Q & A with David Frasher

Q. Please describe your work experience with economic development?

A. I have succeeded in the areas of economic development and land use planning in each of the communities I have served. For example, in the first city I managed nearly ten years ago, we more than doubled revenues in a three year period, primarily by expanding our commercial tax base without increasing the actual tax rate. We accomplished this by working directly with developers to construct critical road improvements to accommodate growth, streamlining the plan review process, developing new utility improvements to meet demands and marketing our community to attract new investment. Land use planning was part of our long-term strategy, and I worked directly with the city’s planning commission for more than a year to create a new comprehensive plan that included economic development as an independent component of the plan for the first time in the city’s history.

In Ashland, Wisconsin, we combined city and county resources to create a regional economic development corporation. After successfully transitioning from an economy based on timber and extraction of other natural resources, we opened a new enterprise center, complete with a comprehensive small business “incubator.” The center enabled small start-up businesses free access to business planning, support staff, low interest loans, and operational space, limiting risks while creating jobs within the community. Many of the start-ups grew, created jobs, and eventually went out on their own, enhancing the tax base and even inspiring other local start-up businesses to help fill their supply chains.

Recognizing that the success of our economic development efforts in Ashland would depend upon sound land use planning, I simultaneously managed the development of a new comprehensive plan, involving a diverse group of more than one hundred volunteers who served on a steering committee and various subcommittees. It had been many years since Ashland had developed such a plan and, with support from elected officials, the process was successful in bringing the community together around a common vision. The process took more than a year to complete but at its conclusion, the new plan was recognized as the best in the State of Wisconsin by the American Planning Association. Along the way, we modified ordinances and adopted policies to create a more attractive community for investors while restructuring cost recovery programs to create greater efficiencies.

My economic development and land use planning experience continued to grow as City Manager of Grants Pass, Oregon. In Grants Pass we have developed an award winning business retention/expansion program and have used state enterprise zone tax credits to develop our local economy. Additionally, we have increased our commercial and industrial tax base by millions of dollars through the use of state authorized redevelopment agencies and tax increment financing for major infrastructure improvements. These strategies attracted significant commercial investment, increased job creation, and reduced risk for investors in our community. Our economic development strategy has paid off in Grants Pass, helping us achieve the city’s first AA bond rating, allowing the city to build new police and fire facilities while returning more than $600,000 to local residents as a result of favorable interest rates on the city’s debt service accounts.

Additionally, I developed outstanding relationships and lines of communications with the Chamber of Commerce, Town Center Association, Southern Oregon Economic Development Incorporated, the local community college, as well as the homebuilders and realtors associations to ensure the city’s constant focus on economic development. I collaborated with these groups at every opportunity to ensure for example, that community college courses were targeted at the actual needs of local employers, that the City was a strong regional partner in marketing to potential new businesses, and that builders and realtors had critical, up to date, factual information that would enhance their success in each of these vital industries. I also recruited more skilled economic development staff to Grants Pass and developed new programs to streamline development for businesses and industries seeking to create or expand their presence in the community.

Similarly, again recognizing the importance of land use planning in our economic development efforts, I asked the Council to authorize a three year project to update the City’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) plan. The UGB update, now within a few months of adoption, will help Grants Pass manage growth by identifying areas for development, farm land preservation, transportation, parks, open space, etc. while considering the impact on the local economy and infrastructure capacity for decades to come.

Finally, in Grants Pass I have ensured that the City developed or maintained master plans and growth management policies in virtually every service area that would have an impact on economic vitality, including everything from water, sewer, and roads, to parks and public safety. Each of these master plans have identified long term funding mechanisms, such as impact fees, bond revenues, scheduled capital improvements, etc. and are specifically designed to allow continued high quality growth and economic development. Just as importantly, these plans were developed collaboratively with, rather than in opposition to, those individuals, groups, and industries that were most affected by them. This has reduced or eliminated needless conflict within the community on these issues so that we have been able to maintain our focus on the local economy. As a result, Grants Pass has endured the national recession far better than many other communities and is well situated to capitalize on the economic opportunities that will emerge once the recession has ended.

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Q. How have you demonstrated financial leadership in the communities you have served?

A. I have developed a track record of successful financial management and budgetary planning in each of the municipalities in which I have served. For example, in Oak Grove, Missouri, I recruited talented financial department staff and focused much of my efforts there to completely revamp the city’s financial management systems. I abandoned the simplistic line item-only approach the City had historically used in favor of a more sophisticated budget that would better allow elected officials, citizens, and staff to see how, why, where, and to what ends we were spending public money. This new budget contained job costing analysis, financial forecasting tools, new investment policies, and performance criteria that the City has never used previously. As a result, revenues were greatly increased and diversified, the organization became more efficient, and had the resources needed to accommodate new demands for services resulting from unprecedented growth. Our efforts were recognized when we were awarded the City’s first commendation from the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) for superior budget presentation.

I continued to develop my financial management skills in Ashland, Wisconsin, placing greater emphasis on drafting and administering the annual budget in accordance with the Council’s overall goals for the community. For instance, I organized an annual budget planning retreat with the elected officials and senior staff to affirm short and long range goals. Then, the Council would make the call about their priorities for that year while I assumed the responsibility for reminding them about the City’s longer term financial obligations, particularly those pertaining to the City’s comprehensive plan.

Again, each of my annual budgets in Ashland resulted in awards from GFOA. Although Ashland was in a tough spot given its reliance on diminishing state shared revenues, the situation gave me years of firsthand experience in budgeting for specific outcomes in a community that simply did not have a lot of resources. We were constantly evaluating whether to reduce particular services, working to curtail expenses with labor groups, and becoming highly successful in obtaining grants and congressional “earmarks” for one-time expenditures. The fiscal discipline that I developed in Ashland helped me to be well prepared to help my next city, Grants Pass, plan for, and even thrive, during the recession that municipalities continue to face across the country.

My leadership in financial management and budgeting took another step forward during my service as City Manager of Grants Pass, Oregon, focusing even greater effort on Council goals and defined outcomes in a rapidly growing community. For example, shortly after arriving in Grants Pass I began organizing annual goal-setting retreats at which elected officials established objectives and an overall vision for the following year. After the retreat, staff developed a workplan which included specific tasks and projects, identified the person(s) responsible for each item, resources needed, and the performance measures that would be used to track each item. The vision, goals, and workplan were developed in close cooperation with the Council and I created a budget specifically tailored to support the Council’s vision and goals. I also produced quarterly goals reports to keep everyone, particularly the Council, informed on the status of each project. The city’s capital improvement plan, developed during the budget process, was tied closely to the goals and workplan. The Council could then check our progress not only via periodic goals reports, but also during the City Manager’s annual evaluation, at the onset of the goals retreat the next year, and by examining the results of an annual citizen survey. All of these actions ensured that the governing body and staff remained in touch with the values, priorities, and perceptions held by the community. Elected officials and staff were also much better prepared to respond to any questions by constituents or the media regarding the City’s finances. As in other cities in which I served, we received consecutive annual GFOA awards for each budget that I presented, only this time we received awards for financial reporting as well.

In the end, perhaps the most significant indication of successful financial leadership in Grants Pass came from our citizens, who appeared largely unaware of the City’s new AA bond rating, our clean audit record, or the fiscal integrity of cash reserves and enterprise funds, and yet consistently voted to approve capital bond measures and operations levies for police and fire services. The most striking example of this came last spring when Grants Pass voters, who, when they did approve levies, historically did so by a margin of around 53%, approved our levy proposal by a whopping 68% margin! For me, this was, in the words of the local newspaper editor, an “endorsement” of sound fiscal management and a statement of confidence in the overall operations of city government by the Manager and executive staff. It was a pleasing accomplishment upon which to conclude my service to the City of Grants Pass.

The accumulation of each of these experiences in three different communities has helped me develop the financial management skills, judgement, and creativity necessary to help organizations resolve the fiscal challenges in our ever-changing economy.

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Q. Can you describe how you have personally developed successful relationships in City government, the community, and with labor groups?

A. Building effective relationships may be the single most important factor in determining the success of a city manager, or any other person in a leadership role. This question is really three questions in one because the dynamics of building relationships vary among the three groups about which you have inquired: city government, community, and labor. When building relationships with these groups, there are common themes to consider. For example, things like respect, active listening, sincerity, honesty, courtesy and following the “golden rule” by treating others the way we would like to be treated, apply equally in efforts to build successful relationships across the board. Nevertheless, the different roles and responsibilities within each of the three groups leads me to use a slightly different approach to building successful relationships, depending upon the particular group with whom I am working. Therefore, I will describe the approach that I typically use with each of the three groups.

First, building relationships within “city government” includes elected officials, employees, and appointees serving on various boards or committees. The process of building these relationships within city government actually begins during the recruitment process. It is important to me that I be as honest and open as possible about my individual qualifications when seeking a new position, just as it is for city representatives, so we can each best determine the likelihood that it will be a good fit. Once I begin working in a new community, or immediately after new council members are elected, I arrange a one-on-one meeting with each member to help us get to know one another and to set a positive tone and clear expectations about how we can communicate most effectively. In such meetings, I often ask elected officials what they would most like to accomplish during their time in office, what they believe is working well or not so well, or what they liked most and least about other managers, staff, or colleagues with whom they have worked? I assure them that our discussions will remain confidential unless we agree otherwise, and I am strident about maintaining those confidences. I also provide them with 24 hour contact information and pledge to return their calls on the same day, unless I am out of town or it is late in the evening and the matter is not an emergency.

Similarly, I strive to treat all elected officials equally, with a focus on teamwork and building consensus, both among elected officials, and between elected officials and staff, as well as with particular interest groups or individuals. It is sometimes difficult, but I endeavor to provide the same information to each council member at the same time and in the same manner. I establish a consistent protocol for my recommendations to council, working to avoid confusion, ambiguity, or surprises. The council must be able to trust the manager and staff while, at the same time, feeling completely free to ask tough questions and seek additional information on any issue. Each time there is a disagreement on something, I view it as an opportunity to build trust and improve relationships, even if the fundamental reasons for the difference of opinion remain. I am quick to acknowledge and respect diverse opinions among council members, recognizing that while I may be technically well versed on an issue, the council members, particularly as a group, are in a far better position to know and reflect the values of the community than is the manager. Throughout my career I have enjoyed positive relationships with elected officials. There have been a few exceptions naturally, but mostly I have been inspired and honored through the service and dedication of mayors and council members with whom I have worked.

While my approach to building relationships within city government is similar among both elected and appointed officials, I believe that my success in building relationships with employees and labor groups is heavily dependent upon my participatory management style, ensuring that I consistently seek input from those most affected by decisions before making them. I am proactive in building these relationships, rather than remaining in my office waiting for others to take the first step. Teamwork with employees and with labor representatives is not a word or a concept to me, it is something I do, everyday, by design. To effectively lead employees and work with labor groups, the manager should not be feared or act autocratically, but must earn the respect of those groups. Honesty, integrity, and communication are essential. Employees see you everyday, they know your work ethic, and they know, perhaps better than anyone, if you truly support their efforts or are just looking out for yourself.

Building excellent relationships with employees and labor groups has been one of the hallmarks of my career. For some reason, it has seemed easy, perhaps because I understand employees from the ground up, from my early days as a rookie police officer. It’s not that difficult to walk around every city office every so often and sit down among folks and be yourself, or take the time to give special recognition, send a birthday card, or show a sense of humor in the workplace. I do these, and dozens of other little things that make the difference and employees appreciate it, but only if you are sincere. If so, they will give their all and be loyal to you, the council, and the city. They will go the extra mile and be happy to do so.

The remaining part of this question applies to developing successful relationships within the community. In my view, this is pretty straightforward. In every city I have served I have become involved in the community. I am active in Rotary, attend civic functions, host monthly talk radio shows, perform volunteer work and promote a positive and sincere image whenever possible. I attend chamber of commerce and school events, and sometimes just walk around downtown and visit with small business owners. When I am invited to public speaking events, I do my best to be there, be on time, and have something of substance to say. It is important to live within the city, pay taxes there, and support charitable activities, and everything from the Christmas parade to the growers market. You have to be approachable and let folks know that you truly care about the community. For me that means consistently taking the initiative to get to know people.

In Grants Pass I have some of the best relationships I have ever enjoyed with the local school superintendent, chamber of commerce director, news media representatives, community college president, state elected officials, local business people, and just ordinary folks I have met along the way. Many such relationships with the city were strained or non-existent when I began working in Grants Pass. I was determined to change that and I did. It took a lot of time and effort, but it helped me become part of the community, it helped me be successful as City Manager, and it allowed me to have fun and enjoy my work. I am sure there are other ways of doing the job, I just cannot envision any other way that would work as well for me.

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City Manager David Frasher - Grants Pass City Manager - photo taken by Lucas Balzer http://www.lukaphoto.com