Change is in the offing for city managers
Amid trying economic times and a changing world, city managers face many challenges and stresses in supervising day-to-day operations of a city.
The USC Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and Public Enterprise hosted a conversation on April 11 with three seasoned city managers to learn how they dealt with the recent recession, the impact of new technology on the way cities are run and what advice they have for students who aspire to be city managers.
Bedrosian Center Director Raphael Bostic moderated the discussion with Tom Bakaly ’89, city manager of Hermosa Beach, Calif., and a Master of Public Administration graduate from the USC Price School of Public Policy; Betsy Fretwell, city manager of Las Vegas; and Ted Gaebler, city manager of Rancho Cordova, Calif., and co-author of Reinventing Government, the best-selling book ever published about government. Bakaly and Gaebler serve on the Bedrosian Center board of advisers.
Fretwell was promoted to Las Vegas city manager in 2009 when the city was facing an abrupt reversal of its dramatic population and income growth from the previous 20 to 30 years. Suddenly, the city was seeing double-digit drops in revenue.
Fretwell thought it was important to get the council, city employees and community involved in the decision-making process so that people would understand the magnitude of the problem and be willing to work together to solve it. However, she learned the difficult lesson that layoffs were unavoidable because, otherwise, city employees were never going to return concessions they had already received.
And while Fretwell noted that she still sees the faces of laid-off employees in her nightmares, she embraces the challenge of fixing Las Vegas.
“For me, it was what I felt like public service was all about, what my commitment to this profession is all about,” Fretwell said. “It was really a unique opportunity to bring everything I had to try and make this better. To hopefully make us emerge stronger, leaner and smarter.”
Gaebler looks at times of economic strife as the perfect opportunity to manage.
“You can use the crisis as a cover to make really difficult changes — changes that would be hard to make if there wasn’t a crisis,” Gaebler said. “I kind of look forward to crisis so you can take bureaucratic thinking and shake it up.”
Technology, particularly social media, is changing the way cities operate.
Fretwell told a story about how a town hall meeting that usually draws 10 people had hundreds show up because of a Facebook campaign to voice opposition to a noise-restriction ordinance. And in the small area of Hermosa Beach, Bakaly said the meetings are broadcast live on the Internet, and people often show up when they see their item is upcoming.
“We’re going to have to change the way we govern,” Bakaly said. “Everything is going to be instant. I don’t know what we can do about it other than embrace it and adjust.”
For aspiring city managers, the trio recommended pursuing a background in finance as well as gaining professional administration experience related to either emergency services or public utilities.
“Here at USC they offered me a scholarship to specialize in finance,” Bakaly said. “It made me very marketable. To be a city manager, you have to get to know yourself and be ready to change. I had to change just about everything in how I looked at things.”