How did you get started in local government?
I started in 2000 as the council aide to one of our council members in Kansas City. By happenstance, he had just won a special election and I asked him who was working for him at City Hall. And he said “Nobody––you want to?” So that was my introduction into city government. I stayed with him for three years then went on to become a community relations director for a Community Development Corporation, after which I worked for a United States senator, and then went back to Kansas City. When I returned to the city, I started as an assistant to the city manager; I was promoted to assistant city manager a couple of years later.
You must have liked local government to come back!
I do like local government! After working in each of my capacities it seems that I really flourish and thrive when I am closest to the action. Working for a U.S. Senator was very exciting, but I was removed from where the policies impacted constituents…from where I could actually feel that and see that I was making a difference. When you're in local government, you are living and working usually in your community. People see you and they understand what your relationship is to the city. Everything becomes your problem, and even though for some people that may be a nightmare, I actually really like it!
As an assistant city manager, how do you spend your time relative to how the city manager spends his or her time?
We allow our city manager to think at the highest level, and even though we don't get all the way down into the weeds, we are there to help with the details, to make sure whatever his vision is for the city––and whatever the mayor’s and the city council's vision is for the city––that we take that and run with it. And we allow the city manager to be more flexible, more nimble. He can be the good guy––and that's not a bad thing. There is something to be said for the city manager to have that opportunity to be the diplomat and the ambassador (and we are those things, too) but we sometimes have to be the bulldog. We need to be the people that he can lean on for whatever it is that we need to do to get the job done.
What do you think are the most important qualities for a local government manager to have?
I think the most important quality is the ability to listen. We hear from a lot of different people––whether it be our next door neighbor who knows we work at City Hall, the resident on the phone who is tired of not getting her trash picked up on time, and developers and finance people. We have to listen because we have to be able to take all of that information and to make the best possible decisions on behalf of our constituents. We're also going to have to be able to take the information that our councils and our mayors give us to implement and to make the best possible decisions. So if we're not listening, then we probably don't need to be in the job that we’re in. Not that we have to agree with everybody, but we need to be able to hear what they're saying so we don't jump to conclusions.
At this stage of your career, what are your highest priorities?
As assistant managers and city managers, we need to continue to move forward and be that consistent voice for the people, our councils, and for the policies and the ethics that we are supposed to uphold for ICMA. I say, tongue in cheek, “I want to keep my job.” But I think that more speaks to the fact that I know that I have to remain consistent no matter what, and get the training and experience that I need to bring myself to that next level, wherever I want to go. I love being an assistant and, yes, maybe someday I do want to be a city manager, but I feel like in this position I can be that stabilizing force.
What tips would you have for women aspiring to local government?
I’ve spent a lot of my time with ICMA on women’s issues. I sat on the Task Force for Women in the Profession and now we're working on the League of Women in Government, which is a spinoff of the task force.
Unfortunately, the percentage of women who are chief executive officers or city managers or city administrators is well below the 50% mark. I’m an assistant city manager, so there are more women in that category but we do have a lot of work to do. Until we are 50/50, I'm not going to be satisfied. There are a lot of women and men who are going to be unsatisfied until we hit that mark. Women have so much to offer. There are some things that keep us from seeking those chief administrator positions; a lot of it has to do with family and then a lot of it has to do with exposure. You can't be what you don't see and if I don't see others like me in those managerial positions––as a city manager––then I might not aspire to that because it may not be something that I think I can reach.
Do you have any thoughts on increasing diversity overall in local government?
We do a lot of things unconsciously. We have been exposed to different ways of thinking and we are comfortable with people that look like us, who went to our same schools, who live in our neighborhoods–people who have the same or similar experiences. Vernā Myers, one of the keynote speakers at the Seattle annual conference, had a wonderful message on this.
I think that we need to take those conversations and expand those into our boardrooms. We need to be able to take these messages to our council and just wake them up to the fact that, yes, we all have some biases that we need to address. And, as the keynote speaker said, we need to slow down before we make a move, and I really took that to heart. We need not be afraid of having those conversations; when we are silent, we are basically saying it's okay. And it's not okay!
I love ICMA because there are so many different opportunities within the organization to become the best manager that you possibly can be. As an assistant city manager, you have a long, long day for the most part. It's hard to find those resources at your fingertips. Whenever there is a problem or question or you just want to get some confirmation, you can always go to ICMA. The website is fantastic. You can always call the staff - they will help you. And you can also reach out to those people that you have networked with throughout the years, through the conferences and regional meetings.
What challenges have you faced in your career and how has ICMA helped?
Continuous learning and keeping up with the latest and best practices is always a challenge. We get into those times in in our careers where we are just going from one project to another project––from one conflict or issue to another conflict or issue––and we don't have or take the time to stay up on things and to learn. ICMA has been very instrumental in having those opportunities available. I have gotten to the point where now I'm going to make it my one of my goals to at least do a webinar or an ICMA University session. They're there and they are really high-quality educational opportunities that we all need to take advantage of.
Who inspires you?
Every time I come to ICMA’s conference – each year, and I think I’ve been seven times––every keynote speaker has blown me away. They inspire me each and every time to go back to Kansas City and try to do whatever they each said to do.
On a very personal level, the person that it inspires me the most is my husband. He is a pastor of a United Methodist Church in Kansas City, and he has taught me so much about patience, love, and camaraderie that I don't think I would have gotten on my own. I've gotten to see him move through different difficult situations with all types of people––good, bad, and in between––and that has really helped me in my professional life. He has taught me about the best ways to listen to people, and I'm just really grateful for that.
What would you say about ICMA to those starting out in the profession?
I hope that people who want to get involved with ICMA – perhaps don’t know much or perhaps they are just starting out––take the opportunity to experience everything. Go to everything, do everything. I get upset every year that I can't get to everything that I want to get to at the annual conference.
The second thing: talk to everyone. You never know how you’ll connect with people––it’s amazing. Even though Kansas City is a larger city––480,000 or so––I learn so much from those persons that are working in cities, towns, and villages that are much smaller. Talking to them, I sometimes think “wow, you know, we're actually dealing with the same thing and you're doing a lot better than we are!” So don't ever feel like “I'm from a large city; I don't have anything to learn from the smaller cities––and vice versa.” We need to always be open and you make so many friends over the years.
The third thing I would say is, in between conferences, reach out. Reach out to the people that you've met just to say hello. Or if there is something tragic that's going on and you just happened to meet the city manager or assistant city manager in that town or that city, send an e-mail or a text. Say, “Hey I'm thinking about you; is there anything that you need––I'm here.” Because we know what they're going through and they can relate to us and there are a lot of people outside this industry that may not understand exactly what we have to go through.