By Dale Martin
April 2, 2021
I walked into a small building in Lexington, Michigan, twenty-five years ago this week for the beginning of what has been a remarkably enjoyable career as a municipal manager. Over the course of those two decades, I have served in three states (Michigan, Connecticut, and Florida) and the specific title has varied (Village Manager, City Manager, and Town Manager). The governing boards have included one President (the formal title of the Chief Elected Officer in Michigan villages), Trustees, Mayors, Councilors, Councilmembers, Selectmen, and Commissioners.
Because of my role as a municipal official, I have had the opportunity to meet with a Presidential candidate, a former United States Secretary of the Treasury, U.S. Senators, U.S. Representatives, Governors, and dozens of state legislators.
The Presidential candidate that I met was Mr. Ralph Nader. Mr. Nader still lives in his boyhood home in Winsted, Connecticut, just around the corner from my home in that town. Mr. Nader was a brilliant man, and like many of his stature, he was a polarizing figure (nationally and locally). He frequently visited my office, usually bringing a book that highlighted the glories of citizen participation in government. He stopped by our house one time to discuss strategies about a significant local issue. He opened the first museum to celebrate tort law (yes, really) in Winsted.
Another national and local polarizing personality that I met was Mr. Michael Moore (Davison, Michigan). The acclaimed writer, actor, and director was raised in Davison, Michigan, a Flint, Michigan suburb. Mr. Moore began his formal political activism by being elected to the local school board at age eighteen. His local reputation was somewhat mixed: applauded for his anti-corporation philosophies, for many others, he “bit the hand” (General Motors) that was the economic heart of the Flint region.
Despite meeting those with powerful titles or personalities, I have most enjoyed meeting the tens of thousands of “regular” residents in the communities that I have served. Sometimes I think that my professional organization, the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) focuses and promotes governmental and organization theory and stunningly forgets that local government is a “people” business.
My graduate coursework during my journey to an advanced degree was similarly overburdened with theory. Other than entitling me to add an academic designation to my resume, I was unprepared for the daily realities of local government management. It is one thing to sit in a quiet classroom to learn about labor relations, but it is an entirely different environment to be locked down for a blistering twelve-hour bargaining session with a battery of United Auto Workers attorneys representing city staff.
Budgeting was a sterile exercise in accounting. None of my professors at Oakland University had experience with a traditional New England Town Meeting. At a Town Meeting, in which every registered voter can participate, the town budget (already endorsed by the Board of Selectmen) is presented. Any participant can then make a motion to revise any proposed appropriation. If another participant “seconds” the motion, the motion was then discussed, and then all participants voted (by machine, not voice or hand ballots) on the motion. This could go on for hours as dozens of motions would be made. The Town Meeting would eventually conclude with a motion to send the proposed budget to a Town Referendum. All town voters cast ballots to approve or reject the proposed budget. If the budget was rejected, the process began again.
Looking back, it is interesting to remember some of the significant issues that I dealt with in each community. In Lexington, which other than a much smaller population of 850, is remarkably similar to Fernandina Beach, the village owned a mobile home park and a major project was to renovate the park: new roads and utility infrastructure. Residents were allowed to remain in their homes in the park due this messy project. A few residents were regular participants at Village Council meetings.
In Linden, the primary east-west road through the city and its business district was closed for two years to rebuild the road and the sidewalks. In Davison, I was part of an exploratory effort to merge the surrounding township government with city government. In Winsted, an underlying cause of the town’s financial issues was revealed when the Finance Director was discovered to have embezzled millions of dollars. Every village, town, and city has its challenges.
When I arrived in Winsted, the Mayor’s father approached me and pinched my arm. After a brief moment of “What the heck?!”, he calmly stated, “Yep, that skin feels tough enough for this town.” I have many others, nearly all of whom say “I wouldn’t want your job,” that wonder how I cope with the stress of being a City Manager. My reply is that I don’t feel stressed. As a veteran, during my service, the decisions for which I was trained and prepared to make were truly life and death decisions (fortunately, I never had to make such a decision); at any City Hall, the ramifications of my decisions are remarkably less, and at the end of every day after working with dedicated officials, wonderful staff, and dozens of residents, I get to go home and enjoy the beauty and quietness of family, friends, and this beautiful place.
I enjoy every day serving as the City Manager of Fernandina Beach and look forward to Year 26 in this community.