Municipal government

Spirit of mission? Consider a stimulating career in municipal administration

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

“You have to have a servant’s heart, you have to have tremendous patience, and you have to understand what residents are going through at any given time,” says Gallagher, who served as the township manager for 14 years. “I think people choose this job as much as it chooses you.”

Spring Lake Village Superintendent Chris Burns agrees that a career in municipal management is rewarding and anything but boring. That’s why she wants more people to be attracted to the profession. Public administrators are professional managers much like CEOs who run private sector companies, but they work for municipalities, with the goal of creating better communities.

“It’s a very admirable career choice that improves people’s quality of life,” Burns says, but the job is often overlooked by the public. “Most people would have no idea.”

A century of collective experience

The five county managers of Northwest Ottawa — the City of Grand Haven, the Township of Grand Haven, the Township of Spring Lake, the Village of Spring Lake and the Town of Ferrysburg — are very knowledgeable. Collectively, these managers have over 100 years of service in their communities.

“There are a lot of ties that bind us formally, and a few ties informal,” says Burns. “For example, the five of us are all part of the same water and sewer authority. Also, the five of us have very distinct personalities, but we all get along remarkably well. We value collaboration in order to provide the community with better, cheaper and faster service at different levels.

If variety is the spice of life, a career in municipal management should be seriously considered, says Neal Buckwalter, director of the Masters of Public Administration program and associate professor of public administration at the College of Education and Community Innovation at Greater Valley State University.

Typically, municipal managers juggle multiple responsibilities, including managing financial and human resources, delivering basic services, strategic planning for community development, and striving for continuous improvement, while doing so with integrity. . To do all of this competently, managers must skillfully 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, responsive and representative,” says Buckwalter. “And of course, communication is very vital. Recognize that communication, especially in the realm of public service, must flow in both directions. It’s not just about conveying to the audience their mission – it’s also about hearing what they want, what frustrates them, what they hope to accomplish.

We need more diversity

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’s municipal administrators are women.

“It’s quite a disparity,” says Buckwalter. “We are trying to reduce this disparity.”

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

Then you have to answer to the elected council that employs them, which is a tightrope act that successful city managers learn to balance.

“Have you ever had seven bosses?” Burns asks. “They all have seven different opinions. You have to be really good at reading tea leaves, and if you’re not good at reading tea leaves, you’ll probably look for a job elsewhere. The five of us were very lucky. Part of this is a skill to be able to ensure that you keep your council informed and up to date with what is happening in your respective municipalities.

“You work for everyone”

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

“People in the audience sometimes have a bad day and their bucket fills up, and sometimes they just want to empty their bucket,” Gallagher says, “and you happen to be the person who’s nearby. You need to recognize when you just need to listen and be open-minded to their thought process.

Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis agrees that people skills are just as important as the technical skills that city managers need.

“You have to be a good listener and a diplomat, and you have to be very patient,” McGinnis says. “Problem solving is paramount. You work for everyone all the time, so there are no exclusions, and all of those people are your customers all the time. They are the reason you are here. You can’t lose your temper and you have to be careful with everything.

McGinnis has been the City Manager of Grand Haven for 19 years. “It’s the purest form of public service I can think of,” he says.

Those who want meaningful, challenging work and have a mission-driven attitude should consider a career in public administration, McGinnis adds.

“If you want to apply your skills to do good things, to add value to your community, this is a great job,” he says. “It’s not easy because there aren’t 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 there are not enough taxes. You have to keep taxes low. It’s a dreadful balancing act, but boy, is it exciting and rewarding because when you have a great community you live in and work for, you’re part of something bigger than you- same.