We’re in the 21st week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Pete Olson. He is the Assistant Town Manager for the City of Yorktown, Indiana, a position he has held since July 2009. Prior to that, he was the city’s Deputy Town Manager. He holds an MPA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Always think of the city in which you work as your city. Participate in civic movements for its betterment, and above all, live in your city.
I thought I had the writing of this article finished. Then I read the latest PM magazine on my way to Michigan for some quality in-law time and I had to go back and reflect on life in the fishbowl. Specifically the “On Point” feature asking four current managers the question, “What’s one thing your job doesn’t allow you to do that you wish you could do?” Three of the four individuals spent their time discussing the very public nature of our profession and how that impacts personal time, personal life, and the guarded nature of personal relationships that managers may build. I don’t think any of the individuals meant it to be negative, but yet, as I read the responses, I wondered aloud, “are we too connected to our communities?” It is true our names appear in the papers, are heard on the radio, or our neighbors see us on TV. I, like most managers, realize that being known is a simple fact of life; it’s also important to remember that sometimes that incidental contact is the only contact an individual or family will have with their government.
In my fifteen years of professional management I have always chosen to live in the community in which I work and would not change that. The people I work with and work for are my friends and neighbors; they are people that I respect and love. I have chosen communities that would be considered rural or suburban by most people’s definition. Perhaps you gravitate toward those types of areas when you grew up in a place where the rival football team was a two hour bus ride away and you counted more cows than houses on the trip. But it also could be that smaller communities have a family feel. You are able to sympathize and empathize with people and their struggles as well as celebrate their victories and accomplishments.
There are both positives and negatives in being a part of a community, whatever the size. A quick trip to the store might mean an extended visit with a citizen or two. A bike ride to the local ice cream shop might mean an encounter with an individual or family that is having an issue. It also means that the drive to work could offer opportunities to notice problems in town that can be dealt with before they become public issues. Living in your community is a clear sign that you are in tune with the day-to-day small issues that can sometimes get lost when dealing with policy decisions, budgets, and the like. In today’s world of social media notification, Google alerts, and constant connectivity, there are tools that may not absolutely require the necessity of living within the confines of your city or town in order to manage it. However, connecting on a personal level with issues affecting your neighbors is critical to gauging the pulse of the community. You can’t get that solely from a text message or Facebook post.
Now that being said, I won’t lie, my wife and I go grocery shopping at 7:00 AM on Sunday morning. It is quality time for us and even more amazing is how empty the store is at 7:00 AM on Sunday morning. The point being that there are times when I choose to try to act inconspicuous—avoiding interaction to save time or to minimize risk of chance meetings. While I don’t advocate arranging your schedule to always avoid interaction, I believe most people would understand and appreciate your need for space.
I will also tell you that we have chosen not to have kids and therefore my attendance at school events is limited. In the communities in which I have chosen to work, the school is a focal gathering point for the town. I can appreciate that managers who are parents may get questions or become the point of an unsuspecting “we’ll ask the Town Manager, because they know all the rules or laws off the top of their head” type questions. I believe it is in most public servants’ DNA to help, but is there a way to provide direction in your interactions in these situations that might pay off huge dividends in the long run? As we all know, government has many facets. If during these interactions we are able to educate folks on the proper department for answering questions, the public becomes more educated and able to solve the problem directly. Again, my point is that you are the face of a town or city government, but you aren’t the end-all to government questions. Sometimes people just need a little nudge in the right direction to deal with issues.
Being involved today can have many different meanings. It can mean volunteering as a coach/official, raising funds for the local charity, sitting on a church board, or just being out and visible at various community events. The important part is the feeling that your city is indeed “your city”. Your friends and neighbors will feel your commitment in whichever causes you choose to involve yourself. Your time is limited. I don’t believe there is an expectation that you need to be involved in every cause or issue, but being involved at any level in any cause leads to a stronger and more vibrant community. And, after all, isn’t the betterment of communities why we chose to be municipal managers in the first place?
The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.