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It's the city manager's job to run the city, Godwin reminded council in 2012

(Editor’s Note: As the 2014 City of Paris election approaches for city council positions of districts 1, 2, 3 and 6, it seems timely to present a transcript of city manager John Godwin’s comments during a 90-minute workshop with the Paris City Council in June 2012, shortly after he came on board. Godwin told council members it’s their role to set policy and give direction, and leave the rest to him.)

City manager John Godwin
City manager John Godwin

John Godwin: Thank you. I appreciate your time. I don’t want to insult anybody’s intelligence, anybody’s level of experience, but I kind of wanted to talk about some basic things.

Hopefully, I will get some feedback from you and have two-way communication. It’s important that the manager and the council both agree on what his job is, or else it causes you frustration and it causes me to be unemployed, and I don’t want either of those things to happen. (laughter).

City manager is kind of an odd job for whatever reason. August, hopefully, will mark 26 years for me in local government, and I have still a majority of my family members that don’t know quite what a city manager is.

It is, for whatever reason, kind of an unknown position. People understand that a superintendent in the school district is the CEO of the school district and the school board is there to give policy and direction and those types of things, and adopt a budget.

It works exactly the same way in cities, but for some reason superintendents are well known and city managers are usually anonymous. I tell people I’m a city manager, and they go, “Oh, you’re like the mayor,” and I say, “No, it’s not at all like the mayor.” And they say, “Well, what do you do?” I say, “Well, I run the city,” and they say, “I thought the mayor does that,” and I said, “No, the mayor DOESN’T do that.” (Laughter)

I know you guys know this, but there are some new folks on here, too, and even some of you who have been here a while have been here only a year or two years. A lot of things that you’re used to — because it’s been that way for a whole month or for a whole year or for a whole two years on the council — isn’t necessarily the way it always is in other cities, whether that’s good or bad.

For example, I’ve never run across a city that has a fulltime judge as an employee. That’s nothing against the judge, and that doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, and I’m not suggesting you change it. But if you assume from your governing experience that every city does that – every city doesn’t do that. Every city doesn’t have a fulltime attorney even in house,  or an assistant attorney like you do.

Here, you approve everything by resolution, almost. And Kent (city attorney Kent McIlyar) prepares the resolution. I’ve seen bunches of those already just in the two meetings I’ve been to. That’s kind of unusual. It’s not completely undone, but that’s kind of unusual. I say all that just to say if there’s things that seem unusual or odd, or you wonder why it’s done that way, it may or may not be for a good reason. It may be just that’s the way it’s always been done.

As a council, you always have the right to change those kinds of things – the policy things, the processes, your own processes, your own procedures. If you want to do resolutions, do resolutions. If you don’t want to do a resolution for everything, if you want to do a minute order to save time, to save Kent time, anyway, then you can do that, too. I’m not suggesting anything; it’s just something that you can do.

It’s very important that the council set policy, you set guidelines. An example of that is, and hopefully the council knows this and agreed to it at some point in time, but I got a complaint last week or the week before last, about one of the parks not being mowed. It didn’t look good. And people don’t like to go out there because it doesn’t get mowed.

Well, the response from the staff was, “Oh, we only mow it every other week because it’s on the ‘B’ list.” Well, I don’t know, if there’s going to be an ‘A’ list and a ‘B’ list, that’s something that the council really ought to say “Yeah, there’s gonna be an A list and a B list because we don’t have enough money or enough energy or enough whatever it is to keep all the parks pristine.”

Now, if that’s not your policy, I need to know that. I just meant that as an example of staff should not be doing that. That’s a policy thing and staff is not supposed to make policy.

Another example is the health department. It’s my understanding that staff kind of initiated making changes with the health department. Well, the relationship with the health department is the purview of the council, not of the staff.

Now, once you tell us, “We want you to do so and so” with the health department or with the parks, or whatever it is, then it’s time for you to back off and let us do that.

The city manager is the CEO, the COO of the organization. Every employee works for the city manager. No employees work for the council except for the city manager – and the city attorney, only those two.

And, just to be clear on that, and I don’t want to beat it to death, or insult anybody – the last thing I want to do as a brand new guy is to do any of that, but it’s not a matter of the typical chain of command where you’re up here, and then it’s me, and then it’s everybody else. It’s two separate chains of command. It’s you and me, and then over here is a whole ‘nother chain of command. It’s me and everybody else.

So it’s not that they all work directly for me and indirectly for you. By law, nobody works for you except for me and the city attorney. Whereby I reserve the right if I’ve got a problem department or a concern in a department – and I’ve already done this – to go around with one of my supervisors, with his knowledge hopefully, usually, and talk to subordinates.

You don’t have the right to do that. You don’t have the authority to do that. And that’s a violation of the Charter for you to give instructions or to interfere in the operations of the city. And that’s typical of almost every city that has a home rule charter. That’s nothing unusual or odd.

Sometimes, in my job, people talk about how, “Well, it must be really hard to have seven bosses.” And my response to that is always, “I don’t have seven bosses. I only have one. It’s the city council. I don’t have seven individual bosses.”

If one council member says, “Hey, John, go jump off the roof,” my response is going to be, “Put it on the agenda and get three more votes” — because only one of you can’t tell me something to do. The reason for that is not because I’m hard-headed and don’t want to be cooperative, it’s because if one of you tells me to jump off the roof and I do it, the other six are going to say, “Well, you’re an idiot. You can’t do that.”

Also, it needs to happen in a meeting. It needs to be in a posted meeting, and it needs to be on the agenda: “Instruct the city manager to jump off the roof.” So, there’s a process. It’s a process for a reason and it’s got nothing to do with me or my preferences.

Now, little things come along. For the sake of efficiency, I hate bureaucracy, I hate mindless rules, I hate structure that has no point to it, and as you get to know me hopefully a lot better over the next few years – I’m hoping, that’s certainly my goal – you’ll realize I’m about as anti-bureaucrat as there is. I hate that stuff. I hate that mindless, “do things” for no reasons at all.

But there are reasons for that kind of structure, and it’s important that we both understand that and that we both follow that. But for little things, you know, that’s a different deal. Certainly it’s perfectly OK and it’s even encouraged from time to time that you ask for information from staff. If you want to know, “Gene Anderson, how much money did we spent on pencils last year?” ask him. That’s an information request.

If you want to know how many tickets we wrote last year, ask the police chief and he’ll tell you.

Now, I’ll instruct those staff members, when you give information to the council members, copy me on the email, or just let me know that you talked to them, so I know what’s going on, in case there’s an issue or because they tell you something wrong.

Because ultimately I’m responsible for their behavior, and their performance, and if they don’t perform then I need to know that so I can fix it. If they’re not responsive to your request, I need to know that so I can fix it. So information requests, you’re not forbidden from talking to them, you’re not forbidden from interacting with them. They’re not going to shy away from you. If they do, let me know. They’re not supposed to.

But they’re not supposed to take their instructions from you either, except for Kent and myself. And even Kent and myself, we’re only required – and that’s a poor choice, we’re only allowed to take instructions from you — when you meet as a group, and only when you vote.

So to get me to jump off a roof, you’re going to have to put it on an agenda, post it 72 hours in advance of a meeting, and at least four of you are going to have to vote to make me jump off a roof. And then I may or may not do it, and then you can have an executive session about personnel about whether you want to keep around a guy who’s going to be insubordinate about roof jumping.

Remember, as council members, people will go too far one way or another as council members. You’re still a citizen, you still have a right to have an opinion, you still have a right to say “Hey, I didn’t deserve that ticket,” or “Hey, I want to fight city hall,” or you have an opinion on this issue. You always want to try to think about what’s best for the community as a group, not just one individual.

And you’ll have people – some of your probably already have, I imagine — some people will want you to fix their single problem, and that can get you into trouble because you’re there to represent your entire district first, or however you want to put that, that’s up to you, and then also the entire community, not just one person or a friend or a neighbor.

But you don’t give up your right to speak. I’ve had council members over the years ask me like, “Well, I can’t talk during a public hearing because, you know, I’m not a citizen anymore.” Well, yeah, you are. You pay taxes, you vote, you get to talk during a public hearing unless the mayor shuts you down for some reason because you’re misbehaving. He’s the moderator of the meeting and he controls decorum and all that kind of stuff.

If you want information from a staff member, sometimes it can be quicker to just ask me and I’ll get it for you. Or ask Janice (city clerk Janice Ellis) and she can get it for you. But sometimes it’s quicker to just go straight to them, and that’s absolutely OK, and again even encouraged, I think.

I say some of this because I tend to be a hands-on manager, and it’s not because of ego or because I like to be the boss. For 15 years, I didn’t want to be a city manager, and after working for a couple of bosses I couldn’t stand I thought, OK, I’ll be the boss.

My management style is I really try to be in charge. I was hired to be the CEO and I intend to be the CEO. I do need you to give me policy direction. I do need you to tell me, “Hey, you know what? We never decided there should be an ‘A’ park and a ‘B’ park,” and if that’s the case, I need to get that fixed, because somebody decided that on their own. That’s not the staff’s responsibility, so it works both ways.

There are certain things you guys are supposed to do. If you guys are not interested in changing the relationship between the city and the health department, then it doesn’t need to change. That’s a policy thing absolutely, and the council should be doing that, not one or random staff members. I don’t know the whole story on that, but something strikes me as a little odd there just from what I’ve seen and heard just in the few weeks I’ve been here.

One of the times that you interact immediately with the staff is on council meetings, obviously, and agendas. To be blunt, there’s been some presentations in the council meetings that I’ve been to that I thought were not as thorough as they should have been.

One of my short-term goals is to improve the information you get — not a whole lot more, but I think there should be a little more detail. Some of the information you got (for Monday’s city council meeting) I had staff members add detail before it got to you.

An example of that was last night I had Shawn (city engineer Shawn Napier) to talk about grandfathering on the head shops, because I didn’t want anyone in the audience or on the council to go home thinking “OK, once we’ve passed that ordinance, they’re going to shut all those things down,” because they might be there 40 more years. It just means that they’re a legal, non-conforming use. We hope they’re not there that long, but that’s a possibility.

If you want to make a change in how agenda items are presented and the documents are given – those green sheets (in the packet that each councilman receives on Fridays before each meeting), that’s something that was invented in Paris; it’s not something that came from state law or anybody else. Some city manager once upon a time just created that form. I’ve used similar forms and I think they’re fine, but if that doesn’t meet your needs, you know, let us know.

If you want more data, or a little less data – especially for the new folks, you know, maybe you want to do this for more than two meetings and see how much you need, because at some point it becomes, “I can’t read all this stuff so don’t give me so much.” Because you don’t want inundated to where it just becomes a beating every time you get a packet.

As an example of things I’ll do differently unless y’all tell me differently tonight, is public hearings. Public hearings are open and people can speak for or against an issue, and then the staff explains it.

Well, that’s OK if you already know what the issue is about. I prefer to have the staff present what the issue is ahead of time, because what can happen is people in the audience, they see it for the first time, they don’t know what it’s about, and they get up and say I’m against this because of so-and-so. And then they sit down and staff gets up there and explain it, and they say well, I’m not against it after all. You don’t ever want to do that to your citizens, you don’t ever want to have those kinds of misunderstandings.

So I think it’s important to have staff make a presentation and show this is what it’s about, you know, in advance, before you have a public hearing. I say that just as an example of some of the things I’d like to do a little bit differently.

One of the things I want to get some feedback from you is communication between yourselves and me. I’m used to doing two things. I don’t know how “e-maily” you guys are or, but for instance, this is something that’s happened two or three times in the last week or so. I’ll get an e-mail from a staff member that says the western half of the city is on fire and there’s a flood and six tornadoes just hit.

What I’ll do, I’ll forward that e-mail to you. Because you need to know. Somebody’s liable to call you up and say hey, what do you know about that fire, or how come I don’t have water on my street. Because people call their council members, and I don’t want you to be in a position of having to say, “Well, I don’t know. Nobody’s told me a thing.”

Now, for me, the best way to do that is just to send you a group e-mail. I sent you one or two in the last couple of weeks, and I don’t know if you got them or not because I don’t know how often y’all look at those kinds of things. I got one today where there was a water line blew out. I started to send it to you, and I thought well, I’d talk to you tonight and see if that works.

If there’s other ways of getting hold of you, let me know about it, but I really want you to be able to get these kind of newsy things. Something happened, there was a bad fire, or there was a bad wreck, or a water line out. That’s one of the biggest things, if a water line. We had one the other day and they fixed it and it blew out again. They fixed it and it blew out again. We had people without water for a day or two at a time. And I want you to know that, because you may get that call and you need to be in the know.

We don’t ever want to surprise you. If you guys are getting surprised, we’re not doing our job, so let me know, if I surprise you or any of my staff people surprise you. Let me know so I can try to fix that. Because that’s something we don’t want to do.

You need to have information. I can’t always get it to you right away, but with e-mail it’s pretty easy to just send a mass e-mail to all seven of you and hopefully you’ll get it. If you don’t do e-mail, if you don’t check your e-mail but once a week or something like that, let me know and we can fax you or call you. There are different ways to do that, but I want you to get that kind of information.

The other kind of communications I’m used to doing, and I don’t want to do something that you don’t need or want, but just give you regular reports on what I’ve been up to and things that are happening in the city. I’ve done that on at least a monthly basis, and I’ve done that as often as every Friday. I don’t know if that’s the kind of the thing that would be valuable to you. And you don’t know because I’ve never sent you one. But again, I like you to know what’s going on.

Now, I don’t want you to think you’re in charge. Because I am (laughter).

But I do want you to know what’s going on, and I want you to know what I’ve been up to and who I’ve been meeting with and where I’ve been going. So I assume y’all would like that kind of thing. Is there a good frequency for me to send you that sort of thing, and finally what is the best way to send that? By e-mail, too, or when I next see you? If you have any thoughts about that, let me know.

Another thing, too, along the lines of communication is communication with the community. I don’t know how many of you look at the web site, for example – if you use the web site. I would really like to have your feedback on the web site. If you haven’t looked at it, look at it and see if you’re happy with it or not happy with it, or if there are things that you think ought to be on there that are not on there.

I don’t know if Paris has ever had a newsletter. Lot of cities have newsletters that you send to your citizens; you can stick it in the water bill. That’s a really good way to communicate with your citizens. Once upon a time, when I was young and lazy, I hated doing newsletters, but I’ve been doing them for so many years now, it’s a good tool. Again, if you don’t do it well, you’re better off not doing at all, but it’s something worth investigating. It’s a good opportunity to get information out to the people.

So many times, lack of information causes problems, for the city, for you as council members, for me as the city manager, for the staff that works for me, and you can avoid a lot of that by communicating. We’re a public entity; everything we do is the public’s business.

Some things you keep in executive session for limited periods of time, but everything we do is public. They’re paying the bills and the public has a right to know what’s going on and often needs to know what’s going on. So I would encourage us to look at opportunities for those kinds of things. It’s just a good habit to get into, because it keeps you from getting accidentally too bureaucratic and too “Well, it’s none of their business; they’re outsiders.” Well, no, they’re not. They’re the stockholders in our organization.

To give you kind of an idea how I approach city management — especially for the new ones that I didn’t interview with back in February or March — I do try to make a lot of decisions, I do not try to belabor and beat things to death. For example, we had a dead tree in a yard, and people were arguing that we (the city) can’t cut down that dead tree. Well, yes we can, just go ahead and cut it down.

I hate bureaucracy, I hate over-thinking and beating stuff to death. Now, sometimes that means I make mistakes. I told people in my last couple of jobs, if you never make mistakes, you’re not doing your job. I don’t want just sit-on-your-hands bureaucracy. A code lien came up that’s been on your agenda – you go and mow somebody’s yard, you cut down their dead tree, or you fix up the place, and you send them a bill and they don’t pay it.

Well, human nature, you want to get your money back, they owe the city that bill, and it’s not fair that the city had to pay that and not get their money back. Well, sometimes those liens get bigger and bigger and bigger, and it gets in the way of things. And sometimes it does make common sense to say, “You know what if you’ll pay 10 cents on the dollar, we’ll get rid of the lien so you can start mowing this every week instead of us going on forever.”

Historically, I’ve just made those decisions like that on my own. But this has already gone to the council level and I wouldn’t presume to do anything like that now because it’s on your agenda and you need to make some policy decisions on that. But that’s an example of things I’ll often do, and you might not even hear about it, but if it makes the city work better, act better, feel better, make our citizens happy, then I’m just going to do it and I’m going to try to empower employees to do that as well.

Now, I’ve had two different things just today, “Well, we can’t do that. We’re not supposed to do that.” I haven’t gotten mad at anybody yet, but it’s inevitable that I will because I hate that kind of answer. So I’m just telling you all that to let you know what you’re getting into with me. Because sometimes you’ll be getting mad at me, but hopefully most of the time you’ll say, “Yeah, cut that tree down and fix that thing, and do whatever.” The problem with making decisions is sometimes you’ll make the wrong decision, but I’m a real outside the box kind of a guy, and I hate rules and too much structure and so forth and so on.

I’ve got a lot of things I’m looking at, I’ve got a semi-action plan till the end of this fiscal year. That’s what – three and a half months? I’ve got a list of 50 things I want to get done by September 30.

I don’t believe in just sticking with the status quo. I don’t think I was just hired to do the status quo. That may mean some reorganization. That may mean some staff changes. Don’t be surprised at anything I might do because I’m all crazy when it comes to that sort of thing. I’m real excellence-driven. I want Paris to be an excellent city.

By that I mean the organization itself. Now, if we can have an excellent organization, that makes the city as a living place and as a working place a whole lot better, too. My goal every time I work someplace is to make it the best city in Texas.

Not to be insulting, but it’s almost a shame how many people I meet almost make apologies to me about Paris. Like, “Oh, you’re still here,” and “Why would you come to Paris?” I just cringe at that, because people in Paris need to go “This is a great place, a wonderful place to work!” And that’s what I’m going to try to help you do.

Now, obviously I can’t do that by myself. I remember reading something about I was going to be brought in here to be a community leader. With all due respect, that’s not my job. My job is to lead the 325 people that work here. Y’all are the community leaders, and my job is to support you and to help you achieve your goals and visions, which we’re going to get to eventually, I promise. But that’s such a huge mindset that I wanted to throw that out there.

I’m working for Paris and I’m all onboard for Paris. I want it to be a great place, and I think that’s absolutely doable. It’s not an easy thing to do to be a great place, but it’s absolutely doable. And like I say, I’ve already got my 50 things – you can’t see them – but I’ve got my list. Some of them are small things like cutting down a dead tree, and some of them are bigger things like reorganizing departments. Trying to improve communications. Those kinds of things.

My vision is that big vision of making Paris a great place, and helping you achieve your visions.

Charles Richards, eParisExtra

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