Q&A: Veteran Managers Cite Fairness, Dedication

(from Maine Townsman, May 2010)
by Chapman Mockler

Even some of Maine’s longest-serving and most-respected municipal managers have learned lately that nothing is certain – including keeping a job.

Longevity and hard work are not guarantees from controversy or the desire – which can come abruptly – by some community leaders to take a different path for the future, which can lead to a new town or city manager.

Although many of Maine’s nearly 500 municipalities are run by small elected boards, scores of cities and towns are managed by professional administrators whose primary job is to carry out the policies passed by public officials and town meeting voters.

The Townsman recently interviewed three veteran administrators who have been on the job for 25 years or more, to ask how they’ve lasted so long in a stressful and uncertain profession. What are some of the secrets of their success?

The managers interviewed were: David Morton, who started his career in Casco in 1978 and has never left; Dale Olmstead, who has managed Freeport for almost 30 years; and Susan Lessard, who has managed four Maine towns over a 25-year career, the last 10 of which she’s been in Hampden.

Parts of the managers’ responses are printed below. More of their commentary is available on the Maine Municipal Association’s Web site (www.memun.org) as an audio feed.David Morton

Q: To what do you credit your longevity and success?

Lessard: I love what I do. I approach this job with the idea that my job is to make sure I give the council good information that they need in order to set good policies for the community … and to see that (staff members) have the resources, are paid fairly and have a good working environment in which to provide good services to the citizens of the community.

Morton: It’s a wonderful community to work in. People are great. For the most part it’s a very positive community. A lot of community spirit. I think it was just one of those good matches and I was fortunate that in my first community as manager I found that good match.

Olmstead: I have the ability to read my council… If I had to compare the manager to an animal, I would say the manager has to be like a chameleon. After every election, they need to read their council, understand what their wants and needs are and be willing to make changes to accommodate those wants and needs.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

Morton: The variety. Lots of times you’ll plan your day ahead then never get to any of those things you planned because other issues come up. Sometimes that can be stressful, sometimes that’s very invigorating, as well as challenging.

Olmstead: The diversity. I never know on any given day what the issues are that I’m going to be facing. I always have things scheduled and I have a game plan in my head, but that can change the minute I walk in the door. The other thing I really like about this job is you can actually positively impact people’s lives. You can make decisions that make people’s lives better and my position has always been we’re here to serve the people and we’re here to try to help them, not hinder them.

Lessard: Every day when I come here the only thing I really know is where I’m going. I have no idea when I come in that door in the morning what the whole day might entail. There is always the possibility that just about anything could happen. It’s never boring.

Q: How do you handle and resolve serious problems?

Olmstead: I usually try to understand all sides of the issue and approach it from a “this problem is solvable” (attitude). And if we’re all willing to … give and take, then we can solve every problem that’s presented to us… I (sometimes) tell my councilors that once you make a decision, if everyone is somewhat unhappy with that decision, you’ve probably made the right decision.

Lessard: I’m a process-oriented individual and if a problem occurs I first sit down with whoever’s involved and listen because assuming is not the answer… When someone comes in and complains about one of my staff members, I might listen but my next step is to bring (the staff member) into the office so that the person who’s got something to say has to say it to the person they’re saying it about. It’s not fair otherwise to anyone. You need to open a line of communication where everyone can hear what’s going on. Little is accomplished by trying to govern to the extremes. You need to find the middle. If there have to be winners and losers, everybody’s a loser.

Morton: I like to work with people to the extent that’s possible, where people are willing to sit down and come in and talk about (problems or concerns). I think the issue is really to deal with them head-on, not to put them off (and) to engage people. For the most part, I think that works quite well. The worst thing you can do is let it fester. I learned a long, long time ago you need to tell people what you need to tell them. You have to do the right thing (even if) that’s not what they want to hear.Susan Lessard

Q: What is your management style or philosophy?

Lessard: I’m more a leader than a manager. Depending on what you do, sometimes trying to get people to do something is like pushing a rope. You’re not going to go anywhere. But if you give them good information that gets them engaged in where you’re going and the desire to get there, then you lead them. It’s a better way than pushing them.

Morton: I would say inclusive, collaborative, team approach. I like to work with my employees. I really don’t like to tell them anything. I like to ask them a lot and the same with (residents). I like to engage them and work with them.

Olmstead: Hire good people and let them do their jobs. I identify and hire the best administrators I can find and I let them do their jobs. I don’t micro-manage. Some people will argue that perhaps I give them too much flexibility, but if you have people you can count on, rely on and know they have good judgment, then you need to let them do their jobs.

Q: What are some of the jobs that you will not delegate?

Morton: If there are real problems or people who are really unhappy, I want to make sure that (staff members) send them to me. So, I don’t say to my employees, “That’s your problem. You’ve got to deal with it.”

Olmstead: Final decisions on personnel… Final approval of things like budget proposals (and) personnel policies. When it comes to the implementation of personnel policies, I make sure they’re implemented correctly and I don’t delegate the interpretation of those (policies) to anyone else.

Lessard: I don’t delegate ultimate financial review (or) staffing the finance and infrastructure committees (of the council)… I’m not unwilling to take an action, I just need more people involved in the decision-making.

Q: What book are you reading right now?

Olmstead: Sick Puppy. It’s a great book.

Lessard: The (Board of Environmental Protection) Record Hill wind appeal. That’s my light reading when I go home. (Otherwise) I’m a sort of whodunit kind of reader ... as an escape.

Morton: I’ve been reading some Sci-Fi novels just to escape. I just got done reading a fishing book … and that was interesting. Dale Olmstead

Q: What should be the No. 1 priority for a town or city manager?

Lessard: Public service. I should say “customer service.” I don’t ever want anyone coming in the door of the town office feeling that they are anything less than a valued customer. We only are here because they’re there. It’s not the other way around.

Morton: To make sure that you have the best people possible in all the positions that you need to staff. The manager can’t do everything. The manager needs to rely on staff and you need the best people possible.

Olmstead: To serve the will of the people … and you do that through the council. My top priority is to make sure that I understand the majority will of the council and that I implement the majority will of the council.

Q: What is your biggest fear or concern for municipal government in the coming decade?

Morton: I think that there has been an eroding of trust and respect in government in general that seems to still be occurring and I think that’s a problem that’s endemic across the country; it’s happening here in Maine as well.

Olmstead: We are not going to be able to provide the same level of service 10 years from now that we provide today. I’m just concerned at the municipal level, without drastically increasing taxes over the next few years, we’re not going to be able to provide the same level of service.

Lessard: I think we need to be open to change … (and consolidation of more services). As we go forward, local government is going to change because there’s not enough money in the world to sustain (services) across all (levels of government). It’s not a fear because it’s exciting to me that we can do service delivery in a better way.

Q: If you could have one true luxury for the town, what would it be?

Olmstead: This is going to be a strange answer, but it would be a recreation department – because we don’t have one. We have a lot of recreation facilities and they’re all kind of orphaned out to here, there and everywhere.

Lessard: We don’t take anything off the (capital improvement) list because it’s big. We view these things as things that need to be eaten in small bites. It doesn’t mean that what we really want isn’t where we’re going or we can’t get there.

Morton: Right now, given all that’s been going on, I would say “peace (and) tranquility.” I think those would be the things that would be very desirous right now.

Q: Where did you grow up and what did you like best about it?

Lessard: Belfast … The kids all walked places … and it was a “community” community. I love this state and I learned that when I was just a little kid and the ocean was just down the street and the people that I knew and that raised me were all very hard-working, down-to-earth people. I have a strong work ethic but it came from where I came from.

Morton: In North Windham (at) a time when it was a little, rural community where I could walk safely a half a mile to elementary school down (Route) 302. I (also) could walk a half of mile down behind my house and (swim) in Sebago Lake.

Olmstead: Woodland, which is north of Caribou … When I say Woodland I always tell people “Caribou” because everyone thinks it’s (the other Woodland) somewhere on the coast. … What did I like about it? It’s Aroostook County. (In) Aroostook, you know who your friends are and you know who your enemies are because everybody’s up front, everybody’s straight with you. There are no hidden agendas.

Q: What is your favorite thing to do when you are not working or spending time with your family?

Morton: Fishing …in particular, fly fishing. There’s a certain rhythm to it. You don’t have to be catching fish but you’re doing something. I just find it very therapeutic.

Olmstead: Travel. When I retire I’m going to travel as much as I possibly can. I don’t care where it is. If I haven’t been there, I want to go. … Spain, Portugal – big time, I want to go there. And New Zealand.

Lessard: I’m an outdoors-oriented kind of person and that is a good antidote to a lot of (time spent) inside.