To understand the passion that Steve Bryant has for local government one must only read his article titled “The Sacrifice and Rewards of Public Service.” Luckily for the residents of Albany and the many local government professionals in Oregon who view Steve as a mentor, Steve had incredible skill and was extremely effective at turning his passion into results. Our interview with Steve touches on his career accomplishments in Albany, the night he rocked out to Simon & Garfunkel at Gil Coliseum, and his never ending struggle to defeat his son, Ben Bryant, in golf.
Experience: City of Albany, City Manager, Oregon Solutions Project Manager, ICMA Senior Advisor
Education: Bachelor of Science Degree in Public Affairs, Wallace School of Community Service and Public Affairs, from the University of Oregon.
Steve Bryant manages economic and community development projects. He also is the senior advisor for Oregon to the International City/County Management Association. Previously he served as the Interim Legislative Director and Interim Executive Director of the League of Oregon Cities. He worked 31 years for the City of Albany as Planning Director and then City Manager. Under his watch, Albany established three National Register historic districts, built two fire stations, an award-winning City Hall building, a multi-modal transportation center, and greatly expanded its parks system. He also led efforts to develop multi-sector partnerships resulting in a new county Fair and Expo Center, a “state of the art” multi-jurisdiction water treatment plant, and the alleviation of a large health hazard area through the construction of an area-wide sanitary sewer system. Bryant also led establishment of a downtown urban renewal district and Willamette River waterfront revitalization plan.
Steve has been awarded the Herman Kehrli Award for Distinguished Service to Oregon Cities and a Distinguished Alumni Award by his alma mater, the University of Oregon. He is currently President of the McDowell/Catt Foundation which provides support to OHSU, Portland Shriner’s Hospital for Children, University of Oregon student loan fund, Albany Boys and Girls Club, and the United Christian Missionary Society.
Q & A with Steve
Most kids dream of becoming a superhero, athlete, or musician. How did you find your way to government work?
That’s actually an interesting question. I did dream of becoming one of the big three. In high school I played a pretty mean trumpet, but I didn’t think that was going to take me very far. When I failed to make either the junior varsity basketball team or the golf team I quickly realized that professional sports wasn’t in my future either. My father was (and still is) my “superhero” model having served as a much-admired minister for over 50 years. Most PK’s (preacher’s kids) either follow in those footsteps or take a more rebellious route. Since my older sister and younger brother took the mantel of the cloth, I felt justified in being the rebel by going into local government.
The real truth is that Albany’s city manager came to my high school civics class in 1969 to talk to us about the opportunities to serve in local government management. I was smitten by his enthusiasm and the variety of challenges and opportunities that he described. That brief talk inspired me to enroll in the U of O’s School of Community Service and Public Affairs (now 3PM) where I was placed in several local government internships including, most providently, in the Albany City Manager’s Office. That led to employment opportunities there beginning with summer jobs as the swimming pool manager, followed by an Assistant Planner position, Planning Director, and City Manager–for a total of 31 years in one place!
Tell us about the three career achievements that you are most proud of.
Albany has long suffered from an image problem mostly as a result of its blue collar roots and its appearance from the Millersburg industrial corridor along I-5. We worked hard throughout my career to overcome that first impression that many have of Albany. During my tenure as Planning Director we discovered that we had the largest concentrated collection of Victorian-style homes in Oregon, most of which needed extensive renovation. That led to the successful nomination of three National Register Historic districts containing nearly 500 architecturally significant buildings. Overcoming public distrust of this federal designation and institution of new design review standards for both remodeling activities and new construction within the districts was a huge accomplishment in a conservative community. The result was a relative explosion of building restoration activities, soaring demand for homes once considered as dilapidated, a complete reversal of decades of decline in the city’s core area, and unexpected tourism interest from throughout the Northwest. We even published a book, Architecture Oregon Style (likely a first for a small planning department) that features many Albany homes but also showcases historic buildings throughout the state.
A vexing problem for many years in Albany was the large unincorporated area in North Albany that had been allowed by Benton County to develop at semi-urban densities on septic systems, wells and a patch-work of small water districts. These folks were fiercely independent of their unincorporated status. In the early 80’s it was discovered that people were being sickened by raw sewage seeping from failing septic systems. A Health Department survey determined that this problem was much more pervasion that anyone had suspected. A building moratorium was declared and the State threatened a mandated health hazard annexation. Over the course of several years and carefully constructed collaborative agreements, the entire North Albany urban growth area consisting of nearly 5,000 residents voted overwhelmingly to voluntarily annex to the city of Albany and to construct an extensive sanitary sewer system at considerable cost. Today, the North Albany community is Albany’s most desirable residential neighborhood with a thriving village shopping center, beautiful parks and open spaces, and a stronghold of support for municipal services. This experience reinforced for me the power of collaborative problem-solving over the heavy-handed approach of mandated corrective action.
Continuing on the theme of collaboration, when I became city manager I initiated meetings with the Chamber of Commerce Director, the Community College President, and the School Superintendent, each of whom had also recently started in their positions, which then grew into a “Leadership Roundtable” where we began talking about how we could make positive changes in the community through collaboration and leveraging volunteer resources. That led to the Governor issuing an invitation to over 150 community leaders to engage in a community action planning process which we named STRIDE (for moving the community forward). What followed were several successful years of volunteer-led efforts to help beautify the community, focus on economic development efforts, work on housing rehabilitation programs, ramp up workforce education, and engage citizens in a large variety of wellness activities. All of these activities helped instill a sense of “community” that brought people together and gave them a new sense of pride in their hometown.
On the flip side, talk about one or two of the difficult experiences you faced in your professional career.
Without a doubt, the most difficult experiences all had to do with personnel matters. Noted author and ICMA keynoter, Jim Collins (Good to Great) talks about getting and keeping the right people on the bus as well as getting the wrong people off the bus. I wish I had been given that advice much earlier in my career. Poor performers and bad team players can, and usually do, have a devastating effect on an organization. Looking back, I made a few mistakes by thinking that I somehow had the ability to turn poor performers into at least adequate performers at the department head level. The problem was even “adequate” isn’t good enough in today’s public organizations. You need to find top performers for each department. I learned the hard way that the key to good performance is to look first for excellent character, communication skills and aptitude before looking at experience and competence. That is hard to do from a resume, but thorough background checks and getting to know the candidates and their personal qualities is the key to good hiring.
Give our members and readers two skills that we should work on to make ourselves more attractive to potential employers.
The number one skill that I look for is excellence in communication in all forms–written, verbal and listening skills. Successful candidates should have flawless resumes that have been vetted by other people who are known to have excellent writing skills. In addition, I would advise emerging leaders to practice both their presentation skills and their inquisitive listening skills.
Secondly, I always looked for candidates who demonstrated a passion for their career choice that was reflected in their non-compensated activities. How do you volunteer your time? What do you read? What do you watch? Who are your mentors? What do you look for in other communities?
Who were your mentors?
Larry Rice was the city manager who spoke to my high school civics class and the person I first interned for in Albany. He was dynamic, enthusiastic, innovative, high-energy, inclusive, and exuded integrity. I owe much of my style and career decisions to the path that he modeled. My professors at the University of Oregon made sure that I had a variety of experiences on which to draw including some important basics on dealing with conflict, human resources management, public budgeting, municipal law, and collaborative problem solving. Finally, I looked up to many of the long-term serving city managers throughout the state who gave me inspiration for a long career in one community.
What is the first concert that you attended?
I took my high school girlfriend (now my wife of 39 years) JoLee to the Simon and Garfunkel concert in Gill Coliseum in 1969.
Describe your current work with Oregon Solutions. Recent projects? Current projects?
I have worked for Oregon Solutions out of PSU as a part-time Project Manager for the past five years. We do facilitation of community collaborative projects which are designated by the Governor. My most interesting projects have included work on a marine life center project in Charleston, the Gateway Green bike park project in East Portland, and currently the South Santiam Community Forest Corridor project near Sweet Home. Each has been a very different project but they all utilize the same collaborative problem-solving skills that come with the experience of local government management.
(Complete the sentence) Before I die I want to……
It’s tempting to say, “beat Ben in golf at least a few more times” (they are rare events!), but instead I’ll say experience more fully more of our National Parks (we’ve recently visited 22 and counting).
ELGL is hosting its annual conference on October 4 at the Kennedy School. Give us three suggestions for speakers or topics.
Michael Jordan is always engaging and inspirational. His vision for doing more with less in state government is a good one and he has a good handle on reforms that are needed for a more comprehensive and coordinated delivery system for state services.
Phil Keisling at PSU is another great local resource. I always find his enthusiasm and ideas for public service innovation engaging.
You might also consider trying to get Bob O’Neil, Executive Director of ICMA to a future event. He is an outstanding presenter and trainer and he is very committed to working on next generation issues.
You serve as a senior advisor for Oregon for ICMA. Tell us what that actually entails.
It’s really pretty simple and lots of fun. I am strictly a volunteer for ICMA. They use Senior Advisors to serve as liaisons between the state association and ICMA as a means of keeping the flow of communication going effectively in both directions. This puts me in frequent touch with local managers, the OCCMA Board, and members of the ICMA staff. A nice perk is that ICMA pays our expenses to attend the state, regional and national conferences. I really enjoy staying connected to my profession.
(Complete the sentence) Local government is…..
hard but rewarding work.
When did you first think that your son, Ben, might be interested in following in your footsteps?
When I noticed that his favorite TV shows were Spin City and West Wing and his favorite computer game was Sim City! Where did I go wrong?
Give us three observations on the current state of local government in Oregon?
The way that citizens engage with local government has changed dramatically since I began my career. I was introduced to local government in high school civics. That is now a rarity. More often than not, local elected officials used to come from broad-based prior civic engagement. Today’s elected officials often come from a singular passionate interest–not always a positive one.
The financial challenges facing local government are much more difficult today. The days of robust tax bases that grew somewhat proportionately with property values has been replace by a greater patchwork system of special levies, user fees, and restricted general fund taxes. In addition, the system of large state and federal subsidies for large infrastructure investments are largely a thing of the past. Local user fees now make up the difference much to the dismay and sometimes anger of local ratepayers.
By and large, the dynamics of local government management are still the same. Sometimes we try to make too much out of the changes when, in reality, it is still largely about effective communication and engagement with citizens, working hard to help elected officials effectively set good public police, and employing good management practices to keep the organization on track toward agreed upon goals.
What question(s) should I have asked you?
If you could do it over again, would you have spent your entire career in one organization?
I’m probably the exception in this regard, and I had no intention of staying in one place. But, there was something incredibly rewarding in being able to serve the community that both my wife and I grew up in. I’ve been able to witness many positive changes, make many life-long friends (and a few antagonists as well), and have an enduring sense of pride in what we were able to accomplish.