An Executive Interview with Retired City Manager Mike Egan

Retired City Manager Mike Egan

What initially prompted you to get involved with local government?

I was in the private sector out of college but always had an interest in government and public policy. I became acquainted with a City Manager who mentored me toward finding an entry-level opportunity in a City Manager’s Office. I loved the work from day one and never looked back.

Why did you want to become a city manager?

In every field I’ve ever worked in, I gravitated toward management and leadership. I like to face challenges and find ways to lead and motivate people in important work. Everything we do in local government is important and meaningful work. There is nothing more rewarding than taking on a significant challenge and coming to a solution through creativity, hard work and consensus building. Every single day is different and challenging. Unexpected challenges rise frequently. You have to be on your toes and pay attention. You have to surround yourself with smart and capable people. I can’t think of a more challenging or more rewarding career.

What was the most important part about your job as a City Manager?

Protecting the City staff team and ensuring they have the support and tools to do their jobs, often in an extremely challenging environment. In any political environment where there are competing agendas, there can be elements that try to undermine staff members just trying to do their jobs. The Manager needs to ensure their staff knows they will be supported in implementing the City’s policies and practices.

Which City project are you most proud of during your years as a City Manager?

There really are too many to pick one, but the one that has had the longest impact probably means the most. In the early ‘90s, as crime was rising throughout the country, we were certainly not immune in Bellflower. But, moreso, we were a very modestly funded agency and were under tremendous financial pressure to provide adequate public safety services. Our infrastructure was also simultaneously failing. The community was very conservative and not inclined to raise taxes to pay for additional services.

So, we built a coalition of community members to lead brainstorming on the problem. They ultimately decided to take a tax measure to the voters to raise service levels. We held countless community meetings to explain the problems and how the proposal came about. Voters ultimately approved the measure and a substantial investment in service and infrastructure investment began, which continues to this day. But it wasn’t just passing the measure that had value. The community learned it could largely control its own destiny and improve its own quality of life. The spirit of that effort lives on today with strong Council and community leadership and the City of Bellflower continues to make progress. I left the City eight years ago but love to go back and see progress continue and community pride grow.

What are the greatest challenges facing City Managers in California today?

Expansion of partisan politics into local government is definitely one of the greatest challenges. Cities have long held to the principle of non-partisan elections and governance. Cities are, first and foremost, municipal corporations formed to provide critical services that protect and impact lives every day. Political parties are formed to bolster one group and ideology at the expense of another. Cities need to focus on providing service and responding to challenges. Challenges rise regularly. Debate can be healthy, but debate along rigid partisan lines is a detriment to getting things done.

Limited resources has always been another challenge, but that seems to be reaching a breaking point. As resources become scarcer, Sacramento puts more demands on cities. Cities usually recognize the problems they face and are typically willing to tackle them, but cities don’t always have the necessary resources. In fact, before they are allowed to move forward with incorporation, communities interested in forming a City must face a review by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to determine if they are financially capable of providing necessary City services.

Homelessness is a clear example of one of the most pressing problems where cities are being asked to step up while dealing with limited resources. Homeless services are basically a welfare service. Most cities would not have been allowed to incorporate when they did if they had proposed to provide welfare services. They had no revenue source to accommodate it, and still don’t today. That’s not to say cities don’t have a role to play in addressing the crisis—they do. The state can mandate all it wants but, without adequate resources, the problem won’t get resolved.

Last (but not least), pension liability is a ticking time bomb. There will likely be more municipal bankruptcies in the near future.

What is your favorite way/place to interact with the residents of your City?

At community events. When residents see you at local events, they are often more comfortable approaching and getting to know you. We always try to make City Hall an inviting place, but coming there can sometimes be intimidating. Every opportunity to mingle with residents in a relaxed setting is a valuable opportunity to open lines of communication.

What is the role of a City Manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?

The City Manager has to ensure that processes are available and equally accessible to anyone who wants to participate in community decision-making. The Manager has to ensure that policies and practices are implemented consistently and without favoritism to any group or individual.

How are cities shaping the future of California?

Cities are where most people live, and where people experience the impacts of public policies, new ideas and new technologies. We live in dynamic times with rapidly changing technology and business models affecting us differently every day. Because cities are all so different, they provide a breadth of experience to measure what works and what doesn’t. It’s not always pretty, but cities implement test and revise innovations (like ride share programs, bike share programs, building efficiencies, transportation efficiencies and communications technologies) to make California work better.

When you’re not busy working, how do you like to spend your time? What hobbies do you have?

My wife Teresa and I love to travel: seeing new places and experiencing the world’s architecture, art, food and culture. We have been to 30 U.S. states so far but want to visit all 50. We’re checking another one off the list by going to Alaska this summer. We’ve been to a number of European countries and, next year, we’ll go back to see more.

We are also foodies. We love to try new restaurants, especially independent ones. We’re always looking for great food experiences. We particularly like fusion food where chefs blend the flavors and cooking style of different cultures to create entirely new dishes. When I’m not at a new restaurant, I love to cook at home for family and friends—it relaxes me.

And, of course, I’ve been enjoying USC Football ever since my Dad took me when I was a little kid. Going to games makes me remember my Dad and feel close to him. We go to all the home games and at least one away game a year. The whole tailgate experience and college spirit is invigorating.

What has been one of your greatest professional challenges, and how did you address it?

A quick caveat: by far, most of the elected officials I’ve worked with are individuals of high integrity. But a few have wanted to use their positions to inappropriately grant favor to friends or family for personal gain. I had to stand up to say “no.” Every City Manager that has been in the business for a while will face such challenges, but it can be scary and intimidating to make that stand for the first time. Most importantly, I had to communicate the importance of ethics, integrity and fairness with the whole Council and the entire organization and make sure the support was there. Councils need to be committed to upholding ethical standards in their organizations and support the Manager in safeguarding ethical practices.

What has your work in public service taught you?

That the world needs committed public professionals to guard the integrity of our institutions and processes. They are frequently under assault.

What book is on your nightstand right now?

“The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” by Robert Caro. I’ve read two of the four Caro volumes on Lyndon Johnson and they were incredible. I heard about this book from a friend. Caro’s detailed research and rich story telling capacity are a tremendous gift to experience.