Resolution is a valuable commodity in a public official. Rigidity rarely is. Year after year, the men and women honored by Governing magazine are those who can change and adapt — to new issues and circumstances or to the need to take on a whole menu of difficult challenges simultaneously.
In 2006, the importance of flexibility has emerged clearer than ever. Governing’s Public Officials of the Year have shown an impressive ability to adapt, to change focus and very often, simply to juggle.
Haley Barbour became governor of Mississippi in 2004 after a long career as a political insider and strategist in Washington. The last thing he expected to be was a figure of public inspiration at a moment of crisis. But when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast nine months into his term, he found a way to do it.
Salvatore DiMasi spent nearly three decades working his way into power in the Massachusetts House, focusing more on politics than on legislative minutiae, and paying little attention to health policy at all. Then he took over as speaker in the midst of a health care financing crisis. He made himself an expert, memorizing every detail of a complex health care reform bill and steered it to passage by holding together a diverse and sometimes quarrelsome coalition of players.
Richard Codey, the president of the New Jersey Senate, was handed an even more daunting job. In the wake of a scandal-driven gubernatorial resignation, he had to take on the job of governor for 14 months — a veteran legislator without any executive experience at all. Under the circumstances, many in both parties would have excused Codey for playing a caretaker’s role. He did exactly the opposite: He reformed state ethics laws, promoted advances in mental health and generally restored the credibility of the governorship.
Mary Dempsey had earned a national reputation over 10 years as Chicago’s library commissioner when the mayor made an unusual request: The city’s purchasing practices had become a public embarrassment. Could she move in as chief procurement officer and help straighten things out? During her six-month stint, she did just that, reforming the department and making some enemies in the process — and then resumed her work as head of one of the country’s most innovative and successful library systems.
Rick Cole has made perhaps the most unusual adaptations of all. The mayor of Pasadena, California, in the early 1990s and architect of a stunning downtown recovery, Cole left politics, took up a career in city management and began applying his urban revival skills to other California communities. First in Azusa, and now on a larger scale in Ventura, he has offered ample proof that good politics and good management aren’t as different as is sometimes assumed.
For several other Public Officials of the Year, flexibility hasn’t so much meant changing focus as focusing on many things at once. If you ask government people in Seattle what King County Executive Ron Sims specializes in, you will get a consistent answer: everything. Health care, global warming, budget reform, land conservation — he delves into all of them and produces better results than almost anyone in American local government.
Bill Purcell, the mayor of Nashville, is much the same. During seven years in office, he’s been consistently effective at promoting downtown housing, prodding the school system to improve, luring new businesses to the community and introducing a management system, based on performance audits, that has revitalized a once-tired city hall bureaucracy.
Dianah Neff arrived in Philadelphia as chief information officer and quickly realized that the city didn’t need to improve its technology in any one area — it needed to improve on many fronts in unison. So she took on that challenge — to create a new records management system, to redo the city’s Web site and, most important, to create a groundbreaking wireless network with the potential to reach the city’s low-income neighborhoods as well as its affluent center. When Neff left her post this fall, it was with a remarkable number of tough agenda items marked off as achievements.
Finally, there is one notable exception to this year’s theme of adaptation and change. For a quarter-century, Philip Mangano has pursued just one goal: trying to solve the problems of the poor and homeless in America’s cities. As the Bush administration’s specialist in homeless issues, he has traveled the country tirelessly, promoting a strategy that concentrates on giving those in need permanent shelter as a first priority. Mangano’s efforts have brought dramatic results in San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas and other major cities where homelessness was long seen as a disease without an effective cure.
The impressive accomplishments of eight superior public officials have demonstrated this year that staying flexible is an enormously valuable skill to learn. Philip Mangano’s career serves as a reminder that single-minded dedication, in the hands of a talented leader, can pay big dividends as well.
On the accompanying pages are profiles of all nine of Governing’s Public Officials of the Year, selected from nominations by readers, interviews with state and local government specialists and reporting by the Governing staff.
Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi
Richard J. Codey, president, New Jersey Senate
Rick Cole, city manager, Ventura, California
Mary Dempsey, library commissioner, Chicago
Salvatore F. DiMasi, speaker, Massachusetts House
Philip Mangano, executive director, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness
Dianah L. Neff, former chief information officer, Philadelphia
Bill Purcell, mayor of Nashville/Davidson County
Ron Sims, county executive, King County, Washington