Interview #95: Hillsboro, OR City Manager Michael Brown (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

The thing you need to know about Hillsboro is: they have fun. Whether it’s art in the council meetings or elaborate comedy routines at the state of the city, creativity abounds in the Hillsboro council chamber. City manager Michael Brown elaborates on why that is.

Q: I am impressed by the range of creative expression that gets showcased in Hillsboro. Just in the past six months, you had artists, you had high school performers, and–my favorite–you had second and third graders dressed up as historical figures from Hillsboro. Is there any segment of society or culture that you would like to be featured in your council meetings?

A: Anything. We view our council meetings as basically a community gathering where half of it is creating performances and different ways to connect with the community. And the second half’s a business meeting. The ones that stand out to me are musicals. Those are really, really fun.

Q: Do those ever make you wish you were on the opposite side of the dais entertaining the audience?

A: No, not anymore. I tried to do acting when I was in high school and the acting director pulled me aside and said, “you know, I think you’d be better as a stagehand.” I worked in the back of the stage, not the front.

Q: Is that a good philosophy for a city manager? Be the stagehand, not the leading lady?

A: [laughs] There’s different expectations council has for you, whether you’re out in front or behind. I like being in the background with charismatic, smart, intelligent leaders out in front of me.

Q: Something completely unexpected to me was watching your state of the city address. Normally across cities, these things are pretty uneventful. The mayor gets up there; rattles off statistics about how well the city is doing; people applaud; and an hour later it’s done. But in Hillsboro, the state of the city is not just a speech. It’s a production. In the 2017 state of the city, for instance, Mayor Steve Callaway had the audience do a text message poll. How does the state of the city come together?

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Hillsboro, Oregon city manager Michael Brown

A: Over the course of maybe six months in advance of the performance, we have a group of people that are laying it out and planning it. We sit around, talk about what things might be interesting. In the case of the last mayor and Mayor Steve Callaway, they’re really funny. They really enjoy the opportunity to engage the audience and not get up and give a big speech and have everybody clap. They recognize the value of humor and wit. It is a performance. We view it as a performance.

Q: Your mayor is probably one of the best deliverers of this highly specific kind of entertainment. And speaking of deliver, this year’s state of the city featured former Mayor Jerry Willey walking in as a pizza delivery guy. Did any of the other cities you worked for come close to this kind of choreography?

A: This is a unique place! They enjoy poking fun at each other in a positive way and if you knew Jerry Willey, having him in a pizza uniform is the last thing you think he would do.

Q: One thing that’s not exactly entertaining, but it’s certainly unorthodox for any state of the city address, is that Mayor Callaway actually gives up the microphone midway through and lets councilors have their own time to speak. Why would the mayor give up precious camera time to the hoi polloi on the council?

A: Because it’s a council and the mayor is part of the council. While he’s the political head of government–the person people look to–he wanted to create the space for them to be up there and have the group be together and say, “we view it as a team.” He cares a lot about that.

#100: Arvada, CO 4/17/17

It was breathtaking how quickly the good news kept rolling in to the Arvada city council chamber. But the best news was arguably reserved for the man who was nowhere in sight.

“[Councilmember John] Marriott is on a well-deserved vacation,” Mayor Marc Williams informed the unlucky working stiffs left on the dais. He added somewhat disdainfully, “South Padre Island.”

Nevertheless, Councilmember Nancy Ford beamed proudly at the Girl Scout named Emma who was standing expectantly at the podium. “Only three percent of Girl Scouts ever earn this,” she said, referring to the elusive Gold Award.

Excitedly, Ford grabbed Emma’s shoulders and spun her around, displaying a vest chock full of badges.

“Look at this!” exclaimed Ford.

Mayor Williams whistled. “Wow! You want to get a picture of that?!” The ladies mugged for the camera as people applauded the impressive garment.

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Mount Patchmore

Wardrobes dramatically shifted as Councilmember Mark McGoff congratulated the VERY casually dressed high school swimmers who took Emma’s place. “The JeffCo Hurricanes have won the 2017 Speedo Four Corners Sectional Meet in Lewisville, Texas,” he read.

“We work very hard as a team in the pool every night,” said their spokesperson, the most formally attired of the teens in a t-shirt and jeans. Another of their crew was in tie-dye and shorts–but the most questionable fashion choice was the standoffish young lad in a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt.

(I’m sure the dress code is considerably looser on South Padre Island. But even there, I doubt that sleeveless hoodies are couture.)

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Thank you for not wearing your Speedos, I guess.

From sports to entertainment: a new movie theater was coming to town–but the president of Harkins Theaters knew there was only one way to make the announcement even sweeter.

“This is our senior vice president–also a Gold Award Girl Scout winner,” he gestured to the lady next to him.

“I was hoping to tell Emma congratulations, but she left!” the VP threw up her arms in mild dismay as the council guffawed.

The pair of Hollywood hot shots launched into a slide show of the finest, most luxurious theater Metro Denver would ever see.

“We’ll bring in local breweries. We have a new concession stand with hot food offerings and all-laser projection,” bragged the president. “The top picture is the recliner seats,” he nodded to the tantalizing stock photo of a family enveloped in cushioned bliss.

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“So help me, god, people will be smiling.”

But while the theater reps were pumping the butter, Councilmember Ford pumped the brakes. “I did a little research on the cinema industry and I found conflicting reports,” she clasped her hands. “How do you see it performing in the future?”

“I’d say that reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated,” the movie prez reassured her.

With that, Mayor Williams dramatically flourished a sheaf of papers. “I will now sign the contracts!” he boomed, sealing the theater deal.

Councilmember Bob Fifer politely interjected. “I just wanted to share: tomorrow I’ll be flying down to Arizona to speak about broadband. I gotta be at the airport by six in the morning. I was trying to tell the mayor I need to be done by 7:02,” he glanced at the clock.

“Mr. Fifer,” the mayor retorted, “I’ve seen a picture of you at the age of 24. I don’t think beauty rest is going to do you any good!” The mayor and a handful of audience members cackled as Fifer shook his head ruefully.

Interview #18: Hot Springs, SD City Administrator Nolan Schroeder (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM and right here:

Nolan Schroeder is demographically a bit different from other city managers. We talked about college, ethics, and council meeting start times–among other things.

Q: I reviewed a Hot Springs city council meeting last month. How accurately did I capture the aura of that meeting?

A: I would say the accuracy was spot-on.

Q: Yeah, it was!

A: It brought a smile to my face to say the least.

Q: Can you describe what the city council meeting room looks like?

A: We used to meet in this kind of hallway environment. It was about a year ago we switched over to a theater. It seats 400 and thankfully we have not reached capacity yet.

Q: Have you ever had a drama teacher walk in and be like, “we’ve got a rehearsal for ‘The Music Man’ in ten minutes! Everybody out!”

A: We just consider those “communications from the public.”

Q: I’m assuming you became city administrator of Hot Springs after working a couple of desk jobs…you took a year off of college to backpack through Europe…you worked retail for a bit. Then five or six years later you got this job, right?

A: [Laughs] I finished grad school in 2014 and started literally weeks after I finished school.

Q: What?! This was your first job out of college?

A: I’m 26 years old. This is my first job out of school.

Q: Oh, my god.

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Hot Springs, SD City Administrator Nolan Schroeder

Q: What have you done as city administrator?

A: We–don’t laugh when I tell these accomplishments–but we completed some audits. We were behind on those. We passed a new personnel policy. New safety policy. Our sales tax revenue has gone up since I’ve been here. I can’t say if that’s because of the work we’ve done–

Q: I’m not a journalist, so I can say it’s because of the work you’ve done.

A: [Laughs]

Q: One thing I heard from another city manager is that when the public had a problem with the city and were criticizing staff at council meetings for not doing anything about it, he wished the city council would defend the staff.

A: We were able to pass a new code of ethics that states if you have direct criticism of an employee, you don’t just lash out or nod your head along in agreement if someone is lambasting a city employee.

Q: Is there anything the council members can do or have done that makes your life difficult?

A: Yes. They can not read their packets! We prepare council packets for them. I’ll do notes on each agenda item and give–at the very most–a four line summary of what the item is.

Q: You’re kind of a professor here. You have a lesson plan. You assign the reading….So can you tell when some people have done the reading, and some people are BS-ing their way through?

A: Yes! Part of my job is to read people. You can certainly tell who is prepared for the game and who is hoping somebody else answers for them.

Q: If you could change one thing about the Hot Springs city council meetings, what would it be?

A: The start time. It’s in our ordinance that we start at 7 p.m. People that work a full eight hours and have to go to the meeting…there’s some fatigue that sets in.