Municipal Managing

Without trusted and effective frameworks for decision-making, g̶o̶v̶e̶r̶n̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ ̶o̶u̶t̶c̶o̶m̶e̶s̶ our communities suffer. But we can do better.

As a municipal administrator, my work has largely focused on:

  • Identifying acute and systemic mechanisms for local tax savings and economic sustainability
  • Creating more comprehensive and publicly transparent budgeting processes
  • Demanding strict compliance for ethics and data privacy and security
  • Implementing evidence-based and technology supported programs that meet specific, prioritized community needs, and
  • Building trust through authentic and constructive collaboration with communities.

By approaching governance and management as a participatory, not exclusionary, processes we can more effectively address major and growing challenges related to issues such as housing and affordability, economic sustainability, environmental and climate protection, public safety and preparedness, and technology and accessibility. Read below about some of the major meta-goals of my philosophy behind trusted and effective municipal management.

Revenue Positive Financial Planning

In both Leonia and Lambertville where I was appointed Business Administrator, we saved local taxpayers considerably more than the cost of the salary. It was important to show relevant stakeholders that funding a professional, strategic manager position is crucial.

In less than two years in each municipality, I brought in new grant funds from county, state, federal, and nonprofit sources, totaling more $1.1m in Leonia (~$10m annual operating budget) and over $100,000 in Lambertville (~$5m annual operating budget). We cut hundreds of thousands of frivolous and inefficient spending on technology and professional service contracts in both communities, contracts which were awarded without regard to performance and value to taxpayers. We implemented financial programs with an eye towards reducing long-term debt. For example, laying out a plan to begin to address the City of Lambertville’s major runaway debt issue by reducing new debt authorized by 97% in year one, as well as facilitating a comprehensive six-year capital planning and budgeting process to reduce the taxpayer impact of the City’s rising debt over the next six years. (City’s debt service was 24% of operating budget in 2019, projected to grow to 38% by 2024 at prior spending levels).

In each of those communities, we were able to identify literally millions in taxpayer savings over a six-year period by creating and implementing a transparent six-year budgeting process that including an actual review and planning discussions around facilities, infrastructure, affordable housing obligations, redevelopment, staffing levels, technology, commercial development, rateables, sustainability, and historic preservation. By bringing together real data on current and future financial commitments, local stakeholders had, for the first time, the actual ability to make more informed, strategic decisions about their priorities and futures.

Some people think it costs more in the short-term to do this kind of financial management. Done properly it can save in the short and long term.

Transparent Local Budgeting

For example, as part of my work guiding municipalities to implement long-term financial planning process that will help them better meet their community’s goals, I built on the award winning transparency projects we did while I was in office in South Orange. Starting in 2012 in South Orange, we released five years of past budget data in machine readable formats that were then ported to an innovative data visualization tool. Information that helped our community understand the budget and give better feedback. As a municipal manager, beyond creating the aforementioned analysis and planning programs, I experimented with new ways through data, text, graphic, and video content to communicate complex financial information in more simple and accessible formats for elected officials and communities. In both communities, I implemented interactive, public budget presentations and discussions – all aimed to help support more informed local decision making. You can view some examples of newly created public presentation materials from Leonia here, and examples from Lambertville here and here.

Below is one example. This is a graphic that compares for the prior five years two important indicators, which taken together provide valuable insight. It includes a) the total debt authorized by each individual municipal bond ordinance, and b) the cumulative amount of debt authorized by the City. This is meant to help illustrate that if you only approach financing in an ad-hoc fashion (blue label), where you borrow money periodically without a plan or broader context, it’s very easy to lose track of the actual total cost (red label). The solution to this is simple: Transparent, multi-year budget processes that provide all of the information, presented and discussed full engagement with local stakeholders and the community.

Compliance, Records Retention, and Ethics

In both communities, I quickly brought the organizations to better digital records compliance, implementing enterprise-level data archiving, backup, redundancy and security solutions that not only reduce risk associated with cyber-security threats, but help ensure proper preservation of records, and which helps the Municipal Clerk/records custodian ensure a more strict compliance with the New Jersey Open Public Records Act, an area of widespread deficiency among New Jersey local governments. Ensuring that officials cannot simply delete records when served with a request is one small, but important step in ensuring that government units follow the law and authentically earn the public's trust.

Starting in South Orange, where I witnessed behaviors such as elected officials using personal email addresses to avoid OPRA compliance, meeting privately to avoid OPMA, and, outside of South Orange, officials using their public positions for direct personal and professional gain, demanding adherence to common sensical and existing ethics policies has been part of my portfolio. As a manager, I implemented and advocated for internal policies to ensure strict compliance among local elected officials with the Open Public Meetings Act and Open Public Records Act, even when it at times produced pushback from the officials or their political beneficiaries. This includes preventing or discouraging practices such as officials using personal email addresses to do municipal business, meeting with a majority of their governing body in private to decide business that is required to be discussed publicly, or contracting with individuals and firms that have outside undisclosed relationships with elected officials.

Starting in South Orange, I also implemented an accurate privacy disclaimer on all electronic communication with officials. This was to be different than most government email disclaimers seen floating around that incorrectly identify electronic communication with public officials as some form of ‘confidential’ instead informing the member of the public that their email/electronic communication with public employees and officials are actually public documents by default, except for very narrow circumstances. (South Orange’s email disclaimer was the first in the state).

Additionally, I brought in and worked with a Qualified Purchasing Agent (QPA) in each community to assist in implementing more strict budget control and anti-pay-to-play policies that ensured better compliance with state purchasing laws and created more transparent contract award processes in the future.

Public Goal Setting

Starting in South Orange, as Mayor, I brought the governing body together to participate in a formal, public annual goal-setting process. This involved prioritizing and discussing, and re-prioritizing initiatives from each elected official. Rather than allow the government to be moved in reactive directions, or allow the political goals of individual members to direct organizational resources, it was important to bring the entire group together to discuss and formally memorialize public goals.

In Leonia and Lambertville, we built on this work, creating a more public-based goal-setting process aligned with the budget, that was aimed at helping flesh out goals from the community, not just municipal stakeholders, and ensure that the municipal organization was moving forward with a comprehensive understanding of community needs, and doing so in a close partnership with the community and local stakeholders.

Much of these goal-setting initiatives relate to ideas around community development/redevelopment and financial planning/budgeting, two areas that are too often disconnected. I've worked on a number of award-winning redevelopment projects as a mayor and administrator, working closely with urban planners and other professionals ensuring that redevelopment happens in ways that meet community needs and help to support and reinvigorate downtown business districts, improve walk/bike-ability, ensure long-term affordability, and improve sustainability practices.

This type of strategic planning is part of the course that I teach in Seton Hall’s MPA program. Doing this type of planning significantly improves organizational efficiency, reduces unintentional bias of public resource utilization, provides clearer direction to department heads/staff, and ensures the public’s ability to provide and engage with the local government’s goals, in addition to a number of other benefits.

Programs that meet community needs

Sustainability. Historic Preservation. Downtown revitalization and support. Affordable Housing. Online payments and services. Emergency Preparedness and Communication. Cultural, Arts, and Recreation Programming. Public Information and Library Access. There are so many important areas that local governments touch on a daily basis. Below are a few examples of programs we did that helped meet important community needs:

  • In Leonia, won grant funding to put the first fully electric plug-in police vehicle in New Jersey on the road.
  • In Leonia, we fixed arrays of broken solar panels to help generate renewable electricity and earn revenue to offset taxes.
  • In Leonia, secured County grant funding and renovated and expanded space for senior services and community programming.
  • In Leonia, assisted in the implementation of a massive local traffic reduction program using new technology platforms.
  • In Leonia, took a two-year long delayed website project and accomplished it in months, adding new features and information, email newsletters and a new online 311 service request system.
  • In Leonia, we reduced over 100,000 kW/h of annual energy usage by performing a comprehensive energy audit.
  • In Leonia, brought in a professional planner and performed various studies and public discussions affordable housing and redevelopment to help the Borough be proactive about its obligations.
  • In Leonia, worked with staff to digitize and streamline the Borough’s purchasing process
  • In Leonia and Lambertville, implemented various technology solutions, including cloud document collaboration, electronic signatures, online forms and payments, 311 service requests, and new VOIP phone systems that saved thousands over prior contracts.
  • In Lambertville, worked with the Environmental Commission to implement a plastic bag recycling program that brought in hundreds of pounds of plastic in the first few months, as well as a paper reduction program in municipal offices and with municipal cleaning supplies.
  • In Lambertville, began to move the City to a comprehensive 311/online permitting system through Spatial Data Logic
  • In Lambertville, we reduced tens of thousands of printing and mailing by moving various purchasing and contracting processes online
  • In Lambertville, identified several innovative shared service opportunities, including ones which were awarded state grant funds.
  • In Lambertville, helped use existing funds to catch the City up on various multi-year delayed road and capital projects under stricter budget requirements
  • In Lambertville, finished the development of a new City website
  • In Lambertville, created a new email newsletter, quarterly mailed newsletter, and new “issue based” update pages on the City website to try and help increase transparency and communication with the public.
  • In Lambertville, directly implemented and coordinated the City’s COVID-19 response in lieu of the City’s improperly staffed/vacant Office of Emergency Management.
  • In Lambertville, helped move critical community programs forward, such as getting a long-delayed grant for flood mitigation efforts through New Jersey’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) program ready to be implemented, which was at risk of expiring and becoming lost.