Five months into the Bragg era

 

by Mike Kroll

 

It has now been five months since Dane Bragg arrived on the Galesburg scene as new city manager and amazingly enough you would be hard pressed to find a citizen, city employee or city council member (past or present) who isn't a fan. For a city facing as many problems, err “challenges,” as Galesburg that has witnessed very little reason for hope this is an astounding circumstance. Most incoming city managers or elected officials finding themselves in similar circumstances would be laboring to diminish expectations to lessen the pain of the upcoming fall, but Bragg hasn't done this. Instead he has tackled the budgetary problems he inherited from predecessor Gary Goddard with aplomb (and purchased himself a longer honeymoon as a consequence), broken from past practice to institute the first ever city economic development person at the director level and cast aside most of the veil of secrecy that characterized all things Goddard.

Bragg would be the first to tell you he hasn't brought the magic bullet to restore Galesburg to greatness nor has he even identified all the problems that need to be addressed across the city much less fixed them. What he has done is empowered his direct subordinates to take more initiative and be more candid. He welcomes viewpoints and positions other than his own and encourages frank discussion among staff. He has even promoted greater transparency with the public, within limits. Recall that he felt the need for the private two-by-two meetings with city council members to present his ideas for massive “tweaking“ of the 2007 budget and the creation of the economic development director position.

I sat down with Bragg in his office to discuss his Galesburg experience so far. I began by asking what he found different between Galesburg and his former city of Decatur.

“The politics of a smaller town is different. When I arrived business as usual in Galesburg was far different from what I had been used to in Decatur. In some ways I have had to adjust while in other ways I will adjust the way Galesburg operates. Most importantly, I have been welcomed warmly into the community. People have been accommodating and inviting but it is clear there are high expectations for improving the city. I already have a good working relationship with key staff, the mayor and city council and I am looking forward to working with the newly elected aldermen. It has been a busy but good first few months.”

Bragg recognized some problems almost immediately after arriving in Galesburg and is working to solve them as the opportunity presents itself. He is refreshingly open to discussion of ways to improve the city or city government and says that “communication is everything” when it comes to successful city management. He believes in a team approach to government where each of his directors and chiefs independently operate their own domains but serve both himself and each other toward better operation of the city. With obviously limited resources priorities must be determined and that is the job of the city council. But Bragg also realizes that it is his job to implement the city council's strategic vision into tactical objectives he can assign to his staff (the military metaphor is mine not his).

“I strive to be open and up front with everybody from the city council to the citizens to city staff. Hidden or secret agendas are self-defeating and an inefficient use of resources. There are many problems that need addressing in Galesburg but we need to focus on the most important and doable up front. Priorities can be both political and practical and they are necessarily fluid. I must rely on my key staff to run their departments efficiently while focused on the goals we share as an organization. This will mean changes in how the city has historically operated.”

Bragg sees the present city department organization structure as too compartmentalized. He would like to see a more programmatic approach to city government as opposed to the departmental approach currently used. “I want to see team of directors or city employees from across departments work together to tackle some of the city issues. Right now our departmental structure seems to get in the way of staff working together for the best results in many areas . One of the changes to the budget i would like to implement over time is a transition to programmatic rather than departmental budgeting. This is a major conceptual change but I believe we can try it out in an area or two for the 2008 budget year.”

As an apparently counter-intuitive example that Bragg says epitomizes this notion he points to the disjointed structure of having a separate parks department from recreation. “When I first arrived here I thought that this was a silly way to handle parks and recreation by operating out of totally separate departments but after talking with Roy [Parkin] and Larry [Cox] I have been told that they see real functional advantages to the current arrangement. So here is something I thought I would need to change that I am in less of a hurry to mess with right now. We need to learn to evaluate city operations from the perspective of accomplishments rather than line items. The current total focus on departmental line items is a poor way to budget.”

Another thing about Galesburg that Bragg recognized almost immediately is the city's tendency to over-use punitive measures, particularly in the realm of neighborhood cleanup. “I remain convinced that it is a mistake to depend so much on the stick when there are so many advantages to using a carrot. It is clear that neighborhood revitalization is important in a community of so many older homes but establishing harsher and harsher penalties seems like the wrong way to go about this task. We are spending too much money demolishing deteriorated properties only to he left with scattered empty lots. Each torn down house is like loosing a tooth. Missing teeth lead to further dental problems and a less attractive smile. We need to find a way to slow down or stop the deterioration before demolition becomes inevitable. We need to apply a lot more carrot beside our code enforcement effort. This is a project I would like to take on soon, perhaps as early as next budget year.”

Bragg would like to concentrate a multi-department approach to a targeted neighborhood for a couple of years at a time to induce building owners to make necessary improvements. “When we tear down a house we are spending thousands of dollars to get rid of an eyesore but we may inadvertently be hastening the decline of the neighborhood and we are directly reducing the city's tax base. Perhaps we should target some city funds toward subsidizing ways to clean up neighborhoods and repair or restore deteriorated homes.”

The new city manager was candid about his top priorities. “The mayor and city council have made it clear that I must focus of improving the way the city budgets this first year but over the longer term the goal must be economic development. These are clearly interconnected goals because the budget is a direct function of the economic vitality of the community. In the short-term the key must be to build the city tax base and the fastest way to do that is through retail growth. However, the longer-range economic development goal must be to expand upon the number of good-paying local jobs. I think it has become pretty clear by now that that won't be through attracting a big manufacturer. Galesburg's economic future will depend upon establishing a more diversified employment economy and becoming more attractive to young middle-class families.”

“It is probably unreasonable to expect to attract a lot of college-graduate singles to Galesburg but we need to become more attractive to young college-educated couples with kids. This is a problem that much of the Midwest outside of the large metro areas face yet our state leaders refuse to recognize it. Too many young families are being attracted to large metro areas or the Sunbelt at the expense of th Midwest's smaller cities and rural areas.”

5/10/07