figure out what people are already doing about the problems that we were facing in our community. I realized very quickly that we are not the only one in any given topic to have the challenge that we are facing. ICMA’s resources became our go-to thing. What's on the ICMA website about this issue? Then I would read up on it. After I read up on it, I realized I could actually contact the person who worked on it, who wrote the article, and get more information. It is an incredibly easy way to get really good at your job, really quickly. 

With the ICMA network, my experience has been that I can call people, or send an e-mail and say, I know you took on this issue, what was your experience? People are generous with their information. Just being able to contact someone who has already walked in those shoes, knows that problem, and has tackled it makes it so easy.

What has been the highlight of your career so far? 

In 2008, Cedar Rapids had a flood that devastated our city. The entire downtown flooded, and displaced 25,000 of our 128,000 residents. We lost 310 city facilities in that flood. I was promoted to the assistant to the city manager two weeks before that flood. It was the first one in our city's history of my position, so my job description was rewritten very quickly. My job changed and our community changed. Every job in the city government changed. 

We learned about FEMA, disaster recovery, and what it was like for people losing everything. I gained a sense of what is important, and how to work harder than you ever can imagine. The experience was absolutely transformational. How could it not be? When we look back now, seven years later, we remember how we all looked at each other, and told ourselves we would build this community back better than it was ever before. People come to our town now and will comment that they were here before the flood, and how wonderful the city looks after the recovery. While you would never want devastation like that to happen in a community, with the right kind of attitude, you can rebuild the city better than it was before. Cedar Rapids is a fantastic city. Our citizens are very proud. People love living here and visiting here. They can tell that we have had a rebirth of the community and I am really excited to be a part of that.

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