Public Works: The Silent Arm of Public Safety

Public Works Vehicles adding to safety measures as Pope Francis visits DC – 2015

Most of us have a pretty good idea about the role of first responders. Police officers patrol the streets of our town 24 hours per day. In the community where I work, 99% of residents say their overall sense of safety is good or excellent. While, thankfully, most residents have not needed to call on fire or emergency medical services, they likely know someone who has. Satisfaction with Fire services is also very high.

I find that most people don’t naturally think of public works employees as first responders. And yet, if you see a car accident, crime scene, or house fire, look beyond the immediate perimeter and you will find DPW employees setting up traffic barriers, cleaning up debris, and lending a hand. I routinely ask front line police and fire personnel about their work with DPW employees, and they universally tell me that the relationship is essential.

Public Works employees are on the job every day of the week. Cities and towns that run their own water or wastewater treatment operations rely on daily monitoring. In our part of the country, there are two seasons – snow and ice removal and construction – meaning that it is never a good time for DPW employees to go on vacation. When it is windy and rainy and we are home watching football, you can be sure that DPW employees are being called out to manage downed trees and flooding. And as for wishing for a white Christmas? Don’t get me started.

I work in a full service, family-friendly community with excellent municipal services and top notch schools. One unusual feature of our town is that we have never offered municipal curbside trash collection. As a result, all 11,000 households must arrange for private trash pick-up, or, as the vast majority elect, fill the trunks of their cars with trash in “pay-per-throw bags” and recycling buckets and drive to our Recycling and Transfer Station. Literally thousands of them do this every week, most on Saturdays. Many residents will tell you going to the “dump” is a social event. They talk to neighbors, visit the “re-use it” shop for treasure, and maybe get their car washed by high schoolers at the park across the street.

This arrangement saves the Town budget millions in transportation costs. A side benefit of the system is that many residents get a true appreciation of the hard working employees who are directing the operation, and preparing the solid waste and recycling material for disposal. “Preparing” isn’t quite the right word for driving a piece of heavy (and thankfully enclosed) equipment over a towering mound of household trash to squish it into as little space as possible to fit into a hauler waiting below. (If this sounds exciting to you I can easily arrange for a tour). These employees are rightly proud of their work, performed in all conditions every week of the year.

Do you have a public works story to share? Try thanking a DPW employee next time you see one. Or, better yet, don’t groan when the plow comes by just after you cleared the end of your driveway…just wave.

Let’s practice.

What’s Saving Your Life Right Now?

Hey, it has Vitamin A

My daughter and I were driving around recently, discussing the things that are saving our lives right now. The last 90 days of the year can be an opportunity for restarting, or simply enduring. It’s really our choice. So while I have committed to more exercise, drinking more water, practicing gratitude, giving up (or, maybe easing back on) that one food item I know I should, and carving out more time in my day for passion projects, I know I can rely on the life savers list when I find myself white-knuckling it through to the end of the year. Below are a few of the things that are saving my life this season.

Ellio’s Pizza – I attend a lot of night meetings for work, and I can’t seem to get into the habit of having a nourishing, low carb, kale-based meal at my desk beforehand. My colleague Donna and I made a pact long ago that frozen pizza is a legitimate food group for busy women. Ellio’s is the go-to when I get home starving, and according to the Internet, it is one of the “healthier” frozen pizza options. Of course, you may recall it comes in frozen slabs containing three pieces, yet a “serving” is only two…

A Gym That Thinks for You – Said daughter and I recently joined a gym that thinks for us. We have to sign up for classes, and they are usually full. Anyone who cancels at the last minute is depriving someone else a slot. Since I am an Upholder who leans to Obliger, this level of accountability is just what I need. (If you haven’t taken Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Quiz check it out! In my informal survey there seem to be a lot of Questioners in our local government field). But back to the list. So at my old gym, I did what I wanted at my own pace. Needless to say, I never really pushed myself very hard. At the new gym, the coach drives the treadmill, rower and strength training routine, and there is NO slacking. It thinks for you.

Podcasts – I am obsessed with podcasts. As an Upholder, I am incapable of doing fewer than two things at once. Like with books on tape audio books, I can listen while walking, running, driving, cooking, and cleaning the attic. Podcasts have the added advantage of being easily digestible in short bursts. I always seem to get something out of podcasts even when they are totally unrelated to my current work or interests. I recently told my husband that I now understand the mechanics of an email drip campaign to grow my on-line revenue. If I had an on-line business, this would be very practical advice. Current favorite podcasts include:

  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin
  • Rise with Rachel Hollis
  • Jill on Money with Jill Schlesinger
  • What Should I Read Next with Anne Bogel (the Modern Mrs. Darcy)
  • Before Breakfast & Best of Both Worlds with Laura Vanderkam
  • The Next Right Thing with Emily P. Freeman
  • The Lazy Genius with Kendra Adachi

Family Dinner – I am so fortunate to have both daughters, one son-in-law, a brother and sister-in-law and mother living close enough that we manage to have “family dinner” about three times per month. My husband joins us, as well as another couple we consider family. These are basic and quick affairs, we share (mostly!) the cooking and wine and desert buying, and bask in the connection.

Dinner Club – Both daughters and I share a dinner club with seven other amazing women of all backgrounds and professions. We range in age from 20’s to 50’s, reveling in each other’s accomplishments and commiserating over setbacks. We created the dinner club about two years ago, and meet every other month rotating homes and sometimes restaurants. Many of the members had never met, and yet this group is 100% saving our lives right now.

Checklists – I love a checklist. Especially a book checklist. Along with some friends, my younger daughter and I accepted the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s summer reading challenge, and we live to check off each book we read. We download checklists for starting over, living our best lives, establishing morning routines, you name it. Is there anything more satisfying than completing a task and checking it off?

Cooking While watching Football – The consolation for the end of summer in New England is a magnificent fall. This is the time of year to stay inside on a Sunday afternoon, meal prepping for the week and watching whatever football game is on. When it is cold enough for a fire? Winning.

What about you? What is saving you life right now? Please leave us a comment! And don’t forget to sign up to receive the Very Kate blog in your email.

Let’s practice.

Athenian “Mastermind?”

The 2019 Athenians, Aierlie House, June 2019

This past June I had the opportunity to participate in a week-long professional development program called the “Athenian Project.” Since then I have been trying to find the best way to describe this once in a lifetime event.

Should I focus on the “Socratic challenge” that I signed up to work on? The personal challenge and accountability project? The city-love that Peter Kageyama preaches? The evolving theme of healing civic democracy?

The Athenian Project is a professional development opportunity sponsored by the International City Management Association (ICMA). It was created after many members expressed the concern that there aren’t enough opportunities for senior career managers to gather, create new cohorts, learn new approaches, and ponder their legacies.

In June, 20 managers and ICMA staff gathered in Virginia to do just that. Some of the most amazing managers in the country attended. Some, like me, had served on the design team so we knew what to expect. Others took a leap of faith, believing that the power of the group would be transformational.

During the week-long session, we debated societal challenges relating to local government. We had many conversations about future goals – both personal and professional. We were collectively seeking a new well of motivation to recharge our careers. We also laughed, shared, and even sang around a campfire.

I listen to a LOT of podcasts, and hear many entrepreneurs talking about their mastermind classes. They talk about groups of leaders who navigate challenges together, sharing connections, networking, sharpening skills and learning to think bigger. Just recently it hit me – the Athenian Project is a mastermind class for local government leaders!

In his fascinating book When, Dan Pink talks about using “temporal landmarks” to start again. Landmarks used to navigate time can include the traditional ones like New Year’s Day, the first day of school, or a birthday. But temporal landmarks can also be events like week long retreats with amazing people. Pink notes that starting again can serve to relegate our old selves to the past, leaving us confident about our future, superior selves. These opportunities can slow our thinking, and allow us to deliberate at a higher level and make better decisions. This is just how I felt during the Athenian Project.

I am humbled to have been able to spend a week laughing and learning from my Athenian friends – I am confident that these relationships will endure for years. We plan to continue our work, teaching and writing about our challenges, and encouraging others to participate in the future.

So what am I doing differently after the Athenian project?

  1. Keeping in touch with the Athenians.
  2. Continuing to develop our Socratic challenge and pursuing my own personal challenge with my accountability partners.
  3. Pondering legacy and succession planning with more intention.
  4. Prioritizing time to work on big goals.
  5. Tackling challenges that are long overdue.
  6. Starting again!

Do you have a “Mastermind” group? If not, how could you create one of your own? If you cannot make the Athenian trip (or at least not now) can you create a cohort of your peers? Perhaps with colleagues in your organization who have similar goals, or those in other communities who have similar roles? Don’t be afraid to reach out – everyone likes to be asked!

Let’s practice, starting again!

They Don’t Even Mention Pension Plans in Personal Finance Books

The Very Kate Financial Bookshelf

My daughters and I spent the summer reading and discussing books about personal finance. They are both early career professionals – one in government and one in the non-profit sector. Some people read People magazine on the beach – we hashed out the benefits of contributing to a deferred compensation plan versus paying off student loans. The most common advice we found in the various books is to “pay yourself first.” Ideally, this would be 10% of your gross income. What we wanted to know was whether that maxim applies to employees (like many in local government) who participate in a defined benefit pension plan. The books don’t even mention pension plans, so we needed to do some research.

I contacted Jason Clark at ICMA RC, a leader in public sector retirement security. I had to laugh when Jason told me his first assignment as a financial planner was to read The Wealthy Barber by David Chilton. I read this book years ago, and both girls have read it as well. The advice is practical, accessible and achievable. It’s no surprise then that the advice I got from Jason was similarly helpful. In response to my original question about the 10% rule, Jason said that this amount is based primarily on what an individual can reasonably hope to accomplish. The 10% saving target should be above and beyond any other benefit such as a pension or social security. I have been assuming that I didn’t need to set aside the entire 10% because I am am eligible for a generous pension, and come to find out this advice applies to everyone regardless of planned retirement income stream. Oops.

What Jason tells people most often is to work toward maximizing their retirement plans. They can always stop contributing if they need to, but can never catch up if they don’t start. The preferential tax treatment alone is a reason to prioritize this type of saving. He notes that while we all believe in systems (social security, state and local pensions) there is always the possibility that they may fail. Adequate personal savings can help buffer any bumps in the road. Moreover, pretax retirement savings can be used to bridge the gap for those who decide to retire earlier than on a traditional timeline.

So back to the beach. Or more specifically the cottage after a day on the beach. Molly never met a spreadsheet she didn’t like, so she searched for an on-line tool to see what would happen if she were to maximize her 457 plan. If she starts contributing the maximum of $19,000 per year at 27 years old with an interest rate of 8%, she will have $4.5 million in her account at age 65. If she earns 10%, the figure is closer to $7.6 million. Even more astounding is that if Colleen (now 24) could contribute the maximum to her 403 B plan, she could have over $10 million at 65 earning 10% interest. Enough said. Most people cannot begin saving that amount of money when the are just starting out – but the importance of taking a small step and growing gradually to the maximum is evident.

Armed with data, my daughters will make their own plans for funding their retirement plans. As for me, I already set up a plan to gradually get to full funding by September, 2020 – or sooner if the universe conspires to make that possible. I feel better just having it on my calendar. Check.

The other question that we had is whether early career professionals should pay off their student loan debt before contributing to their retirement plans. While paying off debt seems intuitively to be the best strategy, Jason argues that loans will always be part of life – after student loans we often have car loans or mortgages. He suggests that if the interest rate is not too high, early career professionals should maximize retirement savings before paying off loans. The interest rate on the student loan must be considered in the context of historic market growth. The loan will eventually end, and when you are 65 you will barely remember it. However, you will never be 24 again, and that magic of compound interest and tax free savings cannot be recouped. Says Jason, “You will always have a loan. Don’t forgo retirement savings because of a debt with reasonable interest.”

I asked Jason what else local government managers should be considering. He noted that especially for city and town managers whose tenure is, well, more tenuous, emergency savings is a must. Having three to six months of expenses in a savings account remains tried and true advice for everyone. In addition, managers should evaluate the need for life insurance if they have people depending on them, and disability insurance to mitigate temporary setbacks related to illness or injury.

Something I think local government managers should also consider is adopting a 401 A plan for their community. Managers who have employment contracts can negotiate a percentage contribution to the the 401 A as a component of compensation. Contributions to the 401 A are in addition to the 457 plan, even if you are maxing out your contributions, and represent another tax-free benefit. Our town provides a 401 A match for most employee groups, which encourages personal retirement savings for them. Allocating resources to the 401 A rather than straight COLA as part of a compensation package also saves the town on long term “legacy” costs that are tied to employee salaries.

In summary – max out your 457 plan as soon as you can. Contribute to a 401 A if you can and without question if you have an employer match. Start early. Buy disability insurance, and life insurance if you have dependents. Let’s Practice saving some money for retirement.

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Many thanks to Jason Clark at ICMA RC for his advice. I am obviously not a professional financial planner so any misinterpretation is mine alone.

Very Kate Interviews ICMA President-Elect Jim Malloy





Jim Malloy, Lexington MA Town Manager

Jim and I have known each other for decades. We are the same age, entered the profession at the same time, work in similar communities, and share many of the same interests. With so many of our colleagues retiring, we seem to rely on each other even more than in previous years. I couldn’t be prouder of Jim’s accomplishment in becoming the President-Elect of ICMA – an organization dedicated to local government leadership.

Kate: How did you get involved in local government leadership?

Jim: As an undergrad, my college advisor was working hard to steer me away from law school and suggested that I investigate city management as a career.  He extolled the virtues of the profession and arranged a meeting with the Dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at CU and it worked!

Did you have someone you consider to be a mentor – specifically with respect to becoming a local government manager?  What did you learn from that person?

The County Manager I worked for as an assistant.  I am trying to think back that far… but the most important thing I learned from him is that while it’s good to recognize individual performance, it’s important to note that one individual does not succeed without the support and efforts of the entire organization.

What are the top three reasons you stay working in local government?

Continuing to make improvements that matter, my staff, and that I believe that in our profession we have the opportunity to positively affect the lives of our residents and others on a daily basis.

What tips do you have working for a board (council) that someone entering the profession may not have done before?

Keep them all informed, don’t favor any one member, and work with them to set aside time to discuss strategic planning to help them develop a vision of where they want the community to be 5-10 years out.  Otherwise the time flies and nothing changes.

What are the three areas of local government that you believe will be the most impacted by the pace of technological change?

Communications (social media), public works (smart technologies) and libraries (remaining relevant).

What has been the most challenging aspect of managing in your career? 

Working with elected officials and maintaining clear lines of authority between the elected board and the Town Manager.  Even with a strong charter, this can change based on the specific elected officials at the time, and can take patience and education.

What would you tell your early-career self? 

Don’t ever miss your kid’s events, they are way more important.

How do you set career goals to keep learning and growing when you are already the leader of the organization?

I think the ICMA Credential Program actually helps because it makes you stop once a year, review your strengths and areas that could use improvement, and consider what professional development you’ve undertaken the previous year and what you should plan on for the upcoming year.

What steps, if any, have you taken to maintain any amount of life satisfaction not tied to work? 

Stay physically active and travel.

What is one thing about your professional career that most people don’t know?

That I’m both introverted and a little insecure and that has made it difficult at times for me when I’m presenting in front of large audiences, such as Town Meetings and other meetings, where there can be over 1,000 people attending or at smaller gatherings.

Minuteman Statue, Lexington, Massachusetts

I’ve asked many managers these questions and their answers share common themes. No one wishes that he or she had worked more hours or skipped a third grader’s concert. Take a look at your calendar for the last few weeks of summer (at least here in the northeast) and see if you can squeeze in one more day off! If you have a suggestion for this periodic “interview blog” leave a comment. In the meantime, let’s practice – earbuds in, on the trail.

Find Your “Third Place” at the Library

Boston Athenaeum

At a recent conference, a colleague of mine from the Midwest mentioned in passing that she likes to work off-site. This also appeals to me, and I have been wanting to build more remote work into my life. She told me that she works a few times a month in a coffee shop or in a dedicated co-working space in a nearby city. These off-site locations are her “third place” – not home, not work, but a place with a different feel, a sense of community and place to gather and exchange ideas.

Dedicated co-working spaces are a growing opportunity for remote workers who find that coffee shops or their homes don’t always fit their needs. This appears to be a more accessible option in larger cities. I haven’t found any spaces in the Boston area that offer drop-in or day passes, but the one my Midwestern colleague uses has a $20 day pass. What a great opportunity – I hope that business model moves east soon. Hotel lobbies are increasingly becoming areas where remote workers congregate. Many hotels are encouraging this activity, presumably to make the lobby area feel energized and hip. This is a great option if you work in or near a large city – I’m not sure the motel down the street offers the same vibe.

Another colleague often works at a local college library. It helps that he is an alum, but it turns out that many local colleges and universities welcome guests to use their libraries. The summer is a great time for reflection and tackling those larger projects requiring research and planning. Summer is also a time when college campuses are quieter, with few distractions. My colleague says that just walking through campus to a stately library makes him feel studious and purposeful – what better frame of mind to tackle a complex writing project? This version of remote working makes the most sense for us as local government leaders. At the college library, we aren’t in charge! We’re practically anonymous.

It turns out that local libraries are becoming the third place for many remote workers. Many large urban libraries are creating dedicated co-working spaces with access to collaboration areas, work tables, and technology. If smaller suburban libraries can’t quite make that happen, they are places that are generally quiet and free from distraction. And yet, they also provide us with a sense of community, which can make us feel less isolated and more effective in our work. The blog Workfrom – dedicated to connecting remote workers to welcoming work spaces – cites the research of Dr. Kate Stewart, who says that people feel safe in libraries, and that makes a big difference in their ability to concentrate. “Libraries don’t occur to people as cowork spaces but they naturally lend themselves to a quiet environment free of visual distractions” she says.

I have tried to work in my local library and in coffee shops, with little to show for it. In my local library, even though I can hide, I spend a lot of time talking to residents. I go to the library several times per week, and I love the opportunity to talk to patrons, so I never feel right about hiding. I also associate our library with reading. When I try to get work done, I am drawn to browsing the stacks. The local library isn’t a great place for me to get work done because I am in charge. I think about the heat. Or the lack of heat. Or any other maintenance or staffing issue that may be on-going. I’m thinking of trying one of the many lovely local libraries in surrounding towns as an alternative!

I simply cannot work by myself in a coffee shop. There are too many people and too many conversations. And, even though my “kids” are adults, my head swivels whenever a toddler yells “MOM!” I do my best remote work at the Boston Athenaeum – a small and stunningly beautiful private library across from the State House. I do pay an annual fee for this membership, but it is the perfect place to while away an hour between meetings in Boston. I try to schedule an entire day at least once per quarter (hopefully more often in the year to come). The grandeur of this space does for me what the college library does for my colleague – puts me in the studious and purposeful mindset needed for productive work.

You don’t need to be an entrepreneur or a freelancer to benefit from remote work on occasion. Have you tried working at your local library? There may be toddlers, but they have their own room! You won’t have to feel guilty about buying more coffee. The bathrooms won’t require a key with a big spoon chained to it. And best of all? The library is full of librarians.

How about you? Do you work remotely? Where? We’d love to hear your tips! Let’s practice.

What would you tell your early career self?

Summer carnival at Needham High School 2019

When I asked my community what they would tell their early career selves, and what they wished they had known when they started out, the responses ranged from humorous, to practical, to wistful. This month we are grieving the loss of recently retired manager Rocco Longo who served in numerous communities for more than three decades. Rocco was the manager who practically everyone I know would turn to for advice. Since Rocco was one of the very first managers to complete my (rather lengthy) “Somehow I Managed” survey, I wanted to go back and see how he would answer this question, and whether his answers would follow the common themes. They certainly did.

Rocco told me that he was lucky from the start – he always liked what he was doing for work. He wished he had understood the personal nature of attacks on local government officials, and the toll that living in the community where you work can take on your family, especially your kids. He grew to realize that living in the community you serve is not mandatory. He wished he had taken writing courses in his early years. (This is a great idea – I’m going to look into this even for us seasoned managers). He summed up with a sentiment that I have heard from many managers now entering retirement: “I think as a baby boomer, the profession itself was growing, so a lot of what was going on was learning on the job, and that was part of the enjoyment.” In other words, maybe the best advice we can give our early career selves is that there is just no substitute for experience, and make sure you enjoy the ride while you are gaining it.

As with Rocco, “don’t take things so personally” was the universal advice of survey respondents. Others wished they had truly understood and planned for just how unsettling the night meetings are. The impact of the workload on family was also a common theme: “A community never rests, and sometimes those closest to us feel the greatest burden.” And, “Life at the top is lonely. While it is nice to be part of a team, the coach has a distinctly different job to do, and he or she is the only one doing it.”

Many managers remarked that they wished thy had had more confidence in their early career abilities. One colleague noted “Don’t hold back. You can do what you see the senior managers doing. They are not bigger than life.” I can recall watching the “big kids” when I started out, and yet now that I am arguably one of them, I find that I learn the best new approaches from those who are just starting out. Managers also wish they had understood early the power of community: “I would have been less nervous about embarking on this career if I really knew the extent of the support out there for municipal managers.” Another colleague said that he wished he had more confidence, had been willing to take risks and put himself “out there.” On the other hand, other managers noted that the career is a marathon not a sprint, and urged their younger selves not to rush so fast to get to the manager seat. Here is some timeless advice for women just starting out: “As a woman in local government, standing up for yourself is nothing to apologize for.”

The question of colleagues versus confidants is a regular part of our Boot Camp for new and aspiring managers. Managers need to be keenly aware that there are very few, if any, confidants in their organizations once they are in the top job. Confusing colleagues for confidants is a mistake many managers make, often the hard way. Said one manager, “Get to know your staff members but do not get too close. You will never truly be their friend, you will always be the boss.” Another manager offered this practical advice: “As far as having the technical knowledge will allow you to figure out what needs to be done, having the people skills will allow you to actually accomplish something.”

What would you tell your early career self? My favorite advice from the survey: “Don’t panic.” “Dress better.” “You’re an idiot.” Let our community know your best advice by leaving a comment! Let’s practice.