Management & Labor

The City Managers on a Constant Quest for New Places to Fix

Their discontent with the status quo and attraction to a big challenge has led to some unexpected moves from city to city.
by | May 2017
(Shutterstock)

In the early 2000s, Mark Scott had been working for the city of Beverly Hills for 20 years -- 14 of them as city manager. Thanks to the opulence of the town, it was the kind of place where a budding manager could learn the business minus the typical “city” problems. But eventually the absence of serious issues started to get to Scott. During his tenure, he had watched neighboring Los Angeles endure dramatic civil and social unrest. Meanwhile, in Beverly Hills, luxury merchants and developers were bending over backward to do business. In 2003, the town’s Rodeo Drive Committee announced that the glassware company Baccarat was displaying $1 million worth of crystal chandeliers along the famous road’s median. It all triggered something in Scott, and he decided he needed a change. Or, really, a challenge.

He couldn’t have picked a more opposite place for his next chapter. Scott landed in Spartanburg, S.C., a former mill town divided almost evenly between white and black residents. About one-quarter of the town lived in poverty. Scott started working on ways to bring life to depressed places, overseeing a revitalized town square, new public housing, and new parks and grocery stores in historically segregated neighborhoods. He learned how to finance new projects “out of nothing,” he says, a skill he hadn’t needed in Beverly Hills.

But as it turns out, the move to Spartanburg was only the beginning of what became Scott’s quest for new problems to solve. He returned to California, and in a relatively short time has been manager of four cities: Culver City, Fresno, Burbank and now San Bernardino, which is in the process of exiting municipal bankruptcy. In making those moves, Scott has come to see himself as a troubleshooter. “I’m almost a little bit addicted to the excitement of going to a new city and creating those new relationships,” he says. “I’ve done it now six times. When you go into that new organization, there’s a dynamic you go through establishing that new rapport and new trust.”

 

San Bernardino's Mark Scott left Beverly Hills for greater challenges. (Paul Roa/Los Angeles Times)

 

The popular perception of a city manager is of someone who devotes his career to one or two local governments. But some city managers just can’t sit still for that long. They are attracted to places with problems and are willing -- even compelled -- to take to the road every few years in search of a new test of their skills.

Restless city managers have been around for the full century that the job has existed. But these days, the fiscal challenges that many localities are facing has created a new set of opportunities for those who want to keep moving. These people are as diverse as the cities they flock to. They are drawn to different kinds of challenges. But they are inextricably linked by two things: a discontent with the status quo and a fascination with the next impossible riddle. They aren’t administrators in the conventional sense. They are problem solvers.

Jerry Newfarmer, a longtime city manager and consultant, notes there is a distinction between managers who tend to be curious about how government works and those who get their satisfaction from simply operating it well. “You have lots of people who are good administrators,” he says. “That’s different from people who feel it’s really important to figure out how organizations can work better.” Mobile managers, he says, belong in the second category.

“I don’t want to jump into something just for the sake of the exercise,” says Oakland City Administrator Sabrina Landreth. “It’s whether or not my skill set for that time and place is going be effective.” For Landreth, that has meant some unexpected and seemingly unlikely moves. In 2013, she left a job as budget director in Oakland to become manager of Emeryville, a municipality that was no larger than some of Oakland’s neighborhoods. Emeryville was a former industrial waste site that had transformed itself into a retail and biotech center, thanks largely to funding from a state-financed redevelopment agency. Its daytime population of 40,000 was four times its resident population. It was in the midst of trying to establish itself as a bonafide city with parks, schools and other services when the Great Recession hit.

In the aftermath, the state of California eliminated its redevelopment agencies. Emeryville suddenly lost half its budget and went on life support. Other managers would have seen it as a place to avoid. But Landreth saw an opportunity, one enticing enough for her to take a huge step down in local scale. “That job wouldn’t have been interesting to me a year earlier,” she says. “But for me there was now this ultimate challenge. Come in, stabilize the budget and help them go through that identity crisis.”

The experience of Landreth and Scott in transitioning to a vastly different jurisdiction is fairly common among mobile managers. Terrence Moore, who has managed cities in Florida, New Mexico, West Virginia and now Georgia (and was the first African-American manager in two of them), says he’s drawn to wherever the next big economic development challenge is -- not necessarily cities that are similar. Todd Hileman, who has managed cities in Arizona, Illinois and Texas, says he purposely seeks out cities that are different from one another. “No two organizations are the same,” he says. “Every place has its own heartbeat, its own challenges.”

Adjusting to a new civic culture while leaving your own imprint is a challenge in itself. It typically involves a lot of listening at first. But mobile managers enjoy the benefit of having done this kind of transition a time or two and in different types of places. It allows them to bring in experiences that the new governments wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. That’s the case with Sharon Subadan, who is the manager of Albany, a city of about 75,000 in largely rural southwest Georgia. Subadan came up through county government in major metropolitan areas -- first, affluent Montgomery County, Md., outside of Washington, D.C., then Hillsborough County, Fla., home to Tampa and more than 1 million residents. She was drawn to Albany for the socioeconomic challenges it presented: It is in the center of a region struggling with joblessness and population loss. One-third of the city lives in poverty. Albany was also going through a dramatic reorganization that left the city manager in charge of public utilities, as well as more conventional duties.

Subadan admits she was attracted to the slower pace of life Albany offered -- including a reasonable commute after living in traffic-clogged regions. But when she got there, she found her expectations for the pace of city government were vastly different than those of her new colleagues. “Patience is not my virtue,” she says. “They don’t move here the way they do in D.C. or Tampa.” In her first six months, she pushed through or started more than a dozen projects, including a city rebranding campaign, the purchase of properties for government and private business use, and a deal with the local Boys and Girls Club to co-manage a new city recreation facility and splash park. She spearheaded a project to offer Albany’s high-speed Internet service to businesses outside city limits.

It’s a pace that struck some of Subadan’s Albany colleagues as breakneck speed, and it has likely taught some of them valuable lessons. But Subadan is trying to speed it up even more. The slower pace in Albany may be cultural, in her view, but it isn’t always consistent with the most effective governance. “It leads to some missed opportunities,” she says. “We spend so long on a single project, leaving Projects Two and Three on the backburner.”

 

Sharon Subadan brought a big-city ethos to Albany, Ga. (The Albany Herald)

 

For managers who stay on the move, arrival in a new city brings on the exciting uncertainty of plotting a new course. Leaving tends to feel somewhat like graduation day. When the fires are put out, the wreckage is cleared and the rebuilding is underway, it is time to consider other places. Sometimes the reasons are personal. The declining health of Scott’s father, for instance, pulled him back to California from South Carolina. But more often, it’s just that matters have settled down and they feel the itch to stir things up elsewhere.

Following a couple of stabilizing years in Emeryville, Landreth was persuaded to go back to Oakland because it was in the midst of a management crisis. She even took over as administrative police chief there for a year after the city cycled through three chiefs in nine days. Scott, after seeing San Bernardino through the hardest part of its bankruptcy and getting a new city charter in place, says he’s ready to find his next “project.” Hileman, who helped rebuild the management team in Avondale, Ariz., after a scandal involving the arrest of the former city manager, says he knew it was time to go when it felt like the place was “running on autopilot.”

Moore, who has overseen major projects in every city he’s managed, including two new city halls and the upgrading of municipal airports, is drawn to new places that need economic development help. “These positions often have a certain shelf life, if you will,” he says. “My goal is to keep moving forward.”

Discuss

More from Management & Labor