Welcome aboard Mr. Bragg
by Mike Kroll
Although Tuesday was his official first day on the job Galesburg's new city manager got off to an early start last week as he spent time in City Hall meeting his staff and getting briefed by outgoing city manager Gary Goddard. Bragg's first city council meeting Tuesday night was uneventful, and that's undoubtedly as he hoped. The meeting agenda was light and free of controversy and the council inclined to sprint through it completing Bragg's inaugural meeting in near record time but his first real test will come next week.
Galesburg starts 2007 with a new city manager at the helm, four of seven seats on the city council up for grabs in the April election, and a minor budgetary crisis. Two nights next week will be devoted to discussions of that budget mess with scheduled work sessions on Wednesday and Thursday night (January 10 & 11) beginning at 6pm. Mayor Gary Smith explained that the first night will be largely devoted to hearing public comment but that once such comment was completed discussion would be limited to council and staff. Bragg is expected to offer a summary of where the 2007 city budget stands and realistic suggestions for dealing with the revenue shortfall Goddard has projected as approaching $1 million.
Quite frankly this seems like an unfair test of Galesburg's newest hire. With barely a week to settle in Bragg is being expected to explain a budget he had no hand in developing to a council that has so far exhibited little comprehension of the issues involved and even less inclination to assert any leadership in the matter. At this point it is too late to even consider raising property taxes, the vast majority of the budget expenses are not realistically reducible without stinging personnel and service cuts, and what remains of so-called discretionary spending is but a small sliver of the city budget. Without the imposition of new taxes (an approach the city council has already eschewed) the only remaining option is spending down funds already accumulated in the city's bank accounts and asking city departments to be extra cautious about this year's spending.
Tight budgets are nothing new to Bragg. Coming to Galesburg from Decatur, a city roughly two and a half times our size but which has suffered similar economic hardships in recent years past, he has been part of a team that worked to hold down city spending and beef up economic development. In fact as assistant city manager for economic and urban development in Decatur Bragg was in a position similar to that held by Roy Parkin here. Bragg told me that he and the other three assistant city managers in Decatur worked closely with Decatur city manager Steve Garman to develop that city's budget.
“The budget issue is much more of a long-term issue than a short-term one,” explained Bragg. “We are really too late in the process to make really significant changes for the coming year and an awful lot already appears to have been trimmed from this city's budget. From what I have seen so far there isn't much 'fat' left to eliminate and the council has limited choices it can make. My job next week will be to help them understand how limited their options are at this point and emphasize the importance of longer term planning to avoid situations like this in the future. The city council has created a 'pay me now or pay me later' scenario where most of the expenses that appear to be potential cuts will actually result in higher costs in future years. Sometimes it is easy to think small and not look forward or take into consideration the real costs of decisions made today that have a variety of future consequences.”
“I have the advantage of coming into this situation fresh and with no history or bias, an impartial observer if you will. Hopefully I can see possibilities that have so far eluded the staff and city council because they have been so close to the issues involved. At this point I am still an outsider without any personal investment in any city program, department or personnel and that just might make it easier for me to offer suggestions that might not otherwise come up. This is a short-term situation that I won't long be able to leverage to my advantage as I assume my new role here.”
Bragg is a young, bright and articulate guy. Married and expecting his first child in March, he and his wife have already purchased a home here in Galesburg. (Goddard rented for the entire eleven years he spent in Galesburg) On Tuesday night following the city council meeting we sat down in Bragg's new office to chat about his new job, his first impressions of Galesburg and to learn a little about the man himself. The office had been repainted over the weekend and all of Goddard's touches were gone. Bragg hadn't yet had an opportunity to make the office his own and he admitted to not being entirely comfortable in it yet.
“This is a very different physical and organizational layout from what I am used to in Decatur. The city government and staff is much larger there but the arrangement of Decatur's administration building placed all of the top city staff within a stones throw of one another. We literally crossed paths every day all day long and it was common to drop into each others' office to discuss an issue extemporaneously. It was not uncommon for the city manager to gather us up on a moments notice to immediately discuss some item or problem and we treated management of the city as a team. I like that approach and I hope to implement it here. I will rely on department heads to provide me with the information I need to make good decisions or policy recommendations to the city council. In the past I have always encouraged a high level of autonomy in my professional staff because I feel that this is not only a more efficient way to manage but encouraged greater creativity as well.”
Bragg believes in being flexible within broad constraints. He admits that there are many detailed aspects of running the city that no city manager can even completely understand or appreciate. Like a business manager he feels you need to hire staff with such expertise and provide them with the resources to accomplish the tasks assigned. He is also an approachable guy who wouldn't hesitate to listen to ideas from city staff and is open to new viewpoints other than his own.
“I don't begin to understand the specifics of fleet maintenance or the day-to-day operations of the various city departments, I know just enough to be dangerous about running a police or fire department. That's why the quality of my staff is so important to me. The existing setup of Galesburg is different than I am used too but that doesn't make it wrong. For the time being I'm going to work within the present system, take note of what works well and what doesn't work before I begin to consider making any significant changes.”
As to dealing with the city council itself Bragg said: “There is a very fine line between the council and the manager. I think the quality of the relationship between the council members and the manager is the key to both success in running the city and survival in your job. Hopefully I will be able to give the council good information enabling them to arrive at good decisions while simultaneously managing city operations effectively within our resources.”
This is a new job for Bragg on a number of different levels and for all our sake let us hope he succeeds beyond all expectations.