6 Speeds to Joy

Country roads in Massachusetts

Raise your hand if you have ever stepped on a clutch that wasn’t there.

Last week I finally got the opportunity I have been waiting for since 2014 to drive a car with a stick shift. After owning six standard transmission vehicles, I succumbed to (slightly) diminished reflexes and bought an SUV. I’ve been whining wondering every since whether I would forget how to drive one.

We grew up with standard transmission vehicles – not because my parents were particularly adventurous, but because standard transmissions were significantly cheaper. I simply had to learn or never go anywhere.

Those of you who know me would not describe me as adventurous. And yet. I have won more than one game of “two truths and a lie” by my account of careening around the Amalfi coast driving a stick shift on my honeymoon. In fact, since my husband was less familiar with the clutch at that time, I drove us all over Italy. Still not lying.

So back to last week. We had a house guest who generously offered to let me drive his car. I snuck out before 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning and drove the country roads around our town for almost an hour. I was nervous, but it came right back to me. I didn’t take the car out on the open road to get into sixth gear. The point was to actually shift. A lot!

I spent that glorious hour thinking about the person I was when I drove around Italy, and in each successive vehicle, and how I could recreate the simple joys of those past lives. The year 2020 has weighed most of us down. Those of us in leadership positions feel the pressure to protect our residents and staff, while also opening up the economy and providing “normal-ish” services with restrictions that would be laughable if we didn’t have to implement them.

Pro-tip: plant roses near the septic system for this result.

And who couldn’t use a little more joy? We just have to work a little harder to find it when our accustomed ways are inaccessible – like traveling to Europe or having a draft beer at a bar. Here is what I am working on:

  • Spending time outside, including weeding.
  • Prioritizing walking over running.
  • Using up the gallons of sourdough starter discard making pizza creations once a week. (Confession – I went through the amazingly soothing and yet tedious effort to create sourdough starter and have yet to bake anything with it. But the discard is in heavy rotation.)
  • Planning travel adventures.
  • Making lists of books to read and checking them off.
  • Planning home improvement projects.
  • Not attending night meetings.

How about you? Do you have a stick shift story to tell? (My journey ended after having to queue up on a steep parking garage ramp for what seemed like hours after a Red Sox game.)

Are you finding joy close to home?

Do you still, on occasion, throw your arm across the passenger seat when you brake hard as if you have a twelve-year-old next to you?

Let’s practice – maybe actually smell those roses?

Tales from the EOC: Worrying & Laughing

COVID-19 EOC, Rosemary Recreation Complex, Needham, MA 2020

Have you been wondering what it is like to work in a medium sized metro-Boston community during a global pandemic? Every day there are about 1,289 decisions to make, and when you look up from your computer it is already 5:00.

Many local government managers are working entirely remotely. I tried working at home one day a week, and it was a real struggle.  I have a private office in a mostly empty Town Hall where I can work safely, and I spend a few days a week in the Emergency Operations Center.   I find that the loss of camaraderie is one of the most difficult aspects of this pandemic quarantine, so I treasure the opportunity to sit with our amazing EOC team leading us through and out of this pandemic. The people in the EOC make very difficult decisions.  They are under constant pressure to find resources and handle difficult telephone calls.  They are hounded for information they cannot divulge, and they are working constantly.   But life does go on – one member just accepted a new job, and another bought a new house.

Since the only antidote for anxiety is connection with others, I am constantly looking to colleagues in other communities for reassurance and advice. As local government managers, we are filled with anxiety all the time.  We are worried about how to keep our staff employed, paid, and busy at home.  We are worried about the employees who do have to report to Town.  We are under constant scrutiny to justify the “work at home” plan.  We secretly Google the symptoms of COVID-19 regularly because we are so run down. 

While social media and on-line resources are invaluable, they can also cause unhealthy comparison.  Those of us who are confident in our ability encourage and motivate our teams look on with despair at the amazing outward-facing messaging of our colleagues whose skills lie in that area.  And vice versa.

We worry that we simply won’t be able to cover payroll.  We worry that the many people in our communities who are not being paid or whose businesses are in jeopardy will become increasingly intolerant of the status quo. 

We worry that the first responders will get sick.  That our family members will get sick.  That we will get sick.

We worry because the world as we knew it is gone, and we don’t know whether we are up to the challenge of charting a new course. 

We wonder how we will adjust to not wearing jeans and sneakers and hoodies to work, and having to attend night meetings again.

We wonder if we can accommodate remote working options in the future, and keep the innovative spirit alive after the declared state of emergency. 

We also learned to appreciate the moments of hilarity and joy. 

The incident commander for this emergency is the Director of Health & Human Services.  It is highly unusual to see an EOC with no uniformed personnel in sight – unless you count logo fleece vests.  Another way you know this isn’t a public safety EOC is that for some unfathomable reason, three of the four staff sit with their backs to the window. 

The highlight of the day is ordering lunch to be delivered.  This topic starts right after the daily 10:00 EOC check-in call.  Sometimes before.

There is a lot of snack food around.  One member has taken to baking sourdough bread constantly.

We had so many complaints we had to ask the police to hunt down an unlicensed ice cream truck.

We had to install increasingly harsh signs closing parks, and then had to barricade their parking lots.  We had to issue a clarifying email banning the Easter bunny from visiting physical rather than virtual parks. 

Conversations like this are normal:  “Hey, I can get hand sanitizer in a month!”  “Great, how much can you get?”  “So, I have to order a pallet.  That’s 144 gallons.  But its only $6,000.”  “Do it.”

We put out a makeshift donation bin (repurposed trash bin from DPW) with a big sign that tells people what to donate.  We are so grateful for donations of Clorox wipes and masks.  One week we also got a bag of dog poop.

Improvised Donation Bin, Rosemary Recreation Complex, Needham, MA

Just before the pandemic the Town got a therapy dog – a white golden retriever by the name of Rocket (of course – the Needham High mascot). He is the most popular mammal in Needham, and has more Instagram followers than I do. Every week or so his handlers bring him to the EOC. He took my place on a Zoom call and that made my week.

Officer Rocket, Needham, MA

We have a pool going as to how close the Governor’s press conferences will be to the actual noticed start time.

Last week I had meetings on Teams, Free Conference Call, Go to Meeting, Webex AND Zoom all in one day. 

Did I mention my hair is many shades, none of them particularly attractive, and I have to stare at it on my monitor all the time?

Stay well, wash your hands, reach out to the lonely.  But only reach out to my mother if you want to hear how great Andrew Cuomo is.

How are you working during the quarantine? What is your worry? What makes you laugh? Let’s practice – six feet apart.

Very Kate and the replacement donation bin, Needham, MA “No Dog Poop, Please”

On Gratitude – Or, It’s Finally April

Chaa Creek, San Ignacio, Belize

The experts tell us that practicing gratitude will increase happiness, well-being, mindset, and success at work. I haven’t seen gratitude linked to weight loss yet but that’s probably next. I follow happiness researchers like Gretchen Rubin and Shaun Achor, and I believe in the science. I simply can’t force myself to keep up the gratitude practice for more than a few days at a time. Achor’s advice is simple and compelling. Write down three things you are grateful for that occurred over the last 24 hours. These don’t have to be profound. Things I have listed over the years include “light traffic because of school vacation,” “watching Marie Kondo on Netflix,” and “got a great deal on new sheets.” According to Achor, taking note of three things each day that you are grateful for will help your brain start to retrain its pattern of scanning the world, looking for the positive instead of just the negative. You can find his very amusing Ted Talk here.

So, as we begin week five of the hardest and strangest time in most of our lives, I am sharing three things I am grateful for today.

We Got to Take Our Vacation – Before the pandemic intensified in the US, we got to take our long-awaited family vacation to Belize. While two of us work in local government and were on the telephone a lot by the end of the trip, we still hiked in a jungle and went snorkeling for an entire day on a catamaran. The cabins at the jungle resort had NO KEYS. There was only one restaurant – so there were no decisions to make! “Where do you want to eat tonight?” “How about at THE restaurant?” If you spit out your coffee picturing me snorkeling (afraid of water, sea life, drowning, you name it) you are not alone. Thanks to the kind brilliance of our guide, I too was able to join in.

We Live Near a Rail Trail – There is a wonderful and “social-distance approved” rail trail that runs right by the end of our street. Like so many of us, I am walking (occasionally running) virtually every day. I am also going into work every day, so there is no excuse for not incorporating this routine into my life after the pandemic. My younger daughter and I recently walked during the only two hours of snow in 2020.

Upper Charles River Rail Trail, Holliston Massachusetts, March 2020

I Planted Bulbs – April me is grateful to November me for planting 200 bulbs on a cold and raw day. They will bring much joy this month.

Tulips & Daffodils, Holliston, Massachusetts

I am especially grateful for the employees in all of our communities who are on the front lines providing public safety, public works, and public health services. I am grateful for the hospital and health care workers, the grocery and pharmacy workers, and all who are performing essential jobs during the pandemic.

Even though we have no real idea what awaits us in April and May, I feel like we have made it through the initial phase of this crisis. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Let’s practice – what or who are you grateful for?

The World Turned Upside Down – or Emergency Management on a Shoestring

I started drafting this post last month, but it seems like last year. I was going to scrap it, but then I thought it might be useful to see how far we have come, and share best practices.

With so many competing priorities, it can be very difficult to prioritize planning for emergencies that may never happen. Local government managers who were working around the time of 9/11 quickly realized that their “civil defense” policies and supplies were left over from the Korean War. Many of us revamped our strategies, created local emergency planning committees, and developed emergency plans. And then, other things happened. Construction. Lots of construction. The economy collapsed, and then kept growing. Other than large cities (and maybe cities not interrupted on a regular basis by extreme weather) many local governments let their emergency plans slide. In our Town, we are fortunate to have a core of committed staff who managed to resurrect our emergency planning process a few years ago, and then convinced the Town to fund a full-time emergency management administrator. This step is probably out of reach for many communities.

Emergency Management on a Shoestring was originally intended to offer suggestions for starting small and creating at least the foundation for responding to an emergency situation. Even now as everyone has been thrown into emergency management mode, we can still work to incorporate emergency planning into our now regular Power Hour routine! Here are a few ideas:

  • Practice using on-line meeting platforms like Zoom. Our private sector colleagues would be incredulous at our lack of knowledge on this subject. Since virtually all of our meetings must take place in person and in public, it simply hasn’t been a priority. It is now.
  • Figure out how to sync your work phone to your personal vehicle even though your personal phone is hooked up via Apple Car Play (asking for a friend).
  • Set up a “go bag” for your car.
  • Review ICS Protocols and complete on-line training.
  • Set up a standard operating procedure on communication. Take an inventory of what you already have set up, including use of email list-serves, texting, “reverse 911” systems, and sites like “What’s App”. We have had good success with What’s App because you can set up a “chat” for each individual event. We found in the past when we relied on email, invariably someone got left off the list.
  • Practice the communications systems you establish. In virtually all of the practice drills we have conducted, communication has been the choke-point.
  • Make sure you have all of the contact information for your key personnel in your phone. I just learned that the Office 365 App on my phone that syncs my calendar and email to my desktop may not sync contacts. Updating my contacts TODAY.
  • Plan to establish (or continue) regular emergency management meetings with your teams progressing to table-top drilling in the future.
  • Set up a dedicated phone line for emergency events ahead of time. 
  • Track expenses and staff time!

Some of the best practices that we have put into place to address the immediate crisis include:

  • Opening our Emergency Operations Center in a building that is centralized and convenient for staff.
  • Assigning the Health and Human Services Director as Incident Commander.
  • Assigning Section leads for Finance & Administration, Planning, Operations & Logistics.
  • Relocating staff full-time to the EOC including communications, emergency management, and finance.
  • Implementing a daily 10:00 a.m. call for all section leads (pro-tip from Free Conference Call yesterday: set your meetings for 10 minutes before or after the hour to avoid call overload).
  • Providing daily public updates about what is happening in Town, including key updates from the Commonwealth (updating on weekends as well when needed).
  • Providing a more granular level update to elected officials each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
  • Ensuring that all communication about the COVID-19 response is funneled through our Public Information Officer.

I wonder if any of my fellow Hamilton fans are humming lines from The Battle of Yorktown: “…and as our fallen foes retreat I hear the drinking song they’re singing: the World Turned Upside Down…” Please share your strategies, stories, laments, and joys. Let’s practice social distancing together, crisis carbs in hand.

“I Don’t Have Time for Cancer” – Leading Through a Diagnosis

My Happy Place: Long Sands Beach, York Maine. The girls would not be pleased with any of the pictures from Charleston in 2004, our reward trip.

I’ve been working on one of my “20 for 2020” goals lately – to create a keynote speech about leading in local government. My passion is to empower and encourage local government employees -especially women – to advance in their careers. In preparing the speech, I’ve gotten bogged down in the sort of dry leadership principles you could easily picture on a PowerPoint slide deck. Then I remembered a speaker I heard interviewed on one of my many audio book and podcast obsessions. He was an athlete who had reached great heights, then fell down pretty hard. He wanted to teach leadership principles to other athletes, but did not find success until he figured out that the only leadership story he could tell was his own. If you are not an actual subject matter expert – on stress, time management, or happiness for instance – you are certainly an expert on yourself. Everyone has a story to share that will resonate and inspire others.

I started thinking about my story, and what others might find useful or inspirational in advancing their local government careers. Over the next year I will be searching for the best examples and sharing them here. Your feedback will make that keynote a lot better!

So back to the diagnosis. Even though it isn’t a “big” anniversary, my friend and I were just reminiscing about my cancer diagnosis in 2003. I am fortunate to work just a few blocks from a first class hospital, and had my first mammogram there at the age of 40. How many of you have received the dreaded call-back: “We just want to check something?” So the next week I walked back over to the hospital for an ultrasound. The radiologist, clearly not inclined to mince words, says this: “I think you have cancer.” I then had to walk back to my office. I couldn’t reach my husband on the phone, so I called my friend. “I don’t have time for cancer” I said. She promised to do all the research. And she did.

Being confronted by a diagnosis – your own or that of a family member – will affect your leadership in different ways. For me, I was determined not to appear weak. At the time, the Town was working through the process of changing its form of government, strengthening the role of the Town Administrator to become a Town Manager. I was drafting the language and helping the elected officials explain the proposal to numerous constituent groups. I also had two young children and a more than full-time job. I simply didn’t have time for cancer.

So if you were to call me now and ask for help leading through a diagnosis, this is what I would tell you. Some of you may disagree, but that’s OK. If you call me for my opinion you are most certainly going to get it.

First, you need to take enough time for yourself and your family. If you yourself are receiving treatment, you need rest. If you are caring for a family member, you need to go to the gym. I made the mistake of powering through chemotherapy, and unintentionally set the wrong tone for staff. If your direct report is ill, you are going to tell her to take all the time she needs, and you will be annoyed if she doesn’t. If you don’t follow your own advice, the message is mixed – at best – or just plain disingenuous.

Second, you need to appear as close to well as you can while you are working. This is particularly true if you are new to your role, young(er), and female. Remember, you called me. So I will tell you that if you lose your hair you have to wear the dreaded wig. It is awful, it itches, and it is clearly a wig. But it is not a scarf or a hat. I only wore it to work, but it helped me feel more competent. It is also a good idea to have one of those stock phrases as a response to perpetual questions about your health. Something like “This isn’t my favorite season, but everyone is being so helpful and I’m getting the critical things done.” Again, diverting attention from illness to work will make you feel more confident.

Third, when people offer to help, give them actual tasks. We know that we should offer specific services to those in need, rather than saying “Let me know what I can do to help.” If you think they really want to help, try these: “Sure, can you rake? Iron? Drive a preschooler to gymnastics? Write the Annual Report? Go to the Chamber of Commerce meeting for me?”

Fourth – if you need to get regular treatment like radiation, schedule it at the end of the work day and do not go back to work. If you have a biopsy, do not go back to work and conduct a performance evaluation (trust me on this one). On the positive side, you can get a lot of classic “books on tape” crossed off your list if you have to go to daily radiation. I managed to finish both Great Expectations and David Copperfield driving in and out of Boston.

Fifth – focus on what matters. If you are gong through treatment, so is your family. Young children especially need more of your time (hello sixth grade). Plan a reward trip at the end of treatment so that you have something to look forward to.

So how about you Relentless Practice Friends? Do you have experience leading through a diagnosis that you are willing to share? Do you have any keynote speech advice?

Since you have read this far, would you consider signing up to receive the blog through email? You know how I am all about goals, and I really want to reach 100 by the end of 2020!

Let’s practice – treating ourselves with a little compassion.

On Bob O’Neill, Local Government Leadership, & the Civil War

Antietam, 2007

Me: Hey Bob, would you be willing to let me interview you for the VeryKate blog?

Bob: Of course.

Me: Great. Can you email me answers to these six questions?

Bob: Well it would be a lot more fun if we can talk!!! But I will do what is best for you.

Me: Yes. Of course you are right. As usual.

So excited to find a picture of Bob and VeryKate together blurry or not! (ICMA Boston 2013)

I can’t say enough good things about Bob. Last spring, I had the chance to present a training session on resilient leadership with him on Cape Cod and it was a dream come true. (Let’s just say that the picture of us from that event, while not blurry, was highly unflattering). A former ICMA executive director, Fairfax County Executive, and Hampton, VA city manager, Bob now works in a variety of roles teaching and coaching on finance and leadership.

I always knew Bob from a distance, but we really got to know each other at the inaugural Gettysburg Leadership Institute in 2007, bonding over Civil War history and leadership lessons. I couldn’t find a single picture from that trip, and a little Internet research reminded me of the likely cause – the first IPhone was not released until June of that year. I had to make due with a picture of Antietam from a family vacation that same year. (Yes, I visited more than one major Civil War battle field in a four-month period.)

So back to Bob. Since he declined to write my blog for me, I had a rollicking 30 minutes or so connecting with him on the telephone. I was also writing furiously with a PEN on a PAD OF PAPER so I am forced to paraphrase our discussion.

Random picture of Bob from the Internet.

How did you get involved in local government leadership? Like so many of us, Bob walked into a city hall (this one in Hampton Virginia) after his first year of college, and found himself an internship. While he had no earthly idea what local government was all about, he spent his summer performing time and motion studies about street patching (sounds hot) and drafting personnel policies. When I asked him if he felt he added any value that summer, Bob said the city manager wanted to see if he would stick it out. Those were heady days, with local government on the front-line of social programs. Hooked, Bob worked for the city all through college and got himself hired as the assistant city manager at 24 years old. Upon reflection, this was a stretch role – most department managers were twice his age!

What was the most challenging aspect of managing in the public sector? Not surprisingly, Bob lists leadership as a big challenge. He notes that he had to figure out how to work with people who knew more than he did, and how to create a team. Bob told me that when he was first hired, there were a lot of young city managers who probably wouldn’t even meet the minimum entrance requirements to be a budget analyst today. There is so much competition for talent, we need to be widening rather than limiting the pool of applicants. We should also be looking more closely in our own organizations for employees to promote.

Bob also expressed a familiar frustration that there is a stakeholder group for everything you can think of. So how can we get everybody in on the act, and yet still take action? Bob was an early convert to the notion that there is no other way to move a project forward than to get everyone engaged in the process. It is messy and slow, but the result is the one that is most likely to stick. Otherwise, we are just shoving the “right” decision down people’s throats. And we know how that turns out.

What advice would you give later-career managers who are struggling to find new sources of motivation at work? Bob gave me great perspective on the value of dual direction mentorships. We all spend a lot of time talking about preparing the next generation for leadership, but of course such mentoring is not all one-way. Early career managers are teaching us new approaches on a daily basis, and we should find more opportunities to embrace this learning. Bob also suggested that many later career managers don’t see themselves as role models, and are perhaps too humble about what they have to offer. He believes that for early career managers, time with the “older set” is priceless. Managers are so used to deferring credit that they forget that they have great value to impart to others.

What would you tell your early-career self?  This hits home. Bob would tell his earlier self that the simple, obvious, technical solution is not always the best option. I am reminding myself of that as I write this. Maybe it will stick this time.

What are the areas of local government that you believe will be the most impacted by the pace of change? Bob says that the biggest challenge for government responding to change is that there is no money for research and development, and no seed capital for experimentation. Even if you have a cool idea, where would you get the funds to explore it? Bob’s solution was to create what he called “venture teams” every place he worked. The teams would focus on an issue that was likely to be increasingly important over the three to five year horizon, find out what the the best places in the world do, what the city is doing, and then identify the gap. (Bob is quick to point out it was more fun for those teams to go to places like Disney World and Busch Gardens as field research back before we had Google). For example, the teams discovered at a nearby air force base that pride and performance improved when the mechanic’s name was painted on the plane along with the pilot’s. Bob encourages all managers to consider the use of such venture teams to identify looming issues and scan the environment for solutions.

I have heard you say many times that you think this is the best time to be an early career employee in local government.  Why is that? Bob thinks that this is an amazing time to be involved in local government – in a lot of ways our times are similar to when he started out. Local government has never been more important, especially as ordinary Americans report that their faith in government is highest (by far) at the local level. A generation is leaving the workforce, and the opportunity for new leadership is available to those who are prepared to take this risk.

So let’s practice, learning from those newer to the profession than we are, exploring the use of venture teams, and promoting the profession. For help spreading the word, check out the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Mass Town Careers project. Maybe you will spy a VeryKate follower or two, as well as great footage of our town.

Power Hour: Local Government Style

The work desk TBR

This shiny new decade finds me as overwhelmed as ever, struggling to find new ways to be more productive. If I can just “catch up”…

As ever, I turn for advice to Gretchen Rubin. In her book Better Than Before, she demonstrates the power of habit and explores many ways to set or break habits. One of these tips is to create space for a “power hour”* on your calendar. Power hour tasks are usually those that weigh us down because we know we should be doing them (hello photos). I find that once I put a task on a list, it stops weighing so heavily on me. It has been given its own time and space.

I’ve used the power hour concept in my home for years (or else my computer would never be backed up and my Goodreads account would be empty). I wondered if power hour would work in Town Hall. The answer is unreservedly yes. I am striving to put one hour a week on my calendar to tackle the kinds of tasks that never make it to daily list and therefore will never get done. Power hour tasks are also the kind of thing you can easily do at the end of a long week when you run out of steam. Here is my initial list:

  • file
  • read national association magazines
  • read management books
  • take personality tests and review data
  • update policies
  • clean out your pen drawer
  • Update your resume
  • organize the drawer where you keep coffee, soup and stale rice cakes
  • de-clutter
  • file email
  • catalog your file drawers
  • upload work photos from your phone
  • update your password list
  • file more
  • throw out the Town Hall phone list from 2018
  • Reevaluate the display of elementary school pictures of your married kids
  • start and update a success log for yourself
  • develop a success log for your direct reports to help you when the time comes for performance reviews
  • create an annual schedule to meet with boards and committees
  • plan out your professional development
  • update contacts and birthday reminders
  • call people you like on the phone (gasp)
  • think up ideas for spicing up your budget message before the day it is due (By think up I mean find budget messages from other jurisdictions and borrow ideas.)
  • draft a list of topics and speakers for your upcoming leadership meetings
  • learn a new software
  • create a personal brand PowerPoint template (I am so doing this.)
Good thing this desk cabinet has doors

*Another thing I learned from Gretchen (I seem to say this as often as I say “I heard on NPR this morning…”) is that “Power Hour” is a fluency heuristic. According to Gretchen, the easier it is to say or think about something, the more valuable it feels. Ideas expressed in rhyming phrases seem even more convincing – hence “Power Hour” makes a chore more important. This got me thinking. I like to go to municipal buildings outside Town Hall just to walk through and say hello. It seems less like procrastinating with a name like “Rapport Tour.” Similarly, working remotely at a library or coffee shop is not hiding if your calendar lists it as part of your “Quiet Diet,” or your “Promote Remote 2020” initiative!

What would you add to the Town Hall power hour list? Do you have a fun fluency heuristic to share?

Let’s practice. Find me Friday afternoon – smiling while filing.

The Snow Day and the Chair

Snow Day in 2015 Holliston, MA

I lived in Boston for many winters, shoveling out parking spaces and reserving them with plastic lawn chairs. This is probably just a Boston thing. Working late nights in local government was not conducive to getting a good parking spot, and one never (ever) took a spot that had been shoveled and reserved (via chair) by someone else. But that isn’t the kind of chair I am talking about.

I often hear early career department managers, and assistant managers in particular, talking about the importance of “chair time.” This type of chair is an opportunity for aspiring managers to gain executive experience, on-the-job training, and resume-building by acting in place of the manager – or sitting in “the chair.” I try to foster these opportunities in my own organization, but I often want to tell earlier career managers to take their time. The chair will be here, but the days of working without the burden of being the one in charge, once gone, are usually gone forever.

Snow days are a source of great stress for most people other than school-age children. When I was the parent of young children, the snow day notice was a source of dread. One of us would have to stay home – and we would enter into negotiations to see whose meeting was more important. Even worse was the early release day. When your children go to after school programs and there is an early release day, you need to pick them up long before the traditional 6:00 closing time. This entails leaving work and driving through the treacherous conditions that caused the early release in the first place. If you commute by train, you have limited options and high stress.

Snow days are also stressful for local government managers. In my view, the worst time to be occupying “the chair” is the night before a projected snow storm with a low degree of confidence in the projection. When the Governor calls a state of emergency the night before the storm it certainly makes it a lot easier to make closing decisions, but when you are the manager, you never really get to enjoy a snow day.

Don’t get me wrong – the school superintendents have the absolute worst job in this realm. But, there is also pressure on the local government manager. Should the Town Hall open? What about the Library? Is trash collection going to be on schedule? Who am I supposed to notify again? Do we still need “phone trees” or can we rely on employees and the public to check our website and social media? After all these years of making decision in a haphazard manner, I recently asked our staff to make a checklist for snow day decisions. Brilliant. I still have to get up at 4:30 a.m., but at least I don’t routinely forget a step. Or re-write – for the 50th time – the closure notice to be posted to the website.

I live about 16 miles from my office. During the peak of a storm, I am absolutely non-essential. In this day and age, any decision that I need to make can be done easily from my phone or laptop. And yet. It is impossible to curl up with a book when I know that so many of our Public Works, Police, and Fire employees are working in terrible conditions with little rest.

I am nowhere near ready to retire from local government. But I can picture in my mind a snow day when I make a second pot of coffee and a fire. Perhaps there is Netflix involved. And a chair. Just not “the Chair.”

How about you? Do you have a snow day story to tell? Let’s Practice – shovel at the ready.

Honoring Military Veterans is a Local Tradition

Lt. Commander Rebecca Ping, Emergency Management Administrator, Needham MA

“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” – Thucydides

While for the most part the military is a function of the Federal government, there is a unique and perhaps surprising interconnection between the military and local government. Local governments often own and maintain cemeteries, including special areas for veterans’ graves. In our State, every community has a veteran assigned to care for graves, usually marking them with flags at Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Cities and towns of a certain size are also required to have a Veterans Agent, and some of us provide services and coordinate benefits for veterans through regional districts. Local Veterans Agents help veterans and their families apply for benefits through the State, yet offer so much more. They help veterans navigate the Federal benefits they may be entitled to, especially through the VA Hospital network (routinely driving veterans and their families to appointments!) Most importantly, they offer advice and counsel about complex topics in a familiar setting, with great patience and compassion.

West Suburban Veterans District Director Sarada Kalpee with Very Kate on Veterans Day, 2016

Of course, observances for Memorial Day and Veterans Day are held at Federal and State level, but most average Americans who pay their respects do so at a local event. These observances, usually organized by a Veterans Agent or local veterans group like the VFW or American Legion (or, commonly, a mixture of both), are solemn yet beautiful events. They typically involve public safety honor guards and high school choirs or bands. While it is invariably raining or unseasonably cold, residents attend, listen to speeches by local officials, and sip donated coffee, carefully avoiding the doughnut table.

Earlier this month, our Town had the remarkable opportunity to welcome home the remains of Lt. Joseph Finneran, a World War II Army Airman who died in combat in 1943 at the age of 22. The outpouring of support from community members was overwhelming. The basic logistics were determined by the Army, but the observance had a truly local flavor, supported by fire and police departments of dozens of surrounding communities.

A hometown welcome for Lt. Joseph Finneran, November 1, 2019

Local government is an attractive career for veterans and reservists. I interview all finalists for police officer and firefighter positions in our Town. Their story is remarkably similar: they graduate from high school and attend liberal arts colleges in the area. They can’t imagine a life sitting at a desk, so they join the military. I always ask them what their mothers felt when they joined up, and the answer is the same: disbelief, fear, yet great pride. Many people might be surprised at the number of reservists who are called up for active duty still in 2019. Because we have a fair number of military personnel, we occasionally have to see our colleagues deploy. The Town’s Emergency Management Administrator recently returned from a year in the Middle East, and our Veterans Services Director will be shipping out to Africa in the near future. The sacrifice of enduring their absence pales in comparison to the sacrifices they make for our freedom and way of life.

What stories can you share about the intersection of military service and local government?

Let’s Practice, honoring those who see clearly what’s before them and go out to meet it.

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.