Executive Interview with Ana Cortez

Civic Business Journal sat down with City Manager Ana Cortez, to get a little background on her history and what inspired her to become a City Manager.

What initially prompted you to get involved with local government?

I am an accidental local government administrator. While I was attending the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy I dreamt of working for the Federal Government. I saw myself working for Human and Health Services or HUD. When the first year internships opened up, I found out that US citizenship was required for Federal employment. At that time I was not a citizen. The placement officer redirected me to an opening at the City of Mercer Island’s City Manager’s Office. I did not even know what a City Manager did. I was offered the position and reluctantly accepted it. Within a month of working with the Manager, his Assistant CM and the management team, I realized I had found my calling.

My job involved working with stakeholders on various projects, working with managers and analysts, writing documents, reading materials and going to the library (there was no internet then). Every day was a different; the issues were personal. Decisions mattered and had immediate impact. I learned about city council deliberations, the role of the CM and ACM, I was educated on the role of the management team and its value to the City Manager. I worked with advisory commissions and learn to appreciate the role of the city clerk’s office. I learned how organizations like ICMA are integral and important components of the evolution of city management as a professional sector. City management gains and loses tools; we recycle best practices and hope to translate knowledge from one city to the next.

In 2011, soon after Jerry Brown became the 39th Governor of California, he eliminated Redevelopment. Some blamed the Dive Bar in Sacramento, others fat redevelopment agencies in the largest California cities. While it lasted in California, Redevelopment was a powerful tool that allowed tax increment dollars to remain in specific geographic areas (redevelopment areas). While I worked in the City of Richmond’s Redevelopment Agency, Redevelopment was a complex tool that ensured funding to housing and allowed low income, crime ridden areas to secure large investment. Along with new Targets and retail, came local hiring and other community benefits. This experience allowed me as the new City Manager of Helena MT to immerse myself in the creation of a new redevelopment area in the site of an old mall. In Montana, we still have Redevelopment. It is called Tax Increment Financing (TIF). Like in California, the process begins with the establishment of a well-defined area and with the recognition of a base line for tax revenues. This nuts-and-bolts work is what makes local government so exciting. We can take complex legislation like TIF and break it down into its small components leading to transformation of communities. It is my hope that the Mall TIF will be transformative for Helena and the Helena Valley. I am proud to have been instrumental in its creation.

My closest graduate school friends still work for the Federal government. We exchange information and stories of our daily battles. I admire their work and respect their journey. I am glad that I ended up taking a thirty-year detour which, has tuned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Why did you want to become a City Manager?

I became a City Manager because I wanted to influence process, policies, operations, and make difficult decisions to protect taxpayers’ investments. I have worked for half a dozen city managers and have learned to appreciate work styles and communication approaches. I wanted my own space to implement best practices from these past observations and to demonstrate that open communication with the elected officials and the public is beneficial albeit difficult at times. Councils everywhere share the challenges of optimizing communication for the common good. Too many city managers and their councils spend valuable time in conflict instead of envisioning a better future for their cities. I wanted to be a city manager to help councils engage in strategic discussion about the future.

Operationally, I wanted to demonstrate the importance of capacity building. Government is criticized of inefficient practices. Nonprofits and the private sector embrace technical assistance and capacity building more urgently than we do in local government. I wanted to create learning communities within local government structures. Early in my career, I worked for two national economic development intermediaries where I received intensive organizational development training; I became a technical assistance provider to national efforts and saw how increased capacity leads to better organizational outcomes. I wanted to have the authority to create learning communities in municipalities and to foster professional growth across the organization. In West Sacramento, I was an active member of the Innovation Team that worked closely with the Denver Peak Academy on process improvement techniques. As the City Manager in Helena, I arranged for staff to be trained at the Academy as a strategy for promoting systems improvement. I wanted Helena to partner closely with the Academy just like West Sacramento did.

Financially, I wanted to demonstrate that enabling the elected officials and the public to understand the general fund, enterprise funds, administrative funds, revenues, capital expenditures, debt and projections, benefits all of us. I believe that financial information is overly complicated and that it is up to the leadership of a city to translate the information so that more can be part of the dialogue. After working for a number of cities where the city managers were reluctant to embrace participatory budgeting, I wanted to be at the helm of a city so that we could fully implement participatory budgeting practices.

Lately, I have appreciated the role of the city manager’s office influencing the role of a city in today’s political environment. City government is most accessible form of government. Residents see their cities and create images of what government is and its role. When a local government is inclusive and respectful, its residents begin to question other levels of government that may spouse different perspectives. Local government closely resembles its residents’ values more so than regional, state or Federal governments. Cities have the ability to change the narrative if they see state or Federal governments that embrace values that are not reflective of the values supported by the community. We see such examples with adoption of special holidays such as Indigenous Peoples day or with adoption of resolutions making a city “Welcoming.” In Helena, I implemented the addition of Indigenous People’s Day as an extra holiday for employees. Supporters of this change had waited many years for a City resolution and had not even expected the extra holiday for the organization. Some opponents to this change called it a political move. I believe that local government reflects community values; more often than not, these values can easily be called political, but then again, what in government isn’t?

What was the most important part about your job as an ACM?

I loved being an Assistant City Manager. Generally, I love working in City Manager’s Offices in any capacity. As an Assistant, my most valuable role was to protect the City Manager. Through thirty years of municipal government, I have observed that the most important impact of an effective ACM is to protect the City Manager from explosive issues, political surprises, and lack of perspective, him/herself, personnel issues, financial problems and liabilities.

City Managers succeed for a number of reasons. City Managers fail because of ineffective sounding boards. The ACM is crucial for the management team’s ability to function as a valuable sounding board. The ACM must have the pulse of the elected officials without crossing lines or invading the CM’s space. The ACM must also understand the dynamics among the management team and gently guide the team in one direction if needed. The ACM plays the role of the enforcer when behavior needs to be adjusted at the Department level so that the CM does not have to be involved in personnel issues. An effective ACM manages the operational elements of the city while the CM can focus on the policy issues and political interactions.

Having been a CM without an ACM, I have experienced the difficulties related to being spread too thinly, being expected to be everything to everybody and having to manage personnel, community and political relations at once. The lack of an ACM is a set up for a CM to fail. Cities are complex organizations and unlike the private sector, government functions in the spotlight. Whereas a Fortune 500 CEO does not have to hand over minutes from meetings or memos, a city manger has to make all such information available. Local government is expected to protect privacy while at the same time be transparent. Municipal employees are often represented and thus, managing the workforce demands navigating union relations. The list of elements that make city management complex is long. Therefore, the need for a comprehensive and cohesive team is imperative.

What is the most important part about your job as a CM?

As the City Manager, my most important part of the job has been to restore trust of staff among the elected body and the public. I believe many city managers would say that the most important part of the job is to balance a budget. I believe that budgeting is a skill that requires a sharp mind but ultimately, it involves numbers and equations a person can easily control. It is a science.

Restoring trust is an art. When a city manager is faced with such challenge, he/she is already operating from a deficit in faith or morale. Where the elected body has no trust for staff, the following dynamics often occur:

  • Contentious council meetings
  • Difficult exchanges between elected and staff
  • Challenges to methodologies and recommendations
  • Public outrage and disruption
  • Undermining of staff professionalism and motivations

I inherited difficult relations between staff and elected in several of my cities. I tried providing perspective to both parties about the beauty of democracy and how in our form of government, discourse is fine. I often revisit my background growing up in El Salvador where to this day, there is no functioning government and where policy disagreements could easily lead to homicide. Because I know what it is like to live in civic chaos, I appreciate civil societies even during difficult times. As a manager, the most beneficial perspective I have given has been to embrace the joys of first world problems. It is too easy to take democracy for granted and to focus only on the challenges without noticing the strong foundations that the Founding Fathers built.

In the City of Yakima, along with the management team, I helped the City Manager convey his priorities to community organizations. These stakeholders were then able to share these priorities with council members thus enhancing understanding of the city manager’s office agenda. In the City of Helena, I sought to gain greater trust through community engagement and transparency. Soon after my arrival, the Helena Citizens Council shared a white paper outlining a community engagement protocol. I shared it with my management team and asked for each department to embrace the framework. I felt that it was important to align our community outreach with a protocol produced by a respected, legitimate, authentic stakeholder. Taking affirmative steps such as the adoption of a community engagement philosophy so that public trust can increase are among the most important actions by a city manager.

Which City project are you most proud of during your years as a CM/ ACM?

I am proud of many of my accomplishments in the City Manager’s Office. I am proud that I balanced budgets in two cities without touching reserves or cash from the fund balance. I believe in the importance of conservative financial values, which say that we should live within our means. Living within our means forces us to closely evaluate expenditures and plan accordingly. Public administrators have many roles; in my view the most important one is to be good stewards of public funds. In this capacity, we must always ask if we are operating in a manner that is efficient and in a manner that increase values for the taxpayers.

I am proud to embrace innovation as a core principle of any municipality and to find systems improvement opportunities in every aspect of local government. During the 2009 recession, many city managers talked about doing more with less. This phrase is real direction if it is attached to “how” we do more with less. Innovation and efficiencies is the how. As a graduate of the Denver Peak Academy, I am a promoter of efficiencies and innovation, which too often are correlated to technology, but they do not have to be.

I am proud of many organizational improvements that enhanced services and increased accountability in my cities.   I am proud that I had the courage to make burgers out of sacred cows in situations where stakeholders where improperly abusing their power. I am proud that I created new departments that improved services and enhanced public safety. I am proud that I have earnestly attempted to create legitimate community engagement processes that ensure that program and policy decisions are rooted in community wisdom.

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

My favorite way to interact with residents is through community events such as farmers’ market and neighborhood fairs. In Helena, I implemented City Hall at the Farmers’ Market, which involved different city departments hosting a booth and providing information on general topics as well as information from their specific departments. This forum facilitated relevant information such as the city’s evacuation plan, justification for rate and assessment increases, new hours of operation for various activities and changes to our paid parking structure in the downtown.

The first time that I participated in the concept of City Hall at the Farmers’ Market was while I worked for the City of West Sacramento, which by the way, is one of the most innovative and results oriented cities I have ever seen. In West Sacramento, we had another element that made this program relevant: the booth was staffed by multiple departments. This structure forced personnel from different teams to meet each other and tear down the barriers we often create in government. The booth at the market was my introduction to colleagues from other departments who I would have not met otherwise. This space became a capacity building opportunity and a great mechanism for building social capital in a very organic and friendly manner.

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

Local government is where the average resident can participate in our democracy. Most people do not attend legislative meetings in Sacramento, Olympia or Helena nor do they attend hearings in Washington D.C. Any member of the community, can on any given day, attend a council meeting and provide input through public comments. Any person can attend a committee or board meetings and participate through public comment. The role of local government is to be accessible. By inviting public participation, local government reinforces transparency and accountability.

In communities where there is erosion of public trust, one will find many grey areas and confusion. In such communities it is difficult to find who is in charge of what. In these communities there is poor communication and documentation.

The role of city managers and their offices is to increase transparency and accountability. To do so involves easy and difficult tasks. It is fairly easy to hire a public information officer, to run a public television station, to increase social media releases and to implement aggressive public education campaigns. More difficult is to change the culture of organizations that have operated in the dark and without accountability. The latter requires a strong city manger, a supportive council and a committed management team. Changing organizational cultures requires time and dedication. Even if a city manager is committed to transparency and accountability, his/her council has to be even more committed to the changes, which may have political consequences.

In one of my cities, city staff had operated without much monitoring from the city manager, without being accountable for delivering results to the elected body and with minimal public engagement. I brought an ambitious public engagement plan that had been produced by community members and put in place a number of structural changes that would clearly determine where the buck would stop. I cleared all these changes with my elected body who gave the green light. However, political winds shifted and with that, council support for these changes faded. Elected official support is imperative for sustaining new efforts. In this regard, the role of the city manager may be effective in the short term, but limited in the long term.

How are cities shaping the future of California?

Cities shape the future of all regions by attracting people, investment and jobs.   The personality of a city is an important element for families or individuals when they are selecting a place to call home. I have seldom met a person that decides to move to a place because of the county it is in- probably Marin and OC as the exceptions to this statement. Cities have schools, parks, pools, amenities, cultural events, civic engagement and hang out places. Individuals choose cities because of the existence of colleges, good elementary schools, great pools, amazing parks, retail, theaters, etc. When people come to cities, they create the region.

There are some externalities that occur with the growth of cities. Gridlock, urban sprawl and negative environmental impacts, are mentioned in the many articles that talk about the California exodus. It would be disingenuous to ignore that so many Californians practically live in their vehicles. My own family can share a funny story. Once the children went to college, we decided to sell the home in which they grew up. We checked with them to see if they would be ok with the sale. They both indicated zero interest on the future of the house they called home as children; they felt that the house was just a place where they slept. A few months later, we told them we would sell the van. They were NOT happy about selling the van. They told us that they grew up in that van and we could not possible let it go. That’s a true Bay Area story.

Cities are seen from space; the last map I saw reflecting election results in California, showed clear changes in the political inclinations of regions. Cities shape political realities for the region, state and federal levels. Speaker O’neill said it best, “all politics is local” and local means cities.

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

Hiking and walking my two dogs are my favorite hobbies. I also enjoy puzzles and card games. I talk on the phone with my adult children as much as I can. I visit my children as often as possible. My daughter is a cancer immunotherapy researcher in San Francisco and my son is finishing his masters in journalism at Columbia University in New York.

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

Breaking the glass ceiling has been by far my most difficult challenge. For 25 years I tried to enter the city manager’s office in California and could not. I will be forever thankful to Cliff Moore for giving me the opportunity to be his assistant in Yakima WA. That position allowed me to become the unlikely city manager in Helena MT. I was the first female of color, immigrant to be in that position. Frankly, I think I would have been the first for all those categories in most cities. City

management is not very diverse and I understand why. I have found the position to be all consuming. I have neglected my home and family so that I can focus on the complexities of running a city. I could not have been in this position without the support of my husband and by the independence of my adult children.

City management is a lonely journey; I have found that outside the management team, it is difficult for a city manager to develop personal relationships with staff. City management is highly political and not conducive to positive interactions. Or at least, that has been my experience. I am sure that each of us finds different elements in his/her city management journey.

What has your work in public service taught you?

My work in public service in the United States has taught me to appreciate and love democracy, even when it is chaotic. A bad day in an American city council meeting is a great day in a dictatorship. An unprofessional exchange during a council meeting in the United States could have been a homicide in a fascist state. I have learned to stay grounded and admire democracy in all its forms, including discord and conflict.

I have learned that policy making requires humility not just good intentions and intellectual capacity. Humility is what binds ideas, brings diverse perspectives together and gives credit to the stakeholder that will ensure its success.

I have also learned that the media is the most powerful stakeholder in a democracy and therefore, it bears tremendous responsibility. Joseph Pulitzer understood the grave importance of the press:

“Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mold the future of the republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”

The press is particularly powerful in small communities where one newspaper influences democracy periodically. Small communities can’t often, not always, settle for ill equipped editors that lack the fundamental understanding of their role in a democracy. These editors would rather sell the sensational and sexy than facts and figures. By being driven by sales, they forget their role in preserving public virtue.

What book is on your nightstand right now?

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Great book. I have read it multiple times but I learn something new every time I read it. I am not a big “management” or “leadership” book person. I find their messages to be ideal, unrealistic scenarios about these amazing professionals with such high emotional intelligence, integrity, humility and intellectual capacity that let’s get real, do not exist. Skill books like Switch on the other hand, are about actual tasks and techniques to accomplish specific goals. I love these types of books because they are grounded. They are not about mythical amazing managers, but about real situation and solutions.

I also enjoy quote books. My latest favorite quote comes from Antonio Gramsci: “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” In social media, this quote has been attributed to the AOC, but it is not hers. I find it inspirational because it describes many communities that are trying to get caught up with technology, management practices, innovation and yet, can’t evolve because of fear of progress, fear of the unknown, fear of losing entitlements. To throw in one last quote: Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. We all know who said that… it was not the AOC.