Notes from Lowell City Council’s interviews with city manager applicants Linda Milsapps, James White and Eileen Donoghue:
Linda Millsaps (interview via Skype)
Opening Statement: Lifelong public servant and manager of excellent public employees. Undergrad from American University and Masters from Harvard Kennedy School, then Ph.D. from West Virginia. Focused on economic and community development in West Virginia in areas that were not thriving, came up with ideas for economic development. Created a non-profit that promoted creation of small businesses. Then moved to North Carolina. Worked with state legislature as a staff member on taxation and economic forecasting. Then worked for NC Dept of Revenue, became Deputy Secretary. Since then, has worked in non-profit sector.
Councilor Cirillo: Says in her cover letter mentioned challenges Lowell faces; asks what are those challenges?
LM: How to continue economic growth of the type you want. Then how to you manage a community that is so diverse that it’s a great strength but also a great challenge.
Councilor Conway: What title would best describe you as a manager: a coach, a general or a parent?
LM: Coach would probably be closest. As a manager, you have to find the right people and help them grow. Sometime you have to cut people from the team.
Councilor Elliott: What were some strategies you used to increase revenue collections and your experience in local budgets?
LM: At DOR, it was beginning of Great Recession and there had been some policy choices by prior administrations that had left the state in tough shape. So my job was to increase revenue without changing the law or creating too much angst for elected officials. First step is to look at things you should be collecting but are not. We looked at large corporations with pending cases. We got more aggressive in resolving those cases. That generated $500mil in 6 months. Then looked at small businesses, created a partnership that provided them with counseling, refinancing, etc, and in exchange we gave them better terms for paying off their taxes going forward. Regarding local budgets, challenge is shrinking federal and state aid. Process of budgeting is about choice and priorities. Important to have elected officials state priorities.
Councilor Kennedy: Why would you like to come back to Massachusetts? Describe the Lowell-related case studies you studied in college?
LM: I’m in North Carolina for family obligations, but they have gone away over time (last daughter is graduating from high school) and I have flexibility to move and Massachusetts is of interest. As for Lowell, it has rich history, uses that history in a positive way, has brought in lots of outside resources, and has put together a very diverse community that seems like a very exciting place to be. As for the case studies, they were about transitioning old mills into more contemporary uses. Lowell was one of the first to make that conversion and it has been a model for other parts of the country, especially in North Carolina.
Councilor Mercier: What is your greatest quality that you would bring to Lowell?
LM: When I was at DOR, we had a mantra “compassionate when called for; firm, but fair.” That epitomizes my approach. I’m very excited about public service. As a manager and a leader, I want to draw that attitude out of people working in government. Then there’s compassion for those who don’t have as much as others. As for “firm but fair,” sometimes you have to make tough decisions in government.
Councilor Leahy: What would be your top priorities as Lowell city manager?
LM: I’d spend 60 to 90 days getting to know elected leadership of community to find out your priorities. Also get to know the city employees. Then I’d want to make sure the systems in operation in Lowell are working at maximum effectiveness. Also look at growth and economic development. Looking at it positively, but being honest about it. Also make a priority to reach out to all groups in Lowell to ensure they are included.
Councilor Milinazzo: Could you talk about creating housing and promoting public-private partnerships?
LM: This is an area in which I would excel as your manager. When I took over DOR relationship between DOR and business community was rocky. By time I was done, we had a much better relationship. I went out and asked what was working; what was not. I would follow that same approach in Lowell, reaching out to key partners and employers.
Councilor Nuon: The city government is not very diverse: how would you reach out to diverse communities in hiring employees?
LM: I would look at each department and measure how it matched the community makeup. Then we would do specific outreach to those communities when jobs become available. I feel very confident that there are strong community leaders in those communities, so I would reach out to them and ensure them I am personally invested in diversifying the workforce. Then we have to celebrate the diversity of the workforce and what that adds to the city.
Mayor Samaras: What would you do to help bring top companies to Lowell to promote economic development?
LM: I would use a multi-pronged approach. First, go to major employers and ask for a list of some of the businesses outside of Lowell that they do business with. It might be advantageous to both to have them relocate to Lowell. Then look at niche markets that are already successful in Lowell and focus heavily on bringing in others and also bring in their vendors and suppliers to create clusters. Finally, focus on small businesses. It’s more effective to grow a lot of small businesses than to land one big one. That includes growing more entrepreneurs in the community. How can the city help people who are already here make their own businesses in the community they already love? She really likes the YouTube videos Lowell already has about small businesses. They are great and should be pushed out even more.
Follow-up question from CC Nuon: Role of nonprofits in Lowell’s economy? LM: They can be leveraged in many positive ways for economic development. They bring employees which is what’s really important to the vitality of the community (even if the nonprofit does not pay property taxes). Encourage them to expand and diversify their workforce. The city can help incubate some of the nonprofits already there. We set up a small grant program for nonprofits that are results based. They would be judged on how well they reached those outcomes. Eventually, they can be converted to contracts rather than grants for important needs such as early childhood issues. There is a lot of opportunity to use nonprofits to promote workforce development, to help with making non English speakers more competitive in the workplace, and partnerships with educational institutions would be significant.
Follow up from Ed Kennedy: You mentioned doing a survey of businesses in Lowell about who they do business with, have you actually done that? She was not the director, but she analyzed this in the legislature: They looked at Dell coming to NC to build a manufacturing plant. The incentives included attracting suppliers to co-locate with Dell. An example on a smaller scale, at the Chamber of Commerce, we did it with some small textile firms.
Linda Millsaps questions for council: What do you see as the relationship between the manager and the council? Ed Kennedy replies that the good part of city manager government is that the CM has to work with the city council. If they don’t the council gets a new manager. That differs from a strong mayor who is also elected but whose position may be coveted by councilors so they don’t work cooperatively because they are competitors. Under our system, decisions can be made more quickly. Mayor Samaras adds that CM form is efficient. Strong mayor does what will help him get reelected which is usually cut taxes. A CM is better able to juggle priorities.
Linda Millsaps closing statement: She’s very excited about this possibility and about the great things going on in Lowell. I have very broad experience which makes me a good potential manager. Others might have more specialization, but I can go deep into a lot of areas. I’ve had to lay off a lot of people and hire a lot of people. I’m excellent at building good relationships with elected officials.
James White (skips his introduction).
Question from Rita Mercier: If you are elected City Manager, would you move here?
JW: I have a wife and two children so we’ve started talking about that, so that would certainly be a consideration.
Councilor Leahy: What would be your top priority as City Manager?
JW: I would have to better understand the departments, but the fiscal aspects of the job are something I would be very comfortable with.
Councilor Milinazzo: You are a CPA. Not everyone who deals with numbers is a good people person. Could you talk about that aspect of you? And also talk about the refinancing at Suffolk University.
JW: As a CPA, I try hard to be collaborative and creative and not just look at the bottom line. So rather than just saying no there’s not enough money, I would work with the person making the proposal to find alternate funding. He explains a big refinancing undertaking he did with Suffolk University.
Councilor Nuon: The city has been less diverse in hiring. What would you do about that?
JW: I believe in diversity. The role we have as managers is to develop staff. I’d like to be a good mentor. The classes I teach in higher ed for the past 20 years have been very diverse and have given me good experience in that area. He thinks ethics is very important in hiring.
Mayor Samaras: How do your skills fit the city manager postion?
JW: I used to work in the New York City comptroller’s office and had to leave for family reasons, but I’ve always wondered what it would have been like if I had stayed there. I have a good level of comfort with finances. In terms of management, I know where I want to go and I’ll need to get my team to go in the same direction.
Councilor Cirillo: Describe community involvement experience.
JW: Any time you do something in Cambridge, you have to work with city government and the council. Gives an example of creating child care on campus at MIT.
Councilor Conway: What would best describe you as a manager: a coach, a general or a parent?
JW: I’m a parent when I have to get into the details. I’m a coach when we’re progressing and we’re OK.
Councilor Elliott: You have a distinguished career in the financial sector. Could you elaborate how you gain loyalty to employees while being an effective manager? And what attracted you to this job?
JW: In the last 3 to 5 years, Harvard and MIT have changed. They just can’t raise tuition every time. We’ve reached a tipping point. Bond rating agencies are becoming worried about future of higher ed. I am concerned about that too and think it’s time to go back to my roots in government.
Councilor Kennedy: Outgoing city manager in his interview mentioned three areas he would focus on. What is your vision for Lowell and what has been your experience with the city?
JW: I’d want to understand the services the city provides. My interest in Lowell is because I was a high school athlete and I spent a lot of time competing here. Then my wife and I have spent a lot of time here over the past few years. I think this is an exciting place to be. My motto as a manager is doing more with less. Education, safety and a community feeling are all very important.
Follow up Councilor Nuon: What is role of non-profits in Lowell’s economy?
JW: MIT is a nonprofit in Cambridge and we leverage our resources with what the city is trying to do. Nonprofits are an engine for the economy. Because they are not taxed, they have a price advantage. Nonprofits and government can really collaborate and work together to get things done. I think state and federal funding will be challenging in the future but that doesn’t prohibit them from going forward together.
James White closing statement: Grew up in Boston, was a high school wrestler so he came to Lowell often. Now lives on south shore with wife and two young children. Parents both emigrated from Ireland. Went to graduate school in Indiana and traveled extensively when working at Harvard, but always seen Massachusetts as home and thinks this kind of job is giving back to the community.
Eileen Donoghue opening statement: You have my resume and know my background. When I look at what I’ve done in my professional career as an attorney, a councilor, mayor, state senator, I think that most of my professional life has propelled me towards this job. City Manager of Lowell is one of the most important jobs in government bar none. Lowell is a very different place today because many people have worked so hard to change the city’s direction. I’m interested in this job because I’m excited about the possibilities and working together we can bring Lowell to an even better place. The state is one of the keys to our success and the council has demonstrated that it is worthy of the state’s investment in the city. Mentions the various senate committees she has chaired or sat on which has given her insight into obtaining resources and relationships which are very important to obtaining those resources. We have a tremendous opportunity working with the state. My experience as a councilor and at the state house will be very helpful to me in this position.
Question by Mayor Samaras: What would you do to bring in more businesses to Lowell?
ED: Lowell is a critical city in the future of the Commonwealth of Mass. We’re the fourth largest city and we have many of the resources that companies moving to Boston and Cambridge are looking for. We have higher ed, the Hamilton Canal District. We have to double down on our partnership with UMass Lowell. We have to reach out to developers. There are companies from all over the country that want to come to Massachusetts. I would not be shy to call upon the Secretary of Economic Development to find out who they are working with and get them headed this way.
Councilor Cirillo: Examples of how you’ve helped improve the environment?
ED: Invested money in open space and green space. I’ve advocated the CPA on many levels. I filed a bill about rail trails this year to give nonprofits the opportunity to apply for funds, not just municipalities.
Councilor Conway: What would best describe you as a manager: a coach, a general or a parent?
ED: I would be more of a coach. The City Manager’s job is to work with and for the city council. That entails getting the council the best information. A general is top down, ordering people what to do. It might be a little like a parent in providing guidance and information.
Councilor Elliott: Makes public disclosure as required with state ethics that he is a candidate for state senate. His question: Public safety is important. Our tax dollars are stretched. How do we balance these two?
ED: Public safety is key to anything we do here on many levels. Everyone is aware of the poor condition of the police and fire stations in Lowell. Most of the time a new facility would be paid for by the city. In the state senate, I put in a $4mil earmark to get the ball rolling for a new public safety facility in Lowell. We have to figure out how we’re going to pay for it and this was an effort to jump start the process.
Councilor Kennedy: What sets you apart from the other applicants is the time you’ve already been involved in city government. Could you discuss your vision for Lowell for the next five years?
ED: I believe Lowell can be the best mid-sized city in America. Companies are coming to Massachusetts from all over the country. We can capitalize on that. The boom has been centered tightly on Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. We can be in that mix too. We have to advocate strongly on a number of levels. It’s important for jobs. We have the infrastructure. We have the quality of life. We can provide affordable space to companies. It’s all about growing the tax base through economic development. That’s what those other cities have done. We’re unique, but we can do some of that too.
Councilor Mercier: Did you practice law as a senator and will you practice law as city manager?
ED: I would not practice law as city manager. While in the state senate, I was “of counsel” to Gallagher and Cavanaugh which means I did not practice law full time.
Councilor Leahy: What are your priorities for the city?
ED: Economic development is key because we have the capacity to grow our tax base. We can grow the pie just not raise taxes. Think of economic development as a table that sits on pillars. One pillar is a balanced budget based on sound fiscal policies. Another pillar is public safety. If we don’t have that, no one is going to want to come here. A third pillar is partnerships. Lowell has been blessed by having lots of partners. Government can’t do everything on its own. We try. But to leverage what we have, we need to work with our partners and nourish those partnerships with both businesses and nonprofits. They all have to be included in the city to make it a strong city for everyone. The University and Community College are critical to the city’s future. And fourth are neighborhoods. We can’t just look at the biggest companies. The vitality and health of the city is in its neighborhoods. No one can be overlooked. We have to provide essential services to everyone. When everyone has a buy in it makes the city a much better place.
Councilor Milinazzo: Do you think we continue to have the capacity in our Planning and Development Office to keep all of these projects moving forward?
ED: I can’t pass judgment on it today, but it would be one of the focuses I would have if lucky enough to be selected.
Councilor Nuon: How can the contributions of nonprofits be maximized to achieve a broader economic development goal.
ED: Nonprofits often operate in silos. They do their work but don’t necessarily connect with other nonprofits or with the city. I think the city should help them all work together. Cites CMAA and their after school and summer programs. Those partnerships bring kids into healthy, constructive activities. It meant community outreach. That’s just one example. I’ve always been amazed at the great things being done by nonprofits in Lowell. We need to help them build capacity.
Councilor Nuon follow up: The city workforce is not very diverse, what would you do about that?
ED: It’s important in a city such as Lowell to include representatives of each community. We want to hire the best person for the job but we want to ensure that job opportunities are accessible to everyone.
ED closing statement: Appreciates opportunity to explain why she is interested in this position. I’m ready to hit the ground running. I’ll use the high school as an example. That has to be addressed. I’ve followed it. I know where we stand. I’ll be ready to go. I know that the city manager’s job is to work with each one of you. This is my adopted city and I have really been committed to this city from the first day I moved here. I believe in this city. We want to provide economic opportunity for everyone from young children to the elderly. We have to pay attention to everyone. I know you all bring compassion and commitment to the city council. I would be your partner and I know we could make it better together.