"They'll always be my little towns": a city manager retires

Dave Childs has been a local-government professional for 43 years. In announcing his retirement to Palmdale, Calif., officials this week, he captured many of the reasons why this is not just a job but a calling for so many of us. Thanks for putting it into words and letting us share them, Dave, and best wishes on your retirement.

I’m in my 43rd year as a professional local government manager, having proudly served as a senior manager in communities and organizations in four states and as a City Manager in six different cities. It’s been a wonderful journey and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

A guy in my position, however, is called to make that final tough decision: “Do I stay until I earn my 50-year plaque from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA)?”

Seriously, it’s actually crossed my mind, usually when watching every few years while a long-time manager proudly takes the stage at the ICMA Conference to be presented with his or her 50-year award. “Wow, that could be me…I’m so close!!”

Well, after a lot of thought and prayer and conversations with Barb, we’ve decided not to pursue the achievement of a 50-year plaque, tempting as that may be.

Actually, for us the time is now.

There is a saying that some people go right past enough on the way to more.

In taking stock of our situation; in living through the health challenges of the last year that both of us have had; in thinking about the time we want to spend with children and grandchildren; and in looking to the future…this is the time for us to move into retirement. I’ve decided that 43 years is indeed enough.

As I review my time here at the City of Palmdale, although there is never a perfect time to change city managers, I believe that this is actually a good time to do that.

We have a clear strategic plan, we’ve identified and clarified our values and begun to build a culture around those values. We’ve re-energized the staff team and reorganized in order to provide services as efficiently and effectively as possible. We’re turning the corner financially and the economy is picking up. The airport is ours, the new union contract is in place, the power plant is in the capable hands of Summit Energy and we’re engaging our residents in taking back their neighborhoods and building a better community one neighborhood and one park at a time.

And so, with great hope and great sadness, I am announcing that I will be retiring effective June 18...

There is nothing so rewarding as work that is a “calling.” My entire career has been a calling for me. It’s been a calling to build better communities and neighborhoods and a calling to build organizations where people are challenged, respected, supported and where each of those employees is able to find their own personal calling. We’re put on this earth to live good lives, but I also believe that we’re here to serve, each in our own way.

My own journey has been filled with the satisfaction of seeing communities grow, streets getting paved, water towers painted, new stores opened and new jobs created. The joy of energizing an organization and its employees to reach to new levels of excellence in serving the public is indescribable. And, I’ve built an entire career around building lasting and successful partnerships. While my success with building partnerships here in the Antelope Valley hasn’t matched my past performance, I’m very proud of the hundreds of partnerships I’ve created and nurtured over the years, including those right here in Palmdale.

I’ve worked to be a great City Manager for the 100-plus City Councilmembers that I’ve served with over the last 43 years and to be a great City Manager at the 1,000-plus City Council meetings I’ve attended. And I’ve worked hard to be a great boss for the thousands of employees whom I’ve worked side by side with in so many wonderful organizations.

Time will tell if I have succeeded at being a great City Manager or a great boss, but some of the best days of my career have been those special times where someone from my past took the time to tell me that I was the best boss or the best City Manager they have ever worked with. Those are magical moments that make it all worthwhile. And there is the quiet personal satisfaction that every good Scout feels when they know that they’ve left their campsite a little better than they found it.

There’s still sadness, however, and here’s a little story about how it really works for those of us who are called to be City Managers and what happens when we leave.

Awhile back I was driving with my wife Barb down the freeway in the Minneapolis area. As we entered the City of Minnetonka (where I was the City Manager from 1993-2000) I said, “Hey look, we’re driving through my little tow.n. She said back to me, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but this isn’t your little town anymore. You’ve been gone more than 10 years.” To which I replied, “No, sweetie, this will ALWAYS be my little town.”

We continued down the road and about half an hour later we entered the City of New Brighton (where I was City Manager from 1989-1993). I repeated my previous thought, saying, “Look we’re driving through my OTHER little town,” whereupon she sighed and gave the same reply about it not being my little town anymore.

Well, my friends, all of them will ALWAYS be my little towns. And, contrary to what some people would like to believe, we managers are not “hired guns” who pass through the community as we climb the career ladder. Instead, most of us put our passion, our energy and our very souls into our communities. And, in the end we leave a piece of our hearts behind…parts of our hearts that are so big that for many of us it’s hard to let go of what we helped create with our own passion, sweat and dedication. These are places where we feel like we belong. They are places filled with people we love and it turns out that the process of finally leaving our little towns can be a very painful experience.

And so it is with Palmdale. It’s my little town…it will always be my little town and there will always be a piece of my heart left behind here in this community and in this organization. But now is the time for me to retire. Now is the time that great hope and great sadness converge once again.

Barb and I are blessed to have been a part of this wonderful City and we wish each of you great success, great blessings and great joy!

May God be with you in the great work that you do each and every day.

Want to innovate in local government? Do this first.

The following post first appeared on Voices of the Governing Institute.

From open-data projects to predictive policing, everyone in local government wants to innovate right now. Ours is a golden age for innovation, with technology enabling government leaders to radically change the way they do business and share their success stories with the world.

But achieving true innovation requires more than a light-bulb moment. Innovation sits atop the pyramid of developmental stages that nearly all local governments go through, and each level in the pyramid is foundational to others. Any organization wishing to achieve transformational innovation -- which should include all governments -- must first master the lower levels, because breakdowns at those levels will hinder or prevent breakthroughs at the highest level. As Thomas Edison said, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

At the base is strong support at the departmental level, providing employees with the elements they need to accomplish their missions. This requires leaders to put people, technology, policies and procedures in place that will foster stable financial management, accountability, compliance with policies, teamwork and demonstrated values, including high ethical standards and professional practices. Breakdowns at this level can affect the legitimacy of government in the eyes of the public and create barriers to providing good service.

After all, the primary purpose of municipal operations is to ensure excellent service-delivery operations for police, fire, public works, utilities, health and human services, parks and more. This is the most visible part of the any local government. Excellence in service delivery involves having the right people in the right places, along with the tools, policies and practices they need.

Having these elements in place also sets the stage for the top level of innovation. With the organization running well, people in it are empowered to think beyond day-to-day problems and turn their attention to emerging issues, needs, problems and opportunities, and they can work to develop the strategies needed to address them.

This includes trying new ideas, with the recognition that needs change and approaches need to change as well. This is not a risk-free process. But if the first two building blocks -- departmental support and service-delivery system -- are mastered, employees understand that they can afford to take risks without jeopardizing the organization's mission. If leaders fail to provide these two foundational blocks, the risk for error in innovation increases greatly and may lead to disappointing results. Leaders must have the backs of the innovators.

Most local-government leaders want to be innovative; they want to solve the most pressing needs of their communities and foster ideas that improve their constituents' quality of life. But innovation is almost always the culmination of careful processes that uncover needs and point to solutions.

By paying attention to the basic functions of government -- by making sure our organizations have the necessary people, policies and practices in place and can competently deliver the services that residents expect -- leaders set the stage for true innovations that have the power to transform.

Manhattan Beach residents get early say in budget talks

In most cities, residents give input on their city's budget at the end of the process, after the professionals have drafted and refined it.

But in Manhattan Beach, California, city officials this year asked for – and received – plenty of ideas just as the budget process is getting underway. Around 150 people showed up at March 5 meeting to convey where they want their tax dollars spent. The meeting was facilitated by Management Partners as a part of civic engagement project on budget priorities.

Police and fire services and infrastructure emerged as the top priorities for residents, with parks and recreation and facilities not far behind. Attendees were free to recommend funding increases for budget areas, but they were also asked to name the budget areas that should be cut in order to pay for their proposed increases.

The city also commissioned a survey that reached 400 residents, and it's launching an online engagement tool in April to gather more feedback and ideas.

"What Manhattan Beach is doing is innovative and indicative of the City Council and staff’s commitment to give the community a voice about how their money is allocated," says Cathy Standiford of Management Partners. “In fact, it’s a best practice.”

Attendees told organizers spending on police and fire is about right; they'd like to see more spent on parks and recreation, with funds diverted from environmental services or police and fire. Infrastructure spending is also too low; and many thought too much money goes to internal support services such as City governance, finance, human resources and information systems. Additional polling reinforced the residents' budget priorities, which city officials will use as they draft the 2015-2016 budget.

The evolving challenges of modern fire departments

Media outlets are beginning to pay attention to the way fire departments have changed in the past few decades. We talked with Ned Pettus, special advisor at Management Partners and former fire chief in Columbus, Ohio about how and why fire departments are changing.

Across the country, 70 to 80 percent of calls for service are EMS (emergency medical services). There is a huge transition from fire departments just taking fire runs to what we call all-hazard response. They have to be trained to respond to hazardous materials calls, cave-ins, water rescues, terrorist attacks and especially EMS. Organizations need to be proactive rather than reactive. They have to continuously train and be prepared to handle what you hope never happens.

Depending on the community, there may be large industrial complexes, high-rise buildings, large shopping centers, and you have to be prepared to respond to the level of risk. You determine all the risks and then determine whether you have the resources to address those risks. You may never have a high-rise fire, but residents expect their fire department to be able to respond to one. There are more complexities that come up: natural disasters, train derailments, large-scale evacuations. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

In the performance-review programs we do, we're noticing issues that have to do with discipline, budgetary issues, staffing, efficiency and effectiveness. Departments are looking at opportunities to collaborate more, mutual-aid agreements and ways to reduce redundancy. Fire departments are having to do more with less and at the same time adapt to new technology and advances in communication and operations. The community wants to feel safe, and sometimes it's a matter of perception as to whether the fire department is using its resources the way the community expects.


Port Hueneme City Council sets priorities

Jan Perkins, Senior Partner, facilitated a day-long City Council retreat in Port Hueneme on February 26.  The retreat focused on Council teambuilding and setting priorities for the coming year.  The executive team joined in the afternoon to participate in discussions.  Members of the public attended as well.



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