Monday, April 14, 2014

He Just Did What Was Right

This was the headline recently when the Leader-Telegram ran a story about the passing of Terry Sheridan.  I would like to share a few thoughts about interactions with Terry.  First of all, I have some difficulty about defining Terry’s role as a leader in our community, since I have only been a part of this community for a short time (close to 18 months).  Therefore, I am not the right person to comment on all the things Terry did for Eau Claire, but I am impressed with his service and can only share what brief encounters I have had with him in the short time I was afforded the opportunity to interact with him.

After accepting the job offer to become the Eau Claire City Manager, but before actually moving to Eau Claire, I was given Terry’s name and contact information as a person I should contact to research and inquire about the faith-based community in Eau Claire.  I contacted Terry by phone and had a pleasant, informative, and down-to-earth conversation not only about the various faith-based organizations and parishes, but about the community as a whole.  He answered all of my questions and gave me his opinions, advice and interacted with me as if we were friends for the past 50 years.  He took the time to understand my values and beliefs and he shared his with me.  It was unbelievable on how fast two people could make a connection over the phone.

Upon arriving in Eau Claire, Terry took the initiative and made the first contact to welcome me to the City.  We again exchanged stories and shared opinions like we were friends.  He always made me feel welcomed to the community and encouraged me to join the Thursday noon Kiwanis Club. 

Terry was truly viewed as an incredible community leader.  According to former City Manager Mike Huggins, “When I think of people who focus on the greater good of their communities, I think of Terry.  He was this incredible person who was always thinking of how to strengthen the community and how to take care of those who were vulnerable in the community.”  Mike also added, “When you think of servant-leader, Terry lived that.  You don’t replace people like that.”

We should all try and strive to put others before ourselves.  I know that is not an easy thing to do.  We all should aspire to emulate the things that Terry Sheridan did for our City.  I will, and when I am gone, I hope that people will remember me as “Just doing what was right”.      


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Governance By Referenda?

Certain members of our community are circulating a petition for direct legislation to require that any capital project relating to the arts of $1,000,000 or more shall require a binding referendum for approval of the project.  While some may think that this is a petition relating to the Confluence Project, it really is a fundamental change in how the City will address any future project dealing with the performing arts.  Therefore, from both a professional and personal viewpoint, I am opposed to the notion of governance by referenda.

The City of Eau Claire has a long history of operating under a Council - Manager form of government.   Council - Manager government combines the strong political leadership of elected officials with the strong managerial experience of an appointed manager. All power and authority to set policy rests with an elected city council. The city council in turn hires a nonpartisan manager who has very broad authority to run the organization. The elected council members represent the community and develop long-range vision for its future. They establish policies that affect the overall operation of the community and are responsive to residents’ needs and wishes.  To ensure that these policies are carried out and that the entire community is equitably served, the governing body appoints a highly trained professional manager on the basis of his/her education, experience, skills, and abilities (and not their political allegiances).
Residents calling for an ordinance to require a referendum for capital projects may think that large capital projects are too important of an issue to be left in the hands of their elected officials.  The United States, State of Wisconsin, and City of Eau Claire were each created as a representative democracy.  As such, council members are elected to represent the community and be responsive to residents’ needs and wishes.

Large capital projects and the operations of the City are complicated issues that take time and knowledge to make informed decisions.  For elected officials, time and knowledge mean working through an issue or budget by gathering background information, participating in public presentations and discussions, and conducting their own research.  This process is open and transparent and often takes time.  So much time, that government is often criticized for taking too long to reach a decision.  To help put this in perspective, the total City Budget is almost $132 million.  Of that, $60 million is for the day-to-day operations. The City prepares a five-year capital improvement plan that totals over $136 million.  For 2014, the budget appropriates over $22 million for capital projects.
When reviewing the Confluence Project, it is important to understand that the total cost will be around $80 million and that it will consist of three separate elements; a community arts center, a mixed-use building, and a public plaza.  It is important to remember that approximately 50% of the community arts center will be funded through the State of Wisconsin.  It is equally important to realize that the value of the mixed- use building will generate property taxes that will be used to cover the pledge made by the City.  Since I started with the City just over one year ago, I have spent countless hours researching, discussing, and presenting the facts surrounding the Confluence Project.  As with any project of this size, there are many issue that need to be considered and addressed.  In fact, there are still some elements that will be changed.

I view the Confluence Project as an economic redevelopment project.  One may ask, why and how does the City gets involved in economic development projects.  The City tries to promote the expansion of our tax base and works to protect values for the investment made by all property owners.  Not only will the Confluence Project increase the property tax value of the City, it will generate economic vitality in the downtown area by creating a sense of place and a destination.  It will also add jobs and provide a selling point in attracting business and creative,  talented people.   In that light, the Confluence Project can be viewed as an investment just like the Phoenix Park area. 
If one were to measure the return on investment in the Phoenix Park area, you would find that the City’s return on investment was 177.2%. I would think that most people would accept that return over a 10-year basis.  That return on investment was calculated on the fact that the City provided and paid for $17 million worth of improvements and experienced an increase in the tax base of $30 million from 2002 to 2012.

This tax base investment was NOT made by the general taxpayer--taxes were not raised to pay for the investment.  The City used “tax increment financing” to allow for the tax base expansion.  Through tax increment financing, the City creates a special and specific district, and then creates a baseline of the value for the entire district.  The taxes generated on the baseline value are distributed to all taxing jurisdictions as if there were no increase in value.  The taxes collected for the incremental value (the difference between current market value and the baseline value) are retained by the City and placed in a separated fund to off-set the cost of the improvements.  In the case of the Confluence Project, the taxes generated by the incremental value of the new mixed-use building will be used to honor the pledge by the City.  The bottom line is that the City cannot raise property taxes to pay for its commitment to the Confluence Project due to levy limits imposed by the State of Wisconsin.  
As I stated earlier, the elected officials are to represent the citizens and respond to their needs and wishes.  One way they can perform that function is to receive input into the process.  The entire community has an excellent reputation for encouraging and promoting civic engagement.  It was actually through a civic engagement process that the concept for the Confluence Project was initiated.  This commitment for civic engagement continues with an online public comment forum called the “Electronic Eau Claire Conversation”.  Currently, this forum allows people to voice their opinion on the Confluence Project.  The elected officials can then use this input to assist with future decisions regarding the Confluence Project.  If fact, one could make an argument that this input is more thorough than a yes  or no vote made by a binding referendum.

In closing, I would like to get back to the original question as to the need for a referendum.  I recently read an article in a professional blog that suggested that there are three common denominators shared by those who insist local governments should conduct public referenda: 
  1. They oppose any measure in which they receive no personal gain
  2. They don’t want to see any increase in their local property taxes
  3. They see no value in improving the community or local programs to make life better for others.  They survived under the prevailing conditions, so why shouldn’t others
I am sometimes frustrated by those who embrace the “status quo”.  As City Manager, my goal is to move Eau Claire forward.  We need to make the City and downtown better and to promote the expansion of our tax base.  By expanding our tax base, we will continue to provide and support City services. Let’s make Eau Claire a better community for future generations.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reinventing Government

Over 20 years ago, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler wrote a book, Reinventing Government.  The book served as inspiration to many local government managers who believed that governments need to be more mission-driven, competitive, customer-driven, anticipatory, and results-oriented.  Many of these principles and concepts from that book remain relevant today.  Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to Ted Gaebler, one of the co-authors, speak at the Wisconsin City Managers Conference.  One of the most interesting facts about Mr. Gaebler is the fact that he is a practitioner, serving as City Manager for Rancho Cordova, California.

One of the major premises of the book is that most governments are customer-blind.  As you know, we are working for the City of Eau Claire to provide a service to our citizens and customers.  This is much different than working for a business, which exists to make profits.  Yet it is business that obsessively seeks new ways to please people.  As City employees, we need to try to find ways to make things happen and think how we can meet the needs of our citizens.  Too often we think in terms of how it has been done in the past and do not think outside the box. That is why people think of government as bureaucratic.

Therefore, we need to change or reinvent government.  After all, Thomas Edison didn’t set out to improve the candle!  Mr. Gaebler offered the following five secrets to revolutionize governance:

1.       Recover the power, tools, and ability to manage what may have been eroded over the last 100 years

Over time, many managers have lost or let go of many of the duties and responsibilities that were initially put in place to manage the organization.  Managers should try to recover administrative functions to effectively run organizations.  In addition, we need to streamline and modernize authorities, capacities and roles including fundamentally changing how they work.  We need to change the interactions between employees, citizens/customers, and the City Council by building a positive culture in City government.  We need to provide excellent, not mediocre, government services that are efficient, effective, well-respected, and (most importantly) entrepreneurial.

2.       Partner with a good administrative professional and fully utilize your administrative team

The demand of being a good manager needs support of the entire administrative team.  It is important for the organization that the manager’s attention is on the outcome and not the input minutiae.  Having a good administrative team is important to create multiple systems of follow-up.  A bureaucracy succeeds when things are either ignored or when decisions are made not to do something. 

3.       Test the real edges of community and council values

We should be creators as well as conservers.  Our organization will benefit when we use our creativity to examine ourselves and our community imaginatively and even critically.  It is important that we have a climate that supports taking risks and recognizes the freedom to fail.  Only in such a climate can we generate new ideas and foster the fresh discoveries, the unexpected connection, and the untried solution that will move us beyond the status quo.

4.       Encourage employees to innovate more

In the private business world, innovation is driven by many factors that are focused on a sense of urgency: fear of bankruptcy, fear of product obsolescence, beating the competition, return of investment, earnings per share, and market share.  In government, many times, there is not a sense of urgency and, thus, no drive for innovation.  I think it is important to create a culture which encourages and supports innovation.  I want you to know that it’s okay to try new ideas and it is okay if new ideas are not successful.  As a manager, I know that sometimes government creates rules to address the times people do not act in a responsible manner.  My job is to hold people accountable for their actions and not to make rules that irritate everybody based on the action of a select few.  We should all try to behave like we are in business for ourselves and see ourselves as a service center.

5.       Be a shape shifter

Being a shape shifter is having the ability to take the same information everyone has and then providing a new perspective - in other words, to change paradigms.  The job of government is to steer, not to row, the boat.  Delivering services is like rowing a boat, and we need to be better at steering the boat in the right direction.  We should ask the question: “What business are we in?”  It is assumed that government is here to provide a service; now we need to have the courage to challenge the assumption that we have to provide a certain service.  If we as employees don’t have the courage to change that assumption, the public will. We all need to be a catalyst, broker, facilitator, and educator.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, institution must advance to keep pace with the times.”

Mr. Gaebler challenged participants to think about where we are in the change process, to get rid of rules and create empowerment not only with employees but with customers, and that we should learn to collaborate and focus on external services, not internal.  The positive outcomes of reinventing government are that government works better, costs less, can add to economic competitiveness, increase productivity, increase employee morale, increase citizen satisfaction, increase societal equability, and is more respected.  We all need to do our part in reinventing government.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

“Public Spirit Fund”

“Public Spirit Fund”
The City of Eau Claire recently created a “Public Spirit Fund”, a separate fund managed and administered through the Eau Claire Community Foundation.  The “Public Spirit Fund” was created to build a revenue source for public projects, which are needed or desired, but not fully funded through the City’s budgeting process.  The fund also creates a voluntary and permanent mechanism to support people’s natural tendency to improve our city. The first projects of the Public Spirit Fund are proposed to be a handicap accessible fishing dock on Half Moon Lake south of the Carson Park causeway and the construction of the first boat launch on the west bank of the Chippewa River near Domer Park.

The mission of the Eau Claire Public Spirit Fund is to encourage the expression of a community spirit through monetary donations to projects that benefit people in the community. The Fund will support projects that benefit everyone, but are not adequately funded by other sources.  Many public projects are put off for years while waiting for sufficient funding. Every year the City identifies many needed capital projects. The City plans carefully to bring these projects to completion through long-term planning, careful consideration of the project’s public benefits and a fair distribution of funds across many department needs; but many worthy projects are put off for years, awaiting funding.

It is not realistic to use the Public Spirit Fund to advance all the identified public projects at once, so the Fund will concentrate on the priorities of the Waterways Plan.  The City just finished a rigorous civic engagement process to complete a brand new Waterways Plan adopted by the City Council in July 2012.  More than 40 citizens, City staff and members of City commissions spent over a year working on the plan.  The completed document charges the City - with some urgency - to reinvest in its waterways. The Eau Claire Waterways Plan identifies “Priorities for Action” that are projects to enhance the natural beauty of Eau Claire and increase the enjoyment of the waterways.  Because grants and other City funding for the waterways improvements may take several years to materialize, by giving to the Public Spirit Fund, individuals can support and advance these projects.

Residents of Eau Claire have always had an abiding sense of philanthropy that supports countless worthy causes in the area.  In addition to the many religious, charitable, and social welfare endeavors, the community has provided funding for public projects that serve the entire city, including recent public improvements funded through donations of the new pavilion at the Forest Street Community Gardens and the acquisition of Domer Park. The Eau Claire Public Spirit Fund will provide an opportunity for community members to express pride in Eau Claire and to support and foster a spirit of community giving for public improvements.

Donations to the fund can be made on line at or by mail to the Eau Claire Community Foundation at 306 South Barstow Street, Suite 104, Eau Claire, Wisconsin 54701.



Wednesday, February 6, 2013

“Spark the Spirit of Giving”

The use of volunteers gives communities the power to both increase meaningful engagement with residents and discover creative ways to meet expanding needs for services with limited resources. The successful implementation of volunteer programs can accomplish these dual goals, as many recent local government initiatives have shown. Yet there is an overall lack of focus on utilizing volunteerism, not only to meet service needs but also as a strategy for positive citizen engagement.

Eau Claire can tap into a reservoir of human capital—volunteers—to deliver services, drive economic recovery and growth, and to engage residents within our city, which in turn can lead to creative and sustainable solutions.

Specifically, volunteers can bring scale to strapped programs, enhance city identity, lead activities that drive family and community recovery, and build a sense of shared purpose and collective action across neighborhoods and politics.
Beyond enhancing the face of Eau Claire, volunteerism keeps people connected and engaged in their community. This is critical in maintaining a robust and vibrant population. An ongoing study conducted by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation entitled “Soul of the Community” explores what brings people to a community and what makes them stay. Critical to this discussion is the finding of “a significant relationship between people’s passion and loyalty for their community and local economic growth.” In tangible and intangible ways, municipal volunteer programs can support the broader policy goals of a city.

Smart, strategic activation of volunteers in service can help managers and cities bring to life platform priorities such as education, sustainability, and economic growth. The view that “volunteering involves activities solely for nonprofit organizations” is too narrow. We need residents to assist Eau Claire.  Volunteers help local government stretch shrinking dollars and make real-life connections with citizens.
Last fall, the City of Eau Claire created a City Volunteer Coordinator to act as a liaison between the public and the City to assist with scheduling volunteers for the City.  As part of this effort, the City is holding a “Spark the Spirit of Giving” service night on February 18th from 5 to 7 pm.  Learn about some meaningful ways you can spend time with your family, the community and help make Eau Claire a healthy, vibrant, and productive community of exceptional beauty. To register for the event go to  Spend 15 minutes or stay the whole two hours. You pick what works for your schedule. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Call for a New Citizenship

Before I came to the City of Eau Claire, I was aware of the Civic Engagement process and all the work being done with Clear Vision. I truly believe that an actively engaged citizenry is important to addressing the existing and future challenges facing our community.  Effective and enduring civic engagement requires the development and adoption of a community-wide, problem-solving skill set offered to our citizens.

Unfortunately, not all of our citizens are committed to the engagement process.  This is a call for a new citizenship for our City. This new citizenship should represent all of Eau Claire from our many different occupations, cultures, and perspectives. This new citizenship must remember that government is of, …  and by, ….. as well as for the people. It is a democracy whose politics is our common public work: where citizens are as prudent in deliberation as we expect our representatives to be; where public problem solving takes the place of private complaint; where all give life to liberty and where rights are complemented by the responsibilities that make them real. A citizen democracy turns blame of others into self-reliance and mutual aid. It transforms passive clients and consumers into active agents of change in our communities. It seeks structures to the public and to community and civic associations, and the renewal of government and civic institutions alike as sites for public work.

This new citizenship speaks from the vantage point of a 'third sector'—that vibrant array of voluntary associations, religious congregations, schools and colleges, the free press, professional groups, and community organizations that mediate between government and the market and that span the space between private life and the world of mega-institutions. It encourages the civic dimension of every identity—the renewal of the citizen-politician, truly "civil" civil servant, civic professional, civic-minded businessperson, religious leader, union activist, community organizer, and citizen-soldier.  

I would like to share with you a quote Martin Luther King, Jr. when he explained the purpose for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963.

"In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government."

We need to commit ourselves to a common citizenship that honors difference and incorporates diversity. From the myriad of races, cultures, and communities of interest, we draw shared values rooted not in sameness but in the common ground of our shared tasks and obligations to future generations. We shall regard our diversity as a strength. Citizenship is a bond that holds potential to unite people of radically diverse backgrounds, ages, and viewpoints. It allows us to enter public life with equal dignity, no matter what our social or economic status.

The New Citizenship calls on all of us to reassert common agency and to repossess democracy. We need to continue to invite our fellow citizens to make Eau Claire a community of choice and provide a home not only for us, but for generations to come.

In closing here is another quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.

"There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Friday, January 4, 2013

Welcome to 2013

As we enter into 2013, I wanted to share with you this story that I read on a friend’s  Facebook page, regarding a farmer and his donkey.
One day a farmer's donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn't worth it to retrieve the donkey.

He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone's amazement he quieted down.
A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up.

As the farmer's neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!

The moral of the story is:
Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a steppingstone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up! Shake it off and take a step up.

As we begin this new year, I would like you to remember five simple rules to be happy:
     1.  Free your heart from hatred - Forgive.
     2.  Free your mind from worries - Most never happens.
     3.  Live simply and appreciate what you have.
     4.  Give more (that one extra degree).
     5.  Expect less from people but more from yourself.