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Alumni Essay: David Harris '91 (American Studies Major)

At the end of October 2006, I began my new job as an Assistant City Manager for Schertz, Texas, population 30,000 on the northeast side of San Antonio. Below is a brief synopsis of my career:

  • Grew up in San Antonio Texas, graduated high school 1987
  • B.A. in American Studies, Whitworth College, 1991
  • Operations Manager and tour guide, Holland America Line/Gray Line of Alaska 1990-1994
  • M.S. in Urban Administration, Trinity University, 1997
  • Grants Manager, Budget/Management Analyst, Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas, 1996-2000
  • City Administrator, Hill Country Village, Texas, 2000-2006
  • Assistant City Manager, Schertz, Texas, 2006 to present

When I entered college, I did not know I wanted to be "when I grew up." I envied those who did. I know, however, I needed a small liberal arts college to begin to figure things out. The multi-disciplinary approach of my undergraduate and graduate degrees has been invaluable in my present career of city management. My B.A. in American Studies and M.S. in Urban Administration have allowed me to synthesize a variety of issues and topics and arrive at a solution that benefits the greater good. For example, as a City Manager, I need not be an expert in one particular area, such as how to build a road, the financing, the accounting, the engineering, the community meetings, and how the road relates to the master plan of a community. What I must be able to do is to understand the role of many disciplines and orchestrate them coming together towards a positive solution.

During my early undergraduate years, I could not decide on a major until the end of my sophomore year. A former high school history teacher and friend gave me some great advice: go with a major that would fit the courses I had already taken. She said that, in general, students take courses that interest them. She added that we all have God-given talents and it is important to go with these talents...otherwise we will be struggling and not happy in life. I knew I enjoyed a variety of disciplines, and that focusing on any one would deny my yet-undefined desire to become a civic leader. Looking back, I did have discussions with faculty and staff about my long term career goals especially my interest in local government management. The American Studies major required I take classes in history, political science, and English; I also took classes in accounting and economics.

Looking back, I realize I had an interest in professional local government management.

I was involved in a variety of campus activities including serving as President of ASWC my junior year in 1989-90. President Arthur DeJong was President of the College and we had many conversations about the future of the school including its physical master plan as well as its financial future. Three items that came of those conversations were:

  • flowers and landscaping added beauty to the environment,
  • that the then new perimeter road better unified and defined the campus, and
  • the college needed to increase alumni giving and build its endowment.

Our discussions led me to a greater appreciation for urban planning as well as the need to ensure that organizations needed to have a solid financial foundation to prosper.

Many cities have successfully provided a sense of community in an urban setting such as San Antonio's Riverwalk, Spokane's Riverfront Park, revitalizing older neighborhoods with curbs and gutters that once only had dirt roads, as well as through thoughtful planning through zoning, tree lined streets with pedestrian amenities, and good drainage. But one important piece to this puzzle is community involvement in making these changes so that citizens have ownership in the project while creating a sense of place in their world.

Upon graduation from Whitworth, I still did not know what I wanted to do professionally, but a late family friend told me: "If you don't like what you are doing, continue your education. And stay in school until you find the field you love." But I was restless and knew I needed some "real world" working experience before I could make a decision about a future career. I headed off to Alaska to work in the tourism industry.

My time in Alaska was a time of intense soul-searching about many areas of my life including my future profession. I found a strong spirit of community there-strangers looked after each other. I met and worked with people from all walks of life and from all corners of the United States many who were retired military, school bus drivers, fellow college students and recent graduates, truck drivers, and teachers. People did not look down on other people over their race, religion, or sexual orientation. The people I met saw these "issues" as a touch of beauty in God's world. There was also an appreciation for the environs people lived in.

One summer day, the Anchorage Daily News ran a feature article about a conflict in a neighborhood. The argument was not about drainage issue or neighborhood gentrification due to stylish homosexual couples refurbishing homes causing the older neighbors to move out due to higher property taxes. Instead, the neighbors were concerned about the color a new resident had painted their house as it was not among the approved deed-restricted colors for the neighborhood. As with all homeowners, they were concerned with maintaining or enhancing their property value as well as the values of their community. But this was not the story behind the story.

The accompanying photo showed these neighbors from a variety of races and colors and family backgrounds with their children playing in the background. Reading about this issue, I realized that we as citizens in a republic must speak our opinions about issues that are of importance to us and our communities. Looking at the children playing, I learned that there are more things important in life than the color of a house. This neighborhood represented the proverbial "melting pot" that we can see taking shape in neighborhoods today. I realized then that I, too, could help shape a community. I decided to go to graduate school and pursue public administration.

While in graduate school, I interned as a Budget and Management Analyst at Bexar County in San Antonio. This soon turned into a full time position and then a promotion to Grants Manager. My former part-time professor and then boss Marcus Jahns taught me that the finances of an organization will tell a story about the fiscal health, but more importantly, about the values of that community.

In October 1998, San Antonio was inundated with rain over the course of a two day period. South Central Texas is known for its deadly flash floods, but this "super-cell" of a system dumped 13 inches per hour. Neighborhoods were flooded out and major freeways were underwater. My first task as Grants Manager was to write a grant to FEMA and the State so the County could buy out this one neighborhood of 250 homes that had been destroyed or washed out. Homes had been lifted by the rising waters and were now resting in the treetops.

This neighborhood had been platted by Bexar County in the 1960s and was full of hard-working and retired people with low to moderate incomes. One limited-income widow called me and told me her mobile home, though salvageable, was not up to current code and newer manufactured home communities would not accept her home into their community. FEMA, through the County, provided money for her to buy out her home at near pre-flood value allowing her to start over in a new home on higher ground. I knew that by the county pursing this project made a difference for 250 families meanwhile providing acreage for a future park that is currently under development. She later called and thanked me for my efforts in getting the program passed.

After four years at Bexar County, I became the City Administrator of Hill Country Village, population 1,057 and located on the North Side of San Antonio. The city is similar to other communities as it is made up of a variety of races, religions, sexual orientations, political beliefs, and expectations. This city was and continues to undergo a change not unlike many established neighborhoods: the old are moving out and younger people and families are moving in. Many have much higher incomes than those of the "original settlers." And many of the older residents felt threatened by change. I knew that part of my job was to serve as a change agent and to professionalize the operation. There is not a job that I have hated more and loved as much.

City operations were what we call in Texas a "good ol' boy" system. If you are a friend of a key player at City Hall, you will get what you want. Laws were on the books and not enforced. Need a variance? Forget going to the Board of Adjustment for a variance, just go talk to so-and-so at City Hall. If your dog was running at large and you were ticketed, forget about paying the fine as the ticket will be handled if you know who to talk to down at City Hall. There was no financial system. There were no checks and balances.

Professional city managers/administrators are appointed based on talent, education, and managerial skills. Under a council-manager form of government, the position serves as the chief executive officer or chief administrative officer of the corporation. All staff reports to the city manager and council is not to provide direction to staff, except through the city manager/administrator. Consequently, council focuses on policy issues and the manager and his/her staff focus on executing operations. Professional managers deliberately do not become involved in elections or even a political party as aligning oneself with one side or the other can compromise one's ability to effectively work with elected officials of all parties. In small cities, it is possible for council members and staff to become friends and the separation of powers can become blurred. What then can develop is a "good ol' boy" system of government, one in which elected officials feel empowered to impose their will on staff and staff can be pressured to do not make professional decisions. When I entered Hill Country Village, this is what I found and realized needed to be fixed.

After six years and looking back, I can see I made a difference. Major accomplishments include the following:

  • Creating a financial system,
  • Developing operating and capital project budgets,
  • Rewriting the zoning code and subdivision regulations,
  • Codifying the ordinances,
  • Hiring professional staff,
  • Enforcing laws as well as repealing bad laws,
  • Writing job descriptions for staff, and
  • Writing a personnel handbook.

While there, I supervised staff, was sued twice, and wrestled with citizens and elected officials on the future of the community as well as the organization. Six years later, I am thankful for the opportunity to have served. It forced me to grow professionally and personally. I come away with dear friends who are of many religions, homosexual and straight, Republican and Democrat. I know I left the place better than I found it. With the help of a great council and wonderful and professional staff, we created order among chaos.

Several lessons I have learned in my career include:

  • "all politics are local,"
  • "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."-Sir Winston Churchill,
  • The council-manager form of government is alive and well,
  • Government can only succeed when citizens are involved and good people get involved,
  • Citizens and elected officials genuinely want what is best for their community,
  • How truly blessed we are to live in a country that values the democratic process, and how it should be defended at all cost, and
  • Providing order is one of the greatest and understated values of government.

Last month, I just completed my 10 year anniversary as a local government professional and was recognized by the International City/County Management Association, the professional association of city and county managers.

This is truly an exciting time to be in the local government profession. Suburbs and cities need to be planned while older areas need to have life breathed back into them. Communities need to be shaped and people brought together. The professional local government job is difficult, but is a high calling and a noble profession. The hours are long and the appreciation is not always noted, but in the end, an honest citizen, elected official, and manager can see that the professional manager has made a difference in their community. I can honestly say I am happy where I am and in the profession I chose.

My freshman year at Whitworth a fellow student stated that he was so excited to be starting college; he viewed it as a new chapter in his life. Since then I often think that each of our lives are like his "novel." We have many chapters ending and new ones beginning as we walk through the doors that open before us. As I begin yet another chapter in my life in a different community, I realize that the city management profession needs good people. I would encourage the reader to thoughtfully consider what impact he or she may have in the world, let alone a small corner of it.