Executive Interview with Bryan Jones

Bryan Jones HeadshotWhat initially prompted you to get involved with local government?

Out of college, I started my career in the private sector providing services for projects being developed or designed in local governments or projects undertaken by a local/regional government. After a number of years working with dozens of municipalities, I saw some projects get implemented and some projects sit on shelves and collect dust. As a planner and engineer that worked hard to deliver those projects, it was frustrating to watch a project die, as there wasn’t a correlation to the quality of design or level of effort invested. Striving to be a better consultant, I wanted to understand why only some projects were implemented and how I could help my clients’ projects reach implementation.

As a result, I made the transition into the public sector to understand from the local government perspective why, how and where plans and projects either were implemented or died. The answer that I discovered was one of my favorite words: champion. Plans and projects need champions to champion plans and projects. Champions are the people that give the extra effort to do something extraordinary. It requires leadership on the champions’ part to take action and make a difference. Champions come in many different forms from the community (residents and businesses), City Councils, City Managers, and City Hall teammates (Directors, Managers, Supervisors, Project Managers, engineers, planners, management analysts).

Why did you want to become a city manager?

The funny thing is that I didn’t start my career even knowing what a City Manager was or did. I started my career out of college as a civil engineer focused on transportation. The highest level in local government I had been exposed to was a City Traffic Engineer. So I had aspirations of one day becoming a City Traffic Engineer in my career. This occurred at the age of 29 with the City of Fresno — a lot earlier than I anticipated.

Fortunately, I stayed in that role for a number of years to grow into it and I had great mentors at the City of Fresno in Public Works, Planning, Police and Fire Departments. This gave me opportunities to lead and grow on multidisciplinary efforts and initiatives. They also provided encouragement to pursue a Masters in Public Administration, to ensure as opportunities to take on greater responsibilities presented themselves, I had the credentials. Some would say, an MPA will not open a door, but it will allow you to knock and have more people answer.

I learned a lot from my MPA at Norwich University about leadership and fiscal responsibility, two areas I wanted to grow in my career. My MPA program allowed me to take classes concurrently while I was working, which allowed me to apply that learning on the job. I was trying, learning, growing, doing, adapting, and applying my new skills. I also observed other leaders influence and inspire others with great success. Trust me, I also observed and experienced leadership struggles but never let them defeat me. Instead, I asked the question: what can this mistake or perceived failure teach me, so I can become a better, more effective leader?

I never set out to become a city manager. I always set out to try my best and become a better version of myself so that I could serve others and make a difference. I think positions of authority are a leadership calling.  When called, you have to make a choice as it can come with great responsibility and sacrifice. Sometimes I think people make the choice before the calling. A position of authority is a huge responsibility if done well. The higher you go in those roles, the greater the stage and spotlight is on you as a leader. It can be incredibly challenging at the top, so if you have a need to be liked, go get a job selling ice cream or delivering flowers.

Being a city manager is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding jobs in all of city government. It takes a special kind of leader to take on this challenge and opportunity to serve a City Council, community, and team at City Hall and in the field. The great ones may make it look easy, but it is definitely like a duck on water, paddling strategically underneath so that others have the resources to serve at their best.

I have a wise fire chief mentor (now retired) that shared a story with me when I was a deputy director. He shared how he would ask new recruits what they wanted to do with their career in fire service. Often, some would say they wanted to be a fire chief. He would respond by saying, “Well, there is only one fire chief and not everyone becomes a chief in their career,”. 

He would then say, “Why not focus more on your present role and being the best version of a firefighter, then engineer, then captain and so forth? Enjoy each position and the journey of your career and focus on being better than you were the day prior.” 

If your goal in your career is a position or title, and you don’t achieve it, will your career be considered a failure or disappointment? Along the way, you may miss enjoying the journey and milestones by focusing on the future rather than being present in the moment. As you progress up the ladder, so to speak, what got you to the next wrung most likely won’t allow you to be successful at it, so you need to develop a new leadership skillset at the new level. Your motives are critical in positions of authority.

And while the principles and foundations of being a city manager are similar between cities, leadership styles, experiences, challenges, opportunities, values, needs, and fit for each City can be uniquely different and always changing as a city goes through different stages. 

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

I believe the most important part of my job as a City Manager is the people. The people you work for, the people you work with, and the people you serve. We are in the ‘people’ business as city managers.

Focus on influencing, inspiring, and investing in ‘people’ (the talent) to bring their strengths and talents to the conversation and how they can be effective and deliver a solid performance. We first have to focus on people, then performance, and then the processes. All too often, especially in government, we start with process, then performance and then people. Just like Simon Sinek says, “Start with why.” Our ‘why’ as leaders in government is our people.

I naturally see people through a lens of their strengths. I care deeply about the development and growth of people. I love to celebrate, recognize/highlight, and share stories about the growth, success and accomplishments of each person to help provide encouragement and foster momentum. An attitude of gratitude for their contributions as humans goes a long way. This allows people to feel valued, known, and seen by me and the organization. 

In government, we have to recognize that our responsibility as leaders is improving other’s lives. Therefore, we have to create a culture and environment where people can feel supported to grow, develop, and build momentum in the direction of their potential and contribute by adding value to our collective purpose.

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

Oh wow, there are so many incredible projects to choose including: designing, funding, and implementing interchanges for a freeway; connecting cities/neighborhoods with a bridge; establishing the high speed rail project through Fresno; providing enhanced access to and along the coast and within the village of Carlsbad; designing and entitling new retail shopping centers or residential communities; working with downtown business owners and residents revitalizing downtowns; instituting design guidelines or form based codes; creating trail or active transportation master plans; updating a visionary document like a General Plan; leading a city council through a strategic plan; creating reinvestment with a corridor or area specific plans; resurfacing and repurposing streets through routine maintenance; attracting unique and special businesses; inspiring investors and developers to create a special project; identifying and implementing safe route to school safety projects; creating a strength based leadership culture; developing our purpose and values and more importantly living them; and collaboratively creating a 10th anniversary of incorporation mural art project and a 9/11 20th memorial art sculpture in Eastvale.

For me, it is not always what the project is, as I get to work on so many different types of projects in multiple disciplines, but rather engaging the community to address an obstacle/challenge and turn it into an opportunity, or idea into implementation or concept to construction. It is a rewarding challenge to figure out how to maximize our efforts to make it memorable or extraordinary. To me, it is truly about making a difference, adding value, having fun, and working with people to enhance the quality of life, experiences, design, and safety of a community. This way, everyone has an opportunity to feel valued, appreciated, seen, heard, safe, and welcome.

What are the greatest challenges facing city managers in California today?

Managing expectations, prioritizing resources, and to stop doing what no longer serves the community’s or organization’s values or needs are the three greatest challenges. All of these things, if not addressed, can create unique challenges that distract us from doing government different or better.

Social media and technology can be a double-edged sword when it comes to challenges and opportunities. It allows immediate access to information and engagement in new ways between local government and the people and businesses we serve, and yet anyone can share any information — right, wrong or indifferent — and claim to be an eyewitness or expert. It can sometimes cause a lot of speculation, confusion, assumptions, misinformation, or fear. People utilize social media at the same time or prior to reporting a crime rather than calling 9-1-1 first so we can have an emergency response in route. And with so many various types of technology for communication,it makes us more accessible but less efficient at tracking the information and managing accountability of responding and delivering services. Yet we have also solved crimes through information we gathered or observed on social media.

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

I love community events and local businesses. Both are great places to interact with residents.

During the pandemic, when our parks district was closed due to state/county mandates, the City Council and our community led an Inclusionary Task Force, for which I was part of the steering committee. We identified ways to create ‘outdoor’ and ‘socially distanced’ community events. We launched a Move Through Motivation non-profit and campaign encouraging people to get outside, be active, and exercise in a caring and responsive way through regular gatherings. The goal was to have people meet new and different residents that were part of their community and create commUNITY as a result. Social infrastructure is as important as physical infrastructure within cities. This has evolved now to a 5K scholarship fundraiser for students.

Through our Inclusionary Task Force and the Economic Development team, we also created the concept of EATSvale, a play on the city’s name Eastvale. We brought out gourmet food trucks on Friday afternoons and a couple thousand people would eat at picnic tables and create fellowship in the community while enjoying music and art. We also launched several weekend-long events like EEEKvale, a Halloween/Día De Los Muertos event, Miracles on Citrus Street, a Christmas/Dutch holiday event, Lantern Festival, a Chinese New Year event, and an upcoming International Food Festival. We wanted different cultures that exist in our City to be showcased in these events. The Inclusionary Task Force recognized the importance of celebrating the diversity within the community, as one of the most diverse cities in California and taking it one step further to create inclusion where everyone feels welcome and safe. So we created culture events where we could celebrate each other’s heritage and cultures and as a result, break down barriers or assumptions.

What is your favorite quote?

“Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is,” by Mark Twain was the quote I selected to write my essay for college applications as a senior in high school. It has always resonated with me, and I went on to share how my hard work ethic helped me overcome adversity, grew my ability to turn challenges into opportunities as well as my desire to learn and grow. On top of my strategic risk-taking ability to create my own path, these were all traits I developed from being raised by two parents with midwest farm values.

Later in life, I heard the quote “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not on the branch, but on its own wings,” by Charlie Wardle. It has three meanings to me. The phrase ‘do not be afraid’ is used 365 times in the Bible, once for every day of the year. On the surface, ‘trust your teammates and people,’ and on a deeper level, ‘trust and believe in yourself and your strengths.’ There is no reason to ever be afraid. As the sayings go, doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will and the word ‘impossible’ also says ‘I’m possible’ for those that believe it so!

These quotes truly define my approach to my career path and decisions I have made to take on new responsibilities, which all required me to stretch and grow. As a result, I have always been a courageous, creative, and collaborative leader with dreams and visions of doing what others often define as impossible. Whether impossible is a reality or perception (assumed or learned). Yet, I don’t do it alone, but rather alongside talented teammates whom I have learned will far exceed your expectations when you believe in them and treat them with respect and trust they deserve.

Exceeding expectations every day is what I always strive to do and inspire others to do. Yet, to do this, we have to create a trying, learning, growing, doing, and adapting environment where people are safe, welcome, seen, heard, valued, and appreciated.

People, our talent, are humans. As they try, they are going to make mistakes. Yet, like a child learning to walk when they fall and we provide encouragement to try again, we too must adopt a ‘mistakes are proof we are trying’ positive attitude of encouragement. The focus must be on the people that deliver performance, as a result of making progress through trying and not perfection. Some days we win, some days we learn, but all we can ask is that we always give and try our best. Celebrating the winning and learning is what makes great teams. This allows creativity and innovation to flourish as people explore the realm of possibilities to improve people’s lives through public service.

In all my career pursuits, I strive to create experiences and champion people, places, plans, projects, and prosperity to build momentum so everyone in the community has an opportunity to move in the direction of their potential and truly thrive.

How are cities shaping the future of California?

Cities have the unique opportunity to create special places for people to connect and prosper.

Cities are living organisms and have different stages of investment and evolution. Each city needs to understand the unique stage or cycle of its evolution and the degree of the appetite, comfort, and ability for growth and investment.

Cities also have to understand if they are not investing, they are decaying. Cities require routine and regular maintenance and reinvestment. How cities invest with fiscal responsibility and sustainability can determine whether something is a true ‘improvement,’ an ‘asset,’ or a future ‘liability’.

Cities can be evaluated on their financial, business and humanity health by the vibrancy, attractiveness, synergy, and quality of their downtown — the heartbeat and economic engine of a city.

Cities have to understand the importance of open space, nature, trails, street trees, landscaping, and having a signature park that encapsulates the mind, body, and spirit of the people.

I have experienced working for a ‘start up’ entrepreneurial city as city manager. We had to put the right people and businesses in place along with a focus on performance through fostering an engaged, purpose driven and people-focused workforce to succeed. We all had to wear many hats and you never heard the phrase, ‘That’s not my job’ used. The demands and expectations always far exceeded and were often ahead of having enough people and resources. The first decade of a city experiences a lot of growing pains, especially when it is growing rapidly from its incorporation or birth. However, as we were landlocked and approaching what we once thought as buildout, we started to experience reinvestment and intensification as land values increased with demand for remaining land from the destination we were creating. We realized the term ‘build out’ never really happens, just like perfection. It’s something you strive toward, yet the target is always shifting.

I have also worked for cities in a different stage, with well-established reputations, many amazing accolades, businesses, and destinations, while anticipating continued growth of the population and economy. To accommodate, this projected ‘build out’ population may introduce new challenges with appropriate sizing and maintenance of infrastructure, expansion of services, and investment in legacy projects. And as parts of the city age, will require new public and private investment and partnerships to continue to enhance and elevate their positive impact, including continual investment in downtown.

Downtowns serve as the economic heartbeat of most cities, and it is important for cities to always be investing and fostering the healthiest engine to pump the lifeblood of a city. Downtowns are unique and many were forgotten or abandoned for shiny new malls, which serve a different need or purpose but don’t have the same longevity or power potential as a downtown. So, it is important to make sure there is a focus on taking care of a city’s heartbeat. I have been fortunate to work in cities that realized the importance of investing in downtowns after they began to decay, fall in disrepair, or lose momentum to the shiny new suburbs in Fresno, Fremont, and Carlsbad. It takes a unique team with the right attitude, approach, and skillset to shine the gems of downtown. 

In Eastvale, we developed in reverse of most cities and developed our suburban neighborhoods first and preserved land to create a special destination downtown. We helped attract a master developer and negotiated a development agreement so we could have parks, trails, public spaces, and land for a City Hall, Public Library, Police Station and 3rd Fire Station along with a downtown parking structure.

Great cities have a GREAT park. The quality of the parks has the potential to truly be a special amenity, not only for the city, but the region and state, just like Central Park in New York, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, or Balboa Park in San Diego. Great cities truly have to understand the importance of open space, nature, trails, street trees, landscaping, and having a signature park that encapsulates the mind, body, and spirit of the people.

Parks are truly more than just ballfields or courts. Your signature park doesn’t have to be as big as Central, Golden Gate, or Balboa, but it needs to be unique, special and a place for people to connect with nature. Cities have to continually invest and prioritize parks and their landscaping, including the street trees. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the next best day is today, so someone else can enjoy its shade in 20 years.

Through my private and public sector experiences working in cities throughout the nation, I have spent significant time seeking to understand how human nature and nurture principles, and experiences are created by intentionally designing cities so people and places can connect and prosper. Whether these places are town squares, art in public spaces, street trees and landscape, streets, neighborhoods, parks, trails, schools, community centers, libraries, city halls, sports arenas/entertainment districts, shopping centers, or places of work, they all have an opportunity. We can create a destination or experience for people to use their senses to feel, think, do, and say with pride to truly thrive. When we create and allow the healthy, aspirational, inspirational, fiscally responsible, and compassionate/kind choices to be the easy choices for the community, positive momentum builds. When we create events and places where serendipitous collisions of ideas can occur, the evolution of a community has the opportunity to further transform and elevate into the best version of itself. I utilize these same principles in my leadership of people in our work environment and culture.

Frederick Law Olmsted, arguably the godfather of the landscape architecture profession and designer of Central Park and many others, believed parks and public spaces exposed the general public to landscape beauty and places where they could escape city life and be transformed. He believed this form of natural beauty wasn’t just aesthetic, but ‘necessary for public health and well-being.’ In other words, a community’s well-being. He was a visionary, ahead of his time leader of timeless designs within cities. His idea of landscape beauty was founded on the natural/wilderness aesthetic. He and many others identified the physical and mental health benefits of being in nature. We learned over the last two years that natural and open spaces are just as important today.

Cities need to be forward thinking to preserve land, to create transformational parks, trails and open space to further connect people, neighborhoods, schools, and businesses to enhance the community.

I will also suggest the landscape architecture profession is often one of the most undervalued and underutilized professions when it comes to truly envisioning, designing, and creating the modern city. The momentum a talented and visionary landscape architect can create through intentional design and placemaking is exponential towards a city’s potential. It is truly a shame that more cities don’t have them as an integral part of their planning, designing, and maintenance teams, as they bring so much value to how people experience a city with the five senses and psychology of how people feel, think, say, and do.

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

My wife and I live on a vineyard and grow three different varietals of grapes and make wine. We love to create community on the vineyard, whether at harvest or bottling events. We also enjoy preparing meals together and for friends. Our patio is great for friends and conversations. It’s rewarding for us to create opportunities to allow people to discover and experience the rural farm life on a vineyard, which is very different than urban or suburban living, sights, and sounds. We also love to travel, meet new people, and experience new cultures, especially the food. We like to get off the beaten path and outside the touristy places too.

What has your work in public service taught you?

To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world. You could be their first and only experience interacting with a local government and why not make it their best. And each day, I hope an opportunity presents itself for me to add value or make a difference in someone else’s life journey.

What book is on your nightstand right now?

Well, I don’t read in bed as I value sleep and rest, so I try to maximize both when in bed. So I don’t have a book on my nightstand per se. However, some recent books I have enjoyed include It’s Your Ship by Captain D Michael Abrashoff, Hero on a Mission by Donald Miller, and The Arch – A Framework for Leadership and Life by Jim Uhl. I love to read about people (leaders and difference makers), autobiographies, and leadership. I read to learn, grow, and develop. A teacher friend once shared with me that there are three stages to reading; Learning to read, reading to learn, and loving to read. I am not sure I will make it to the third stage of love and that is OK with me.