Anecdotal evidence suggests that community-wide tragedies—natural or technological disasters, human tragedies, or pandemics—impose a toll on the tenure of a city or county chief executive. Whether a loss of confidence, an expedient excuse, or a poor fit with the community’s needs, any tragedy that disrupts the normal rhythm of community life strains working relationships among those in leadership roles.
Although little has been written on the topic, we draw on the anecdotal observations and testimonies of panelists at ICMA’s 2020 UNITE virtual conference and from conversations with managers to assess the impact of crises on the careers of city, town, or county executives.
Types of Community-wide Tragedies
Tragedies come in many forms; each varies in intensity, impact, and duration. Each is unique. In dealing with tragedies, however, local governments follow a similar pattern beginning with preparation and planning for a possible event, then responding once the event occurs, followed by recovering from the event, while taking ongoing measures to mitigate the impact of recurrences.
Some tragedies come with advance warnings that enable alerting residents of the imminent danger. Tsunami sirens dot the Pacific islands; phone and text notifications are now widely used to alert residents to imminent natural or technological hazards. Others, however, arise with no warning. An explosion of stored ammonium nitrate wrought death and destruction on the small town of West, Texas; a radioactive leak from a nuclear power plant turned the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, into a ghost town; a terrorist attack turned once-towering civic symbols into a national tragedy. Such events expose the vulnerabilities of a community and strain the manager’s leadership skills.
To better understand the consequences of tragedies on public executive careers, we begin by categorizing tragedies into four types: natural disasters, human-initiated tragedies, operational tragedies, and borderless tragedies.
Natural disasters tend to be repetitive, thereby giving local governments an opportunity to gain institutional knowledge at responding to and recovering from these events. For the coastal regions or “tornado alleys,” the question is not if but when will the disaster occur? Managers in these communities likely have well-developed response plans that have been refined from table-top drills with first responders. The variation in intensity and duration of these disasters likely affect a local government’s capacity for timely response and recovery. If the disaster is more intense or destructive than in the past, residents may have unrealistic expectations for the speed of the local response and the length of time for recovery. Managing those expectations, while keeping a disaster-weary staff engaged, may exhaust the most passionate manager.
Human-initiated tragedies are usually idiosyncratic—civil violence, a police shooting, terrorist attack, mass shooting, or an industrial accident. These events may be accidental or intentional, but all involve human action and thus are difficult to predict. The single event or even a single person becomes magnified by snippets of cell phone video that amplify the drama of the story.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the newly established Department of Homeland Security implemented a color-coded system to alert Americans to the perceived risk of a terrorist attack. But it proved ineffective, and in 2011, the system was replaced with a notification using bulletins to describe the level of threat. Like natural disasters, human-induced tragedies vary in their intensity and scope. Unlike natural disasters, they are generally perceived as preventable, or at least avoidable. For the manager, these events pose more complex issues involving public outrage mixed with often unrealistic expectations for prevention of a reoccurrence.
Operational tragedies pose yet another set of challenges for the manager. A ransomware demand, malfeasance by an employee, or a protracted power outage can trigger public outrage and finger pointing. The failure may be a cost overrun of a high-profile project. Aging infrastructure is emerging as a hot topic as warnings have gone out of an impending crisis. Even more than human-induced tragedies, operational tragedies are perceived as preventable. They undermine a local government’s credibility, possibly even its bond rating, and arm critics with evidence of a lapse in internal controls and administrative oversight.
Borderless tragedies, such as the coronavirus pandemic, pose yet another set of challenges for local governments and their chief executive. The previous types of tragedies were confined to a locality or at most a region. Pandemics have no boundaries and, as such, create unique management challenges. These events have much longer response and recovery timelines. Mitigation measures, such as social distancing and facial masks, become a point of contention, particularly for those with little trust in government. A manager’s response is further limited by the actions (or inactions) of state and federal governments. The lack of a coherent and scientifically defensible plan for combatting the epidemic renders moot a local manager’s efforts at mitigation. Yet their leadership remains the most visible and accessible for a frustrated, confused, and weary public.
Another borderless tragedy emerging on the international horizon is the cumulative consequences of climate change. The international scope of these borderless tragedies and the essential role of overlapping governments will place unprecedented expectations on the local manager to find solutions to global problems. Borderless tragedies demand a coordinated and coherent policy response by overlapping governments, something that the state and federal governments have not yet achieved with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whatever the national response, local governments and their executive team will have a significant role in implementing measures to reverse the adverse effects of the environmental tragedies caused by climate change. And rather than placing blame or denying the problem, our collective energy should be placed on accepting the reality of the tragedy and formulating a plausible response.
What We Know About the Impact of Tragedies
Research shows that prior experience by both the local government and its manager affect job performance.1 A city or county that experiences wildfires likely has acquired both the institutional knowledge and operational capability to expedite its response to and recovery from the next fire tragedy. Some tragedies may defy experience. A public health pandemic with a global reach may overwhelm local efforts to confine the outbreak. On the other hand, a mosquito eradication program to prevent the spread of disease depends on the timely response of a local government.
Each city, town, and county responds differently to a tragedy. That response is constrained by its financial, technological, organizational, and institutional capabilities. No amount of managerial leadership can fully compensate for these constraints. And no amount of managerial skills can substitute for past negligence in planning and preparing for a crisis. A manager’s capacity to lead the community through a tragedy cannot rise much above those limitations. But as former Dallas City Manager A. C. Gonzalez observed, “These incidents are city and county management’s super bowl—high stakes, lots of attention, great excitement and consternation, and an avalanche of activities.”
Interlocal agreements and state and federal aid extend those capabilities, although that outside support comes at a price in the loss of local control over the event. As noted by City Manager Michael Kovacs at the 2020 ICMA conference, the potential for subsequent disallowance for some use of the federal aid, especially by FEMA, frequently occurs. Mary Suhm, former Dallas city manager, convinced FEMA to assign two of its auditors to assist the city in maintaining records during Hurricane Katrina, which later proved helpful in expediting FEMA’s reimbursement to the city.
Research suggests that, in the case of natural disasters, better planning and preparation by local governments expedite the recovery phase.2 As the response and recovery from a tragedy grind on, residents who at one time were grateful now grow increasingly frustrated. A reasonable implication, although not verified by research, is that the more prolonged the recovery from a tragedy, the greater the dissatisfaction of residents. Once the recovery has been launched, it must be seen as moving steadily forward.
Communication with residents during and following a tragedy has been repeatedly found as critical to the road back to normalcy.3 Jim Prosser, former city manager of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recommends that city/county managers “design communications from the perspective of stakeholders (of the 2008 floods), not local government…. (T)rust is the one currency we have in local government. Once lost, it is very hard to restore.” Lauren Gill, recently retired town manager of Paradise, California, commented that “the most critical need is communication. Repeated, clear information to victims (of the 2018 Camp Fire) was critical.”
Managing Personal Needs Through a Tragedy
No amount of planning, role playing, or investment in technology can guarantee that a community will successfully ride the storm waves of a tragedy. Nor can managers reach for failsafe measures that provide assurance that their careers will continue unscathed. The manager’s top priority is to help guide the community through the response and recovery to normalcy as quickly as possible.
Tragic events reveal a community’s past prudent investment in planning and preparing for a tragedy, even those that are impossible to anticipate. Unfortunately, these events also reveal past negligence in preparing for such possibilities. Deferred maintenance, poor planning or zoning practices, under-funded training of staff, and the lack of investment in equipment are revealed under a tragedy’s spotlight. Inadequate funding because of a declining tax base or short-sighted demands for fiscal austerity are exposed by crises. The current manager may not be responsible for that negligence yet receives the blame when those investments were most needed.
Even more importantly is the investment by the manager in building a vibrant organizational culture, one that believes in the value of public service and works to gain community loyalty. Training for disasters—natural, human, or operational—while necessary is not sufficient. Employee loyalty and trust in the organization’s leadership must be earned before a tragedy in order to sustain the community through the crisis.
Tragedies demand extraordinary amounts of a manager’s time and attention, often to the neglect of other needs, including family and personal mental and physical health. As the tragedy abates, both the manager and immediate family may be exhausted physically and emotionally. Bob Hart, city manager of Corinth, Texas, and former manager of Pampa, Texas, when in 1987 the Celanese Chemical Plant blew up, observed that managers almost always leave a position 18 to 24 months after the crisis abates, most often because of exhaustion.
Those in public service are drawn to the profession because of the opportunity to, as in the closing line of the Athenian Oath, “transmit this city not only, not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” No profession better exemplifies those ideals than city and county management. But a tragedy brings out both the best and the worst in human nature. After having put forth the best effort to restore normalcy, there are limits to how much a manager can do to overcome the disruptions to the social and economic fabric of a community.
Termination of the manager, after having expended extraordinary effort, may lead to disillusionment, or worse, leaving the profession. The best that managers can do is prepare themselves and their families professionally and emotionally for that possibility. Speaking from personal experience, Mike Kovacs advised to “be realistic, especially if you come in as manager when the recovery has been going poorly. Know that you are part of that recovery. But also know that you may be one of its casualties.”
Crises accentuate latent mistrust in a community. But that does not negate pursuing the noble cause that drew us to this profession. Crises are moments of truth for government, noted Jim Prosser. He added that standing for the ethical principles of our profession in the face of political pressure is critically important.
Managing the Organization Through a Tragedy
Managers who have prepared themselves mentally and emotionally for a crisis will likely be much better prepared to guide their community through the turbulence. Here are a few recommendations for navigating through a tragedy.
1. Not only is communication with residents key to reducing collective anxiety, but communication must also be with the staff. For the manager, the first line of support is from their staff. Clay Phillips, retired city manager of Coppell, Texas, noted, “What really saved us (following a human tragedy) is that we had invested heavily in our corporate culture definition and development, so we were prepared as a staff to deal with whatever came our way.”
2. Effective communication also means not over-promising results or elevating public expectations to unattainable levels. When state and federal agencies become involved, political leaders at those levels have a tendency to over-promise results, putting local officials into a difficult position if those promises are not met.
3. Roleplay a tragedy scenario with the council. In addition to explaining the technical responses, focus on the consequences of poor communications or even miscommunications. For example, the police and fire chiefs should illustrate their commands to first responders, then show how easy it is for the council-manager relationship to deteriorate. Voices should be raised; inject the realism of barked orders and damaging accusations in rapid-fire conditions.
4. Establish who is in charge in the crisis and what they are in charge of. This is much more than agreeing that the mayor, and only the mayor, is the public face and voice. It is about who is in charge of the troops—and more importantly, how are the troops going to be supported throughout the crisis. This is the quintessential moment to be candid with your governing body. Most importantly, the goal is for relationships to remain intact. Some managers report that the bond with the council became stronger after a crisis.
5. Involve the city, town, or county attorney before the crisis occurs. If an emergency order has been crafted by the attorney, enforcement then becomes an issue. This should include reviewing the rules of engagement immediately on an emergency being declared. The attorney as referee can intervene, provide counsel, and can up the odds that a crisis can be survived.
6. Early engagement of other stakeholders in the community also increases the capacity for a timely and effective response and even recovery to the tragedy. Mary Suhm noted that the investment in developing relationships with the leadership in the local chapter of the Red Cross and other organizations dedicated to emergency assistance expedited the city’s response to housing 8,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Tragedies take a heavy emotional toll on a community. Engaging religious and spiritual leaders in the planning and preparation for crises of any type extends the capacity to show compassion to a hurting community.
Eventually, the questioning will surface. Why was this tragedy not anticipated? Why the missteps in the response to the tragedy? The news media retraces each email or meeting. Decisions had to be made quickly and procedures had to be expedited. Strong support from a mayor, or the equivalent in county government, will mute much of the questioning.
Nevertheless, the staff, local lawmakers, and community look to the manager for reassurance and consolation. Following the destruction of her town of 25,000 by a wildfire, Lauren Gill acknowledged that “I’m here because I showed up every day, and did my job, and pushed for recovery until on some days it hurt.” A. C. Gonzalez added that “it comes back to basics—communicating, exercising our leadership muscles, showing compassion and empathy, but being efficient. Indeed, every day is a rehearsal for that big event.”
This article has explored the boundaries of the impact of community-wide tragedies on the careers of managers in local government. Although not yet subjected to the rigors of scientific analysis, the perception among managers, especially in disaster prone areas, is that tragedies often shorten their tenure with a city or county.
We conclude that no amount of good management can fully compensate for past negligence by a community to prepare for the possibility of a tragedy. However, managers can build a vibrant organizational culture that promotes trust among the staff and sustains their confidence in the manager’s leadership. Crises are professionally and personally exhausting. They also bring out the best in leaders. Ultimately, doing whatever it takes to meet the challenges of such events is what draws managers to this noble profession of public service.
Endnotes and Resources
1 Bland, R. L., and M. R. Overton. (2016). Assessing the contributions of collaborators in public-private partnerships: Evidence from tax increment financing. American Review of Public Administration 46(4): 418-435.
2 National Research Council. (2006). Facing hazards and disasters: Understanding human dimensions. National Academies Press.
3 Nakamura, H., Umeki, H., and Katoc, T. (2017). Importance of communication and knowledge of disasters in community-based disaster-prevention meetings. Safety Science 99(B): 235-243.
The authors wish to express their appreciation to the five city managers who shared their experiences in navigating their communities through a crisis at ICMA’s 2020 UNITE conference:
• Lauren Gill, retired town manager, Paradise, California
• A. C. Gonzalez, retired city manager, Dallas, Texas
• Michael Kovacs, city manager, Fate, Texas
• Jim Prosser, retired city manager; principal in Prosser Public Advisors, LLC
• Mary Suhm, retired city manager, Dallas, Texas