I Work for the City

“Often the perception within the city is that the public thinks we are too stupid, crooked or lazy to work in the private sector, and that can lead to a defensive posture.”

Last Friday I had the opportunity to take part in an intimate forum with the Dallas City Manager Mary K. Suhm.   Mrs. Suhm is serving her fifth year as city manager for the City of Dallas. As city manager, Suhm is responsible for the daily operations of the municipal organization. She manages a staff of approximately 14,000 employees and a budget of nearly 3 billion. She was appointed city manager in June 2005 by the Dallas City Council. Prior to her appointment as city manager, Suhm served as interim city manager, first assistant city manager, assistant city manager, executive assistant director of Dallas Police, director of courts, assistant to the Mayor, and branch library manager for the City of Dallas.

During her three decades in municipal government, Mary Suhm has earned a national reputation among public administrators for creativity and innovation. Suhm, who earned master of business administration and master of library science degrees from the University of North Texas, has introduced performance measurement, customer service, benchmarking, strategic planning and other common business practices into municipal management operations to assure that Dallas city government runs efficiently, economically, and effectively. She received praise from all levels of government and the community for her leadership during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita after managing a large scale evacuation effort by establishing and operating two major shelters and a Disaster Recovery Center in Dallas.1

The focus of the discussion had been ‘civic leadership’ and Mrs. Suhm was speaking to this point, but as the conversation evolved, we began talking quite a bit about the city, and municipal operations. As an architect, I am constantly involved with cities and city staff, usually in the through the planning and inspection departments as we marshal project through permitting.  To a lesser degree, but still significant, is the involvement with elected officials (mayor, council, etc.) usually with zoning cases in a public forum.  Recently, however, I’ve been involved in several public/private partnership projects where I’ve worked with both very closely toward a unified goal, and the initial comments I quoted from Mrs. Suhm resonated with me.

Every architect has had a bad experience with a city department or agency, frankly it’s part of the job description.  Each city has their own code amendments, their own way of going about things and their own objectives in mind and it is our job to learn these and try to navigate them.  Often this leads to significant tension, and we (probably unfairly) characterize staff as bean counters who go by their little checklists, failing to see the big picture.

While it may be unfair, even Mrs. Suhm agree that it is more true that not.  However, when she started down this course I began to see these things from the city staff point of view.

“You need to engage with the city,” She said.  “You would be surprised how many people who work for the city do so because they want to help with their community.”  Thinking back on it, I’ve actually found this to more often be true than not.  Yes, there are exceptions where that blasted guy in engineering just won’t budge on that artificial flood plain even though raising the entire building two feet makes the project unfeasible, but in inverse is prolific.

“The city can figure out how to do almost anything, you just have to engage them properly.”  Architects are well aware that cities don’t like curve balls.  They are much more inclined to allow an exception if they see it coming and you’ve already sold them on the big idea, but I found it illuminating to think of the city staffer’s point of view as being possibly just as jaded as ours.  Along those lines, I believe the success I’ve had in dealing with municipalities on public/private partnerships is partly because they have foreknowledge of what is coming down the pike, but more because they’ve become stakeholders in the affair.

As architects, Mrs. Suhm’s comments offer an opportunity to engage city staff in a new way.  Is this a panacea, no, but it’s a curious opportunity.

1. Via Mary K. Suhm’s online resume which you can view here.

2. Dallas City Hall image via Gravitywave which you can view here.


08 2010
  • Doug Phillips

    Good article! From a municipal perspective it is very similar. As a city official who is in it solely for the betterment of the community, I like to see the engagement in the process on both sides, and I certainly want to be stakeholder to drive the best possible result; the citizens I represent deserve no less.