Member Spotlight: J. Scott Darrington

ARTICLE

J. Scott Darrington is the city administrator of Pleasant Grove, Utah, which has a population of 35,000.

What excites you about the profession?

It’s exciting to be able to solve problems, hopefully make people happy, and have opportunities to see the fruits of your labors. For me, it’s personally rewarding to work with people and find common ground.

How did you get started in local government?

My dad was a city manager and that's how I knew about the profession. Growing up, I had no desire to do that; when I got to college, I pursued recreation management. My dad encouraged me to take a look at the MPA program at Brigham Young University, and I enrolled. Once I got into my local government classes, I really liked them and I thought that's what I want to do.

We’ve heard so many people who say they learned about the profession from a relative, or a friend…

Nobody grows up wanting to be a city manager!

How do we change that?

I don’t know how good of a job we do in our profession of making sure people know what a city manager is and trying to promote ourselves. I think that’s because our nature is to get things done in the background and let others be more in the foreground when it comes to who's doing what and who's taking credit for what.

If we got into local government classes in high school, even in colleges -- and career fairs -- there's opportunity for us to talk to kids who are starting to think about what they want to do. Because it's a great profession -- I call it “the greatest profession you've never heard of.” When I talk to students, every once in a while, the profession will resonate with them, and they’ll start asking questions and maybe they want to do a job shadow. Then you realize, “Hey, there is an interest in local government.” Most people just don't even think about that growing up.

Say someone is just getting out of school and considering a career in local government management. What would be your advice to them?

Be resilient, keep trying, keep going. I always say the first job is the hardest one. Once you get that first job and you start getting experience under your belt, then the world opens up to you and you have different opportunities available.

Sometimes I’ll talk with students and they are out there getting rejection letters. They're wondering if this profession is going to be worth it, because they struggle to get their foot in the door. All it takes is that first job -- it just takes one. I wish I would have kept all my rejection letters I had coming out of school – I would have had a box full of them! But once I got that first job, my career really took off.

Was your first job in Utah?

My first job was in the small town of Afton, Wyoming, which was at the time 1,800 people. It was a small community that was generational; many of the families had lived there for five or six generations, dating to when the Mormon pioneers crossed the Plains back in the 1800s. But it was a wonderful community with great people. I was only there for three years but it was a great chance to learn about the profession and how to run a city. Fortunately, they were quite patient with me. I think I was able to do some good there but most of it was just a huge learning experience on what city government’s all about.

That’s interesting, thinking about that town being 1,800, and this city being 35,000. What are the big differences?

One of the big differences in the larger cities is you have staff and other professionals surrounding you who are experts in their own fields--a community development director that knows the planning side of things, a finance director who has an accounting degree or a finance degree, etc. When you’re the one professional in a small town, when it’s just you, you have to do all of it. That’s certainly one of the challenges. When you get into larger cities it's nice to be able to have others to whom you can delegate.

At the end of the day, though, the job in a small versus a larger community isn’t much different, because regardless of population, you're still working with people, you’re working with politics. In a larger city, it’s just on a larger scale.

What are the most significant challenges that you face and how has your ICMA membership helped?

The thing that I love most about ICMA is the Code of Ethics. I have always been able to hang my hat on that, especially in certain circumstances where politics can get a little funny. Sometimes people want the city manager to engage in what's going on politically. It's nice to be able to pull out the Code of Ethics and say that I have a duty to remain politically neutral; I have a duty to do what's in the best interest of the city. To have that in writing and be able to show people is helpful, because some people don't understand. Some people think the city manager is just another political person who is going to be supporting candidates. Being an ICMA member and adhering to the Code of Ethics is a nice foundation. There are other things in the Code of Ethics besides political neutrality, but that's the tenet that has been most helpful to me in my career.

At this point in your career – being a mid-career manager – what are your highest priorities?

I think at this point particularly in the city I’m in, I just want us to continue to get better. I want to provide leadership to my community.

I found that there's a difference between management and leadership. And over the years you get better and better managing just because you sharpen those skills. Now I'm looking at trying to become a better leader -- helping to motivate others, helping people to get excited about coming to work each day. That's a little different dynamic than just worrying about managing a city. So as I’ve come to that self-realization, I tend to focus more on that as opposed to just figuring out what we're going to do today and what’s on the next council agenda.

And it’s been nice to see people in my organization respond. We engage our mid-level managers and even staff members who don’t supervise people. We’ll bring them into our leadership training so they can get a taste of what it's like. Which individuals will embrace this? Who wants to be future leaders of our organization? We’re not big, but it’s nice to know people on a personal level, whereas in larger organizations you probably don't have that opportunity.

That’s what my focus is. I really hope that I have 15, 20 years left in me. Some days you think to yourself “man, this is a little rough” and other days you come home from a meeting thinking we really did some good today and it energizes you. Fortunately, right now those days still happen more often than some of the bad days and that's what keeps me going.

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