Several years before I became a city administrator, I read a book entitled Without Fear or Favor, written by a retired manager named Leroy Harlow. Mr. Harlow retired from the profession after a relatively short city management career and became a university professor, where he apparently had time to write about his experiences in the field. The book inspired me, despite the many examples it contained about the challenges of doing the job well.
Perhaps the greatest challenge city managers face is trying to accurately inform city employees and the public they serve about complex issues. Most of us rely on newspapers, web pages, newsletters, public meetings, presentations to groups, and individual conversations to share what we know. During my career, e-mail and other electronic communication have helped in some ways, but they have also created completely new problems.
When I started my career in an organization of 30 people and a town of 3,500, my job was easier because I knew everyone in our organization and many of the people in town. We attended events together, coached each other’s children, met in the town’s only grocery store, and even ran into each other at swimming holes on the river. If someone had a problem, they were quick to tell me, and I always tried to be quick to respond. I have since moved on to larger communities, but I have never lost my belief that a city manager has an obligation to be personally responsive both to employees and the public.
No one screens my phone calls, I am generally available without an appointment, and I welcome suggestions about things we could do differently or better. I have written many times that the part of this job I enjoy most is the opportunity to meet and work with so many outstanding people. I have also learned that while e-mail is a great convenience, it is also the source of considerable miscommunication. True understanding, in my opinion, requires the ability to interact face-to-face; and even phone calls or Skype conversations are a poor substitute for meeting with someone.
I appreciate the many employees who have taken the time to visit my office or catch me in the hall to talk about an idea or a concern. I may not always be able to do what someone wants me to do, but I am always willing to listen and make a good faith effort to understand.
I like to believe that I have always approached this job “without fear or favor,” and that will continue to be my approach in the future. I welcome visits and look forward to the opportunity to share ideas and concerns with anyone interested in taking the time to do so.