Executive Interview with Justine Jones

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

My first introduction to local government was during my grad school mentorship in Norfolk, Virginia. This was my first experience working in the trenches with a manager who was also a woman, so the experience resonated with me on an even deeper level. I was fascinated by how quickly all the moving parts worked together, from an operational perspective, but it also gave me the opportunity to observe firsthand how engaged residents are in their community. 

The experience was love at first sight for me, and I immediately knew I had made the right decision by pursuing a career in local government. I felt a sense of purpose, a calling, if you will, to this profession, because of my inherent desire to know my work makes a tangible difference in enhancing the effectiveness and delivery of services in communities that will last for years, if not, decades. How cool is that?

Why did you want to become a city manager? 

The value of service above self was ingrained in me from an early age, as my parents spent their entire careers in the public sector. I enjoy the fulfillment of being able to immediately impact the communities I work in; thriving on wearing many hats; working in very different capacities and taking on a diverse spectrum of my responsibilities; and flourishing in environments where no two days are exactly alike. 

Any given day could include meeting with elected officials, department directors, employees, residents, vendors and community developers; attempting to resolve emergent and sometimes unexpected issues; contemplating solutions to long term organizational needs and how to best position the organization for sustainable success; managing departmental and organizational budgets; attending meetings in the community; and dealing with whatever other unforeseen occurrences might come up. 

I also enjoy being the intermediary between a body of elected officials and employees who are an equally dedicated and accomplished team of professionals who share my commitment and espouse the organization’s values. As chief administrative officer, I not only serve in a leadership role, but I also help to develop policies, procedures and practices that inspire vital change and that provide solutions that enhance the quality of the community. Both my master’s in public administration and in public policy have given me a great foundation to both write and implement policies, although I prefer the administration side of local government more. 

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

Simultaneously reporting to several elected officials, answering to the community and servicing its needs, and directing a full-service multimillion dollar organization while overseeing the daily operations in the organization. The most important aspect about my job as Town Manager is operating in a dynamic political and social environment, which presents exciting challenges and unique opportunities to make immediate and measurable differences in the quality of life of those in the community I serve. Other characteristics that are important in my role are communicating regularly and transparently with residents, exhibiting professionalism and courtesy, being timely and responsive to the needs of the community, and having a visionary spirit that stimulates the advancement and development of the community. I find this aspect of local government administration very intriguing and what keeps me coming back every day. I have a strong commitment to keeping the Council, staff, and public involved in important decisions to better ensure the outcomes ultimately fulfill the intended objective. 

I am committed to continually finding ways to stretch the dollar to give our residents the best value for their money. I have been fortunate to work in some great organizations with incredible groups of people who love their community and were driven to make them great places to live, work, play, and raise families. 

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

My favorite projects are those that help develop the culture of an organization and advance its people, although I’m very proud of several. Upon beginning my work with Kenly, I immediately commenced a series of “Listening Sessions” in the first 30 days, which were designed to give elected officials, organizational directors, employees, community leaders, business owners and strategic partners the opportunity to meet with me early on and share direct feedback and input on how they wanted their community to be shaped in the short and long term. This feedback generated the creation of a roadmap, which would serve as the foundation of a strategic plan. 

Throughout my career, I am also proud of building a new department in Richland County as a department director; drafting a purchasing policy; managing an intergovernmental “dream team” of local economic development players to collaborate on development projects in Portsmouth; and helped close a $25 million budget shortfall in the City of Norfolk by “scrubbing” the budget from top to bottom

What are the greatest challenges facing City Managers today?

The greatest challenges local managers grapple with are (1) making government accessible to everyone by providing a hybrid solution that makes service delivery available both digitally/online, while also being available for in-person and manual processing. (2) continuing to provide quality service delivery with fewer dollars; (3) teeing up employees to transition to positions that are being vacated by retiring employees at record rates; and providing flexibility to employees that allow opportunities to achieve a work/life balance that keeps them at their best and fully engaged in the work.

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

I enjoy it when residents come into the office to personally talk with me about issues or concerns they have because it allows us to talk in a more direct manner and in a less formal atmosphere. I also appreciate it when residents trust me enough to share their perspectives with me and have confidence in my capability to address their concerns in a timely manner. This does not necessarily mean that they will have their requests fulfilled, but my job is to ensure that the needs of the greater good are at least brought to the attention of the policymakers, who ultimately decide whether to effect changes and policies based on the best interests of the community. It’s important to collaborate, be as transparent as possible and to work as a team to find the middle ground whenever possible. 

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

Transparency and fiscal responsibility are two of the most important responsibilities of any unit of government. They are top priorities for myself and every member of my senior leadership team. As a financial steward who is entrusted with one of the most valuable and precious resources in a community, I am dedicated to ethical, efficient and responsible financial decision making and to judicious use of organizational resources. As a yearslong member of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), I often refer to these tenets to guide my decision making and I strive to instill these principles throughout the organization. 

Shortly after beginning my position as Town Manager in Kenly, I worked with my team to create a new fiscal fitness plan that included internal controls, checks and balances and immediately began sharing information with the Council and community. One of my goals was to intentionally tell our story and share how our team was working for our residents. This was an important task to complete at the beginning of my tenure, because I wanted to emphasize both internally and externally that we recognized that it is our inherent responsibility to ensure that the public’s trust is never taken for granted and is continually upheld to the best of our ability. I am a manager who “walks the talk” and I do so based on industry standards and best practices. 

I work to earn the public’s trust by being proactive in publicly and openly sharing information, particularly as it relates to the organization’s finances, in the interests of full transparency. I am committed to professional ethics, maintaining a high standard of work quality and embracing inclusive workplaces, which are all high on my list of organizational imperatives and are significant elements of the organizational culture I hope to bring to my assignments. I also believe that establishing a foundation of cohesiveness, professional respect and trust with people who espouse similar values makes for a great executive team, and is essential to the greater good. 

How are cities shaping the future of California? 

Cities are the nuclei of finance, innovation, technology, commerce, growth and political flexibility to adapt to global challenges. Cities are more focused on endeavors that improve one’s quality of life, such as livable wages, affordable housing, climate change, carbon footprint, immigration, pandemics, and international crime. Their influence potentially spans a region, the state and perhaps the nation. These are issues that we now find on our doorstep with an imminent need to address sooner than later. The need for social re-engineering that yields sustainable outcomes for all has never been more vital. 

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

I love getting my fingers dirty in my garden every chance I get. I also enjoy international traveling, bike riding, roller skating, interior decorating, photography and scrapbooking. One of my personal goals is to become a more confident swimmer. Coupling this with my joy for gingerly jogging and bike riding, I have set a goal to complete a mini triathlon in 2023. Wish me luck!

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

When I was a Management Consultant at Strategic Innovation Partners in 2018, I was tapped to lead a project management revitalization project for a public sector client. One of the problems, though, was that while the project was well underway it had gone awry during an organizational restructuring the company was experiencing. The client had some clear goals and priorities, including a 15-month timeframe on a firm $12 million budget. The project was already just over six months old when we were brought in to turn it around and get it moving in the right direction. 

I knew I needed to immediately assess the project and get to the root cause of the problem. I made sure I had the right people on the project and contracted, trained, and developed three additional people to join my team and help execute the plan. We worked with 11 stakeholders to develop a four-phase ambitious timeline that addressed the challenges of the reorganization by getting buy-in from senior management to sign off on key decisions. In order to streamline the project, we believed it was easier and more palatable to complete the project in four smaller phases rather than take on the project in its entirety, which was overwhelming. 

Thankfully, my team’s engagement in and commitment to the new plan going forward was a critical contributor to its success. We completed the project nearly one month ahead of schedule and about $450k under budget. The client was extremely satisfied with the results and was able to reallocate the savings to another project that was underfunded, so it offered a dual reward. 

What has your work in public service taught you? 

Public service has taught me that although it may not always seem to be the case, my work always makes a difference, generally for the better. The work seems to be thankless at times, but I have learned that when there isn’t a slew of engagement from the public, it likely means things are going relatively well, though not necessarily perfect.

I have also learned the importance of building networks and nurturing genuine relationships with people both internally and externally who are willing to tell me what I need to know and not necessarily what I want to hear. It is important to relate to people who have different perspectives, experiences, opinions and thought processes so we can collectively ensure that we are operating on all cylinders and providing the best services possible to the public. 

What book is on your nightstand right now?

Atomic Habits by James Clear. I am working on making my personal life operate more efficiently and maximizing the opportunity to simplify my life by forming good habits, breaking bad ones, and mastering the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results