Mission-minded? Consider a challenging career in municipal government

Gordon Gallagher says his long-term success as Spring Lake Township’s manager stems from having a heart that beats to serve.

“You have to have a servant’s heart, you have to have a tremendous amount of patience, and you have to understand what residents are going through at any given time,” says Gallagher, who’s been the township’s manager for 14 years. “I think people choose this profession as much as it chooses you.”
Spring Lake Township manager Gordon Gallagher
Spring Lake Village Manager Chris Burns agrees that a career in municipal management is fulfilling and anything but boring. That’s why she wishes more people were drawn to the profession. Public administrators are professional managers much like CEOs running private sector corporations, but they work for municipalities, with the goal of creating better communities.

“This is a very admirable career choice that improves the quality of people’s lives,” says Burns, but the work is often overlooked by the public. “Most people wouldn’t have a clue.”

A century of collective experience

The five Northwest Ottawa County managers — Grand Haven city, Grand Haven Township, Spring Lake Township, Spring Lake village and the city of Ferrysburg — are very much in the know. Collectively, these managers have more than 100 years of tenure in their communities.

“There are a lot of ties that bind us formally, and some informal ties,” says Burns. “For example, the five of us are all part of the same sewer and water system authority. Also, the five of us all have very distinct personalities, but we all get along remarkably well. We’re all about collaboration so we can achieve better, cheaper, faster service at various levels to the community.”

If variety is the spice of life, a career in municipal management should be given serious consideration, says Neal Buckwalter, master’s of public administration program director and associate professor of public administration for Grand Valley State University’s College of Education and Community Innovation.

Spring Lake Village Manager Chris Burns

Typically, municipal managers juggle multiple responsibilities that include the management of financial and human resources, ensuring core services are delivered, strategic planning for community development, and striving for continuous improvement, all the while doing so with integrity. To do all this competently, managers must adeptly juggle budgets, data analysis, personnel management, and conflict resolution.

“It’s important to be efficient and effective in your work, but you also need to be inclusive and responsive and representative,” says Buckwalter. “And of course, communication is very vital. Recognize that communication, especially in the public-service realm, needs to flow two ways. It’s not just conveying to the public its mission – it’s also hearing what they want, what they’re frustrated with, what they hope to achieve.”

More diversity is needed

The staffing of public managers in Michigan needs to be more inclusive, Buckwalter says. According to the 16/50 Project, women make up more than 50% of the state’s population, but only 16% of Michigan municipal managers are women.

“That’s quite a disparity,” says Buckwalter. “We’re trying to decrease that disparity.”

To bridge the gender gap, the 16/50 Project urges: 
Making elected officials who select municipal managers aware of the inherent bias in the selection process;
Provide women with content, tools, and opportunities that can serve their specific needs; and 
Attract a new generation of women to the profession.

Then there’s answering to the elected board that employs them, which is a tightrope act successful municipal managers learn to balance.

“Have you ever had seven bosses?” asks Burns. “They all have seven different opinions. You have to be really good at reading the tea leaves, and if you’re not good at reading the tea leaves, you’ll likely be seeking employment elsewhere. The five of us have been very fortunate. Part of it is a skill to be able to make sure that you’re keeping your board informed and knowledgeable of what’s going on in your respective municipalities.”

‘You work for all of the people’

Learning to deal with members of the public who have different temperaments and personalities is also a key skill, adds Gallagher.

“People out in the public sometimes have a bad day and their bucket gets full, and sometimes they just want to dump their bucket,” Gallagher says, “and you happen to be the person who’s close by. You have to recognize when you just need to listen and be open-minded to their thought process.”

Pat McGinnis, Grand Haven city manager, agrees that people skills are equally important as the hard skills municipal managers need.

“You need to be a good listener and a diplomat, and must be very patient,” says McGinnis. “Problem solving is paramount. You work for all of the people all of the time, so there’s no exclusion of anybody and all those people are your customers all the time. They’re the reason why you’re here. You can’t lose your cool, and you need to pay attention to everything.”

McGinnis has been Grand Haven’s city manager for 19 years. “It is the most pure form of public service I can think of,” he says.
Pat McGinnis, Grand Haven city manager
Those who want meaningful and challenging work and possess a mission-minded attitude should consider a career in public administration, McGinnis adds.

“If you want to apply your skill set to do good things, to add value to your community, it’s a great post,” he says. “It’s not easy because there are not nearly enough resources to get things done. We want more, right? We want more parks and better parks, we want cleaner streets and safer streets, we want better street lights, we want, we want, we want, but then there’s not enough taxes. You’ve got to keep taxes low. It’s a horrendous balancing act, but boy, is it exciting, and It’s rewarding because when you have a great community that you live in and work for, you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”
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Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.