Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Next Generation (Tweet of 8/9/09)

It is difficult to believe that it has only been a week since I announced that I am leaving Arlington for ICMA in November. At the same time, it still doesn’t seem completely real even though dynamics in the office have changed rapidly. Colleagues are very much in transition mode – as they should be.

As one might expect, everyone has been very nice and said many flattering things. It’s sort of like attending your own funeral. It is common, however, for people in Arlington to be nice. Rarely during my long tenure I have ever felt unappreciated by the people I serve.

Some are surprised when I tell them that Arlingtonians almost always say something good when they come up to me in a store or restaurant. Even people who have a complaint usually add a comment about how much they love living in Arlington.

In recent days, two civic activists who helped make Arlington what it is have passed away: Jennie Davis and Jim Mayer.

Ms. Davis was a tireless advocate in the Nauck neighborhood. Early in my career I encountered her frequently. She had a reputation for being tenacious, but I always found her to be a person with whom I could work. I also admired her tenacity. The reality is that Arlington has been a geographically segregated community for most of its existence. African-American neighborhoods have had to fight for equity in service delivery. In fact many of the African-Americans who are native to Arlington were born in Washington D.C. because Arlington Hospital was segregated well into the last century.

It’s a great tribute to Ms. Davis and symbolic of the respect she commanded that a racially diverse group turned out for her memorial service. It was but one of many visible signs of what she accomplished. Yet her work for social equity remains unfinished. While Arlington espouses a sincere commitment to diversity, inclusion, and social justice – the long history of discrimination all across America is not fully behind us and requires vigilance for those who follow in the footsteps of Ms. Davis.

Jim Mayer also had a stellar record of public service in Arlington. We crossed paths in a number of activities over the years, including his leadership in the United Way, Civic Federation, and Regional Park Authority. Some of his most valuable work was as chair of the Industrial Development Authority, which is an important vehicle for funding major projects in Arlington. What was always striking about Mr. Mayer was his civility. He had a presence of thoughtfulness and sincerity. He was one of those people who made everyone comfortable to be with. His death was untimely and prayers go out to his wife Marjorie.

We are going through a generational change in Arlington with people retiring and many dying – some after a very full life like Jennie Davis; others much too early like Jim Mayer. This is when the resilience of a community is tested.

Some localities that achieve a pinnacle of success, like Arlington, live off their reputation and slowly begin a slide backwards. The great communities look out from the height and ask how much higher can the go.

Leaders of the next generation need to be good stewards of what they’ve inherited, but not protectors of the status quo. Just as the nation is perpetually trying to perfect the union, communities must also seek new levels of excellence – of economic and environmental sustainability rooted in social equity. We must forever strive for a society where people really can enjoy life and liberty and can vigorously pursue happiness and fun.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The interview with Bruce DePuyt on New Channel 8 this afternoon was an encouraging experience. Unlike screaming heads that dominate cable “journalists,” DePuyt is a model of civility with substance.

On today’s show, DePuyt conducted three interviews over the course of an hour: one on the decision by the Governor of Maryland to support a new streetcar line crossing Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties; the second was on the breaking news of former President Clinton’s success in securing the release of two journalists from North Korea; the third was the story of my departure from Arlington to ICMA.

This is a lot of ground to cover, but DePuyt had intelligent questions in each area. In my interview he did make one error – announcing that I have managed Arlington for almost 30 years. I have managed parts of Arlington for almost 30 years, but I’ve only been “Manager” since 2001. During the break, I gave him the clarification, to which he responded, “Oops.” He then deftly gave an accurate description when we were again live.

A more striking side conversation was about integrity in government and I made an unflattering statement about integrity in New Jersey, where a number of local officials have been recently indicted. He didn’t really take offense, but – being from New Jersey – he challenged the stereotype. I acknowledged that there are honest people everywhere. He smiled in agreement.

Civil objectivity in journalism should be something we could all take for granted, but as anyone who watches cable news knows it is rare. So many interviews are about the interviewer and advancing a particular view – or, they are so superficial as to be irrelevant.

NewsTalk is focused on getting information to the public without spin or advocacy. As other forms of journalism decline, most tragically print journalism, these outlets become important. DePuyt also drills down to line level leaders who make things happen in the D.C. area.

NewsTalk is not always exciting -- because what we do at the local level is not always exciting -- but it can be informative. Check out the NewsTalk website for video clips of the interviews and click the ones that deal with issues of interest to you. You could learn something.

Text of Resignation Letter

To the Arlington County Board:

After more than 29 wonderful years working for Arlington County, I will move to the next phase of my career later this fall.

I deeply appreciate the County Board for giving me the opportunity to serve as County Manager. We have worked on a bold agenda that has made Arlington a model community in multiple areas. The County Board’s support, vision, respectful guidance, willingness to take measured risks, and steadfast commitment to egalitarian values have made the job more rewarding than I could have ever hoped.

I must also acknowledge Arlington’s dedicated, hard working employees who are its greatest source of strength. Staff work behind the scenes in settings that range from dangerous to tedious. Their names rarely appear in public. They are the people, however, on whom Arlington’s reputation depends. A world-class community requires a government workforce that achieves excellence every day in routine tasks, a workforce that understands the vision and values of the community, and delivers services in a manner that honors those values – especially the commitment to respect the importance of each person. It is at the line level that services are provided and where social equity is achieved or not.

My goals going forward are to take the lessons I have learned in Arlington and help advance professional local government management and prepare the next generation of local government leaders.

Thus, I have accepted a position with the International City/County Management Association – ICMA. At ICMA I will serve as Executive-in-Residence and Director, Strategic Domestic Initiatives. Among my areas of particular focus will be sustainability, social equity, emergency management, and community engagement. I will also continue my long-term relationship with The George Washington University.

I will continue to provide day-to-day oversight as County Manager through October. From November through the end of 2009, I will shift my primary focus to ICMA, but continue to be available for consultation with Arlington as needed. I will work closely with the County Board and the Executive Leadership Team to prioritize the work to which I can lend the most value during the transition.

It is impossible for me to fully express my appreciation for the Arlington community, which is and will continue to be my adopted home. When I came to work here in 1980, Arlington was not the community it is today and I planned to stay only a couple of years and go somewhere else. I soon learned, however, that Arlington had the vision, the will, and the resources to be much more than it was 29 years ago.

Arlington’s leaders of the previous generation had a deep commitment to a progressive future. They had a belief in professional, apolitical management working on behalf of economic and environmental sustainability, while remaining rooted deeply in ethical conduct, social equity, and participatory democracy.

My goals over the past eight years as County Manager have been to fulfill the vision of the previous generation, to attempt to live up to their expectations, and to lay a foundation for the next generation to take Arlington to even greater heights. I have been joined in this work by an exceptional senior leadership team, the members of which are widely respected regionally and nationally. I leave confident that Arlington is in very good hands.

Finally, I want to note that, for more than a generation, Arlington’s leaders have shown a commitment to looking beyond our borders and working for mutual success with other local governments. It has been professionally and personally rewarding to work closely with colleagues from other jurisdictions, especially the Chief Administrative Officers of the National Capital Region and Northern Virginia and my friends in the Virginia Association of Local Human Services Officials.

Ethical values, enlightened elected and community leaders, the excellence of County staff, and inter-governmental collaboration have all become expectations in Arlington to the point that we take them for granted. We should not. These qualities have made Arlington the community it is today and what our future depends on.

When I accepted the position of County Manager in 2001, I said that I would serve as long as it was fun. The job remains immensely fun and is perhaps the best city/county management job anywhere. If I stayed as long as I was having fun, I would never leave. Working for ICMA, however, means that I don’t really have to leave, but that I get the opportunity to serve Arlington and other communities across the U.S. in a different way.

I look forward to continuing to have fun with Arlington in my new role.


Ron Carlee

County Manager

Monday, August 3, 2009

Today is the first day in the next phase of my life (twitter post of 8/3/09

It was truly a strange day as I announced my departure fromArlington for ICMA. It seems really crazy to leave a great job where you get to work with great people and do the things that you really care about. My current job is one of the very best city management jobs in the U.S.

Two factors compel me to make the decision to leave at this time.

The first factor is the new job itself. I’ve been associated with ICMA throughout my tenure as County Manager and always assumed that I would somehow be affiliated with ICMA as a participating member. The position I am taking enables me to continue to work on the issues that I consider important with the same network of colleagues with whom I work today. The content of the day to day work will be different, but the objectives the same: building sustainable communities that improve the lives of all people.

The second factor is a phobia of staying too long. I have seen a number of exceptional leaders remain in executive positions longer than they should have. Individuals and organizations both need change to grow. Over time executives run the risk of becoming overly invested in their own past. What was an innovation at one time can become obsolete during one’s own tenure. People and organizations can get stuck and not even know it.

So, at the end of this first day, it does feel strange. I have routines that will change dramatically. Many of the emails I’ve received bring tears of nostalgia and appreciation. I can also already sense some people beginning to move on. Soon people will be surprised to see me around: “We thought you had left.”

At the same time, it feels right. I’ll develop new friends and new routines and a broader network.

Mine will also be the new set of eyes on an organization which understands the need to grow and change.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On smart economic investments (twitter post of 7/17/09)

Last week Virginia Beach City Manager Jim Spore hosted a group of city/county managers (see post below).

A highlight of Virginia Beach was the visit to their new “Town Center.” Virginia Beach evolved as a sprawling suburb with no business core. It has a stunning ocean front with good hotels and amenities, especially the “board” walk, which is actually dual paths: a broad concrete walk for people to stroll leisurely, and a parallel, stripped, two-way asphalt path for bikers and runners. It has a band shell and grounds for music and an awesome bronze statute of Neptune. The beaches are wide and clean and safe and well lit (too much so for me).

But, there was no downtown.

The town center, well inland from the beach, is a model of new urbanism, combining a mix of uses -- residential, office, hotel, retail. A striking, 38-story Westin hotel anchors the town center. Of particular note is the city’s major investment -- $35-million -- in the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. While there is substantial private money in the center (+$12 million), the city carries the weight, not only for capital, but also the underwriting of an annual performance series. An even greater investment will be coming soon as Virginia Beach extends a new light rail system from Norfolk into the Town Center.

As with Arlington’s development in Shirlington, there was an understanding in Virginia Beach that the arts can provide the public “space” in mixed-use development -- unifying people across the different commercial activities. The Sandler center and public plaza are far grander in scale than Shirlington’s Signature Theatre / Public Library / public plaza complex, but the concepts are the same: create a unifying civic space.

This is obviously the same motivation behind Arlington’s recent approval of a cultural center for Rosslyn at a capital investment of only $6 million.

Rosslyn is larger scale than VB’s Town Center, with 8 million square feet of commercial development compared to a planned 4.8 million of total development for the town center. Rosslyn has 2100 hotel rooms compared with 412 for the town center.

Rosslyn was Arlington’s first urban redevelopment site; although it has been a major economic engine for Arlington, it has underperformed. The public space in Rosslyn is disjointed (the pocket parks) and disconnected (Gateway Park and Marine Memorial). It has the enviable asset of a Metro station with two lines -- but once you get to Rosslyn, there is yet no “there” there. The new cultural center is intended to begin to fill this gap, providing a venue for an eclectic range of performing and visual arts that will give people a reason to be in Rosslyn at night and on the weekends.

A more enlivened Rosslyn is also intended to play a role in advancing the next phase of redevelopment…making Rosslyn a location of choice when the economy begins to recover and credit is once again available. Of special importance is Central Place, which will bring a residential and office tower, public observation deck, public plaza, and retail – all immediately across from the subway station (570,659 sq.ft. office, 350 residential condo units, 44,554 sq.ft. retail. 27,396 sq.ft. public plaza/open space). Also important is 1812 N. Moore, another commercial tower. It will be built to LEED platinum standards and upgrade the entrance to the subway (580,000 sq.ft. office, 12,000 sq.ft. retail).

Projects such as these are the reason we cannot forsake all public investment during tight times, whether in the arts, transportation, public safety, infrastructure or other areas. Investments are about more than doing good things. They must be done smartly and in ways that create greater economic sustainability for the community. Virginia Beach is an example of a city positioning itself well for the future.

For a wonkish web site on the Virginia Beach Town Center, see:

For info on Virginia Beach cultural programs and the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, see:

For info on Arlington’s Cultural Center, see:

For more on Rosslyn, see:

On workforce development (twitter post of 7/17/09)

This past week I spent a couple of days with a group of peers in what we call the Large Cities Executive Forum. The group consists of city/county managers (or chief administrative officers who work for elected mayors/county executives). To participate, one’s local government must have a minimum population of 200,000. The group meets twice a year, in January and July for two days in the local government of one of our members. We spend our time together sharing ideas, commiserating, and making site visits in the host city. The meetings are wonkish, not junkets. We don’t have golf tournaments or fishing trips. Our day and a half is filled with meetings and site visits, which are frequently part of the evening activities as well.

Of all the different professional activities in which I’ve participated, Large Cities has been the best. First of all it is an organization without structure -- there are no officers, no dues, and no requirements other than showing up and participating. Obviously, there is a lot of work for the host city, but there has always been a member who will step forward and take responsibility. Of most value, is the small size of the group (usually less than 2 dozen) and the relevancy of all of the discussions -- again, these are not intended to be vacations, but an opportunity to connect with peers on the real problems we are facing and in an environment where one can speak candidly. We mostly deal with the same issues but in different ways and with different internal and external constraints and resources.

This summer Virginia Beach City Manager Jim Spore and his wife Joan hosted us. By the way, this is also one of the few groups were spouses are warmly welcomed as part of the event, recognizing that for many of us, city management is truly a family effort. A spouse can be your strongest critic, fiercest supporter, and most trusted confidant.

Among the topics we discussed was workforce development. In tight budget times, such as we currently live, staff development can be among the first cuts. Conferences, training, professional memberships, tuition reimbursement rarely make it to the list of “core” services. This conference is a good example. Several members did not attend because of budget reductions and several of us who did participate did so at our own personal cost. For some it was financial, but for most of us it was image – we didn’t want the criticism for spending public money to help us do our public jobs better.

This same scenario is playing out across all levels of employees and threatens important development programs. For example, members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments support a cross-jurisdictional, multi-disciplinary training program for mid-level managers and senior professionals. It’s a mini-MPA curriculum that leads to a Certificate of Public Management. It takes key players in our local governments who have been trained in a specific profession – engineering, law enforcement, firefighting, social work, library science, etc. – and exposes them to the basics of public administration. The idea is to give them new skills to be more effective leaders in the local government environment. The program also fosters a better appreciation for regionalism. Participants develop awareness and skills to operate in an interdependent world where different professions and different organizations must work together for success.

Alas, the COG program may not go forward next year. We need 25 students to be cost-effective and currently have less than 20. Some of the largest governments in the DC area have not a single applicant.

Another example is ICMA, the professional association for city and county managers. It’s annual conference serves as the most significant annual event for in-service training of managers and their assistants. The conference – as for most associations – is also a major source of funding to sustain member services. Unfortunately, this year the conference is in Montreal. Thus, it is doubly cursed. Managers are afraid to spend money on development anywhere, let alone “international” travel to Montreal. The paradox is that managers and other local government professionals need exposure to alternative ideas and best practices now more than any other time. And, Montreal is no more expensive than any other venue in North America for a major conference.

Public employees certainly don’t need to be traveling just for the sake of traveling. We need to make a business case for workforce development – and not be afraid to do so. During these times of cut backs, we’re expecting fewer people to do more with less. What is a reasonable investment in those who remain? 1%? 2%? Certainly not 0%.

An idea one city manager implemented to deal with the dilemma was to charge employees a “deductible” for professional development. The developmental activity still had to have a sound business purpose and had to be within appropriated funds. In this locality, however, the employee was responsible for the first $250 of expenses.

Is a deductible the solution? Is a per employee cap the right approach? The answer will be different for different communities, but hopefully we’ll resist a knee jerk elimination of staff development. We need creativity and competencies that will not be developed by withdrawing into isolation, obsessing on short-term financial limitations, and ignoring the long term implications.

Friday, July 3, 2009

On the interview for the National September 11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center (twitter post 7/2/09)

Oral historian Jenny Pachucki interviewed me (and many others) for the national story-telling project sponsored by the museum. I talked about how all of the Arlington County agencies – parks, libraries, human services, purchasing, schools and others were part of the response; how Arlington Fire, FBI, & DOD established joint command; how we were supported by local (and state) agencies throughout the Washington region and the nation; how the values of the community had no tolerance for hate crimes or discrimination, but showed a persistent spirit of unity and resilience. It was interesting to reflect on the events of that day as we approach the 8th anniversary of the attacks. The extremely high level of inter-agency cooperation and teamwork remains noteworthy. There was ample opportunity for turf battles, control struggles, and for egos to run wild. Across all sectors, almost everyone came together with a focus on mission.

Across the National Capital Region, we have continued to build and nurture these relationships and this philosophy even as the actors have changed. An excellent example of which is Major General Rich Rowe, the recent outgoing commander of the Military District of Washington and Joint Forces. From the day he took command to the day he left, he worked to establish relationships across the military forces, other federal agencies, and especially across state and local governments. He is an excellent example of the collaborative leadership required to be effective in today’s world.

Another great collaborator in the region is Craig Gerhart, who just retired as County Executive in Prince William County. His jurisdiction has been through a rough period with political miss-direction on immigration and devastation of its housing market. These events -- beyond Craig's control -- have been a distraction from a career of honorable and dedicated service to Prince William and to the profession of public administration. The high esteem in which Craig's peers hold him was demonstrated in his selection to lead our first Northern Virginia deployment of an executive response team to New Orleans to assist with the recovery from Katrina. The team had senior staff across all public professions and from all Northern Virginia jurisdictions. They worked under the most trying circumstances imaginable. Craig's efforts not only supported New Orleans at a critical time of need, but built increased capacity and trust across Northern Virginia. Craig will be consulting with Amtrak in the immediate future, but hopefully his talents will one day be again be devoted to professional local government.