NC: Eric Peterson, Town of Hillsborough, Town Manager

Fifty Nifty Takeaways

What do we hope to learn from this series? We hope you will gain a better understanding of the unique characteristics of local government in each state, we hope you will learn that there are others like you who are motivated to make a difference through the public sector, and we hope you will learn that it is best to learn from others’ mistakes than yours.

Our Take on North Carolina

The 50 Nifty visits North Carolina at a time when the state is seemingly in the news nightly, and not for the best of reasons. The latest newsworthy mention occurred when a Buncombe County Republican precinct chairman appeared on the Daily Show and spouted off a few unmentionable comments. How unmentionable? He no longer has that position.

Well, enough of the negative, our 2nd stop in North Carolina has special importance. Eric Peterson, Hillsborough town manager, is somewhat of an ELGL spiritual founder. Eric provided an internship opportunity for ELGL co-founder, Kent Wyatt when he was attending the UNC MPA program. Whether it was Kent’s office in the upstairs of an old barn or having an office next to an undercover police officer, this opportunity strengthened Kent’s commitment to a public sector career. It also showed that local government can be fun and interesting and you can be a successful manager who succeeds professionally, at home, and at other hobbies which is racing cars for Eric. So next time you are about to fire off an angry email to our co-founder consider instead sending it to Eric.

For those of you who missed our first visit to North Carolina with Mitchell Silver, City of Raleigh, let’s get you up to speed on North Carolina. The Old North State is home to Andy Griffin, Michael Jordan, NASCAR Hall of Fame, Pepsi, and Krispy Kreme. The unofficial song of North Carolina is “Carolina on My Mind” by James Taylor, right? Not necessarily, some newer North Carolina residents might point to “Raise Up” by Petey Pablo. The rapper spends most of the song naming the many small cities and towns in North Carolina. Who knew Petey Pablo was so civic minded!

North Carolina is a strong proponent of the council-manager form of government. It’s largest cities Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Asheville, and Winston-Salem all employ a city manager. An MPA is almost as common as an MBA in North Carolina with more than 10 schools offering an MPA.

Unfortunately, a well educated workforce does not completely eliminate bad laws from being passed, as evident by these:

  • Asheville:  If you have to sneeze you better not do it on a city street! Sneezing on city streets is illegal.
  • Charlotte: Women must have their bodies covered by at least 16 yards of cloth at all times.
  • Kill Devil Hills: You may not ride a bicycle without having both your hands on the handle bars.
  • Rocky Mount: It is required that you must pay a property tax on your dog.
  • Greensboro: Restaurants “with on sidewalk dining” must post their menu so that it is clearly readable from the sidewalk, but is not readable from the street.

Background Check on Eric

 

Eric started his local government career in 1987 doing a one year internship for the City of Georgetown, SC. He has also served as a management analyst for the City of Kinston, NC; town manager for Tabor City, NC; town manager for Topsail Beach, NC (6 years); and has been Hillsborough’s town manager for since 1997. While at Topsail Beach he served as the incident commander during multiple storms, evacuations, and hurricanes. Eric has had articles published on budgeting, performance measurement, disaster management, and police driver training. He developed and has coordinated the Hillsborough Police Department annual in-car driver safety courses since 2000, as well as worked with the North Carolina League of Municipalities to provide a driving program for police driving instructors across the state.  He wrote and directed the North Carolina League of Municipalities’ police driver safety video, “Slower is Faster” that is being used by law enforcement agencies and insurance companies across the country.

In addition, Eric has been a guest lecturer at the School of Government on budgeting since 1993. Eric received a B.S. in political science from Appalachian State University and his MPA from UNC Chapel Hill.  In addition, he’s completed the UNC School of Government Municipal Administration Course and Harvard’s Senior Executives in State & Local Government course at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Eric’s newest endeavor is serving as the Chapter Mentor for the UNC ICMA student chapter.

Connect with UNC ICMA Student Chapter: Facebook, Twitter, and World Wide Web.

Background Check on Hillsborough

 

 

Connect: World Wide Web

No we didn’t misspell “Hillsborough” as those who live in Oregon might think. This Hillsborough, with a population of just over 6,000, is the county seat of Orange County, NC. Although, Hillsborough was unofficially shortened to “Hillsboro” in the 19th century but was changed back to its original spelling in the late 1960s.

Hillsborough is a tourist destination, and a haven for artists and writers. The town is centrally located in North Carolina. Interstate 85 runs through the town, and Interstate 40 is just south of its limits.

Notable Residents

  • Doug Marlette (1949–2007) – cartoonist and author
  • Annie Dillard (born 1945) – Author
  • Michael Malone – Edgar Award-winning novelist and Daytime Emmy Award-winning soap opera writer
  • Connie Ray (born 1956) – Actress, The Torkelsons

Lightning Round

 

Best piece of advice from your parents. 

The two mottos/statements listed below were repeated often by my dad to motivate my brother and me.  I’ve used them often to get myself moving during tough times or when I’m just being lazy.

  •  “The impossible just takes a little longer.”
  • “It’s not that it can’t be done, you just don’t want to do it.”

In a dream world, which bands would headline your retirement party? 

Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, and AC/DC.

 

 

(Complete the sentence) Before I die I want to…….learn how to relax and not worry so much. Two ulcers and a case of the shingles over the past three years have reminded me how important it is to carve out time to exercise and get breaks every day.  It’s simple, exercise makes handling stress much easier, improves problem-solving capacity, and helps me build good sleep cycles.  One can only burn the candle at both ends for so long before it catches up with you.

Three most influential books in your life.

The Complete Book of Running.  I read it multiple times when I was in the 7th grade.  It was the first thing that got me started planning and experimenting.  I was cool to read about different training techniques, then go and try them out.  While it helped me with my running it also help me get organized and become a believer in the trial and error method of learning.

Theory Z.  Reading this as a college sophomore got me excited about working in local government management, even though it was about Japanese business theory that incorporated many of Edwards Deming’s approaches. It allowed me to translate my early work experiences in restaurants as to what might work for a better and more productive workplace when I got into the real world.  The focus on employee involvement and emphasis on keeping managers reasonably humble resonated with me at the time.  Theory Z, coupled with spending a lot of time in the field with many departments during my first two internships, helped me see where the most critical work gets done – the front line employees.  This quickly taught me that my job as a manager is to help everyone else succeed in their jobs.  When there is a problem, such as a leaking water or sewer line, the most important people to citizens at that moment are the city employees responding at the scene.  Hence, it’s critical employees have the right tools and training to do the job.

Thinking Body Dancing Mind.  This is a fantastic book that provides examples of how to apply Tao or Eastern philosophies to improve your performance at work, life, and sports.  It improved my performance as a town manager, during public speaking, and in competitive sports car racing by being able to better manage nerves, providing a map of what and how to focus during stressful times, and simply increasing my self-confidence.  The first two-thirds of the book is outstanding, you can skip the last third.  A friend, who is a sport psychologist and has worked with many Olympians and world class athletes, recommended the book.  My copy is highlighted and worn out – it’s a keeper.

If you could FaceTime with five people (dead or alive and not including family members), who would be on the list? 

  • Ernest Shackleton (South Pole explorer, one of the greatest all-time survival stories – read the book Endurance)
  • Jon Stewart
  • Abraham Lincoln (my 8-year old daughter is enthralled with all things Lincoln)
  • Billy Mills (Gold medal winner in the 10,000 meters during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics)
  • Jesse Pinkman (from Breaking Bad, I want to see how things are going post-Walt)

Describe the inside of your car. 

From my wife…semi-clean, tube of Blistex, half consumed bottle of water, a pen, plus whatever our 7 and 8-year old daughters leave there.

What’s the meaning of life? 

It’s whatever you want it to be.  My view is that we only live one (as far as we know), so be true to yourself, pursue continual discovery and improvement, enjoy life, help others, figure out ways to continually recharge your batteries that allows you to be more of a participant than spectator, live in a way that will bring you peace during your final moments.  Most importantly, celebrate life and carve out little escapes with friends through good food and drink.

Q & A with Eric

Give us three bullet points that best describe local government in your state.

  • Stable and established council-manager form of government.
  • Fortunate to be the recipient of thoughtful and professional guidance in dozens of technical areas from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government as well as fellow managers and local government employees.
  • Concern about the state government’s recent attempts to take assets from local governments and whether that practice may spread (e.g., Charlotte airport and Asheville water system).

We’ll assume you didn’t grow up dreaming about a career in local government. What was your dream job as a 12-year old? What was your first local government job? How did you end up in local government?

  • Race car driver.
  • Management intern for the City of Georgetown, South Carolina. The experience in Georgetown was so amazing that I knew three things:  1) I loved local government, 2) wanted to make it a career, and 3) needed more experience because I there was so much I didn’t know, so I applied to the MPA Program at UNC-Chapel Hill and was lucky enough to get in.  The year in the MPA Program was one of the best of my life.
  • I was taking an urban politics class as an undergrad at Appalachian State.  The professor thought my name was Ferguson.  One day he said, “Ferguson, I need to see you in my office after class.”  I thought I was in trouble.  He explained that he ran the Town Administration City County Management program and I should consider making that my area of specialization. Up to that point I was highly concerned as to what I’d do with a political science degree, so I decided to give the course work and internship a try.

Give us your top three career accomplishments.

  • Getting fired from my first manager’s job in only 4 ½ months.  I’m not sure if that was an accomplishment, but while not pleasant it was an amazing learning experience. Not going along with a board that was regularly and blatantly violating the open-meetings law and getting fired was the reason the next community (Topsail Beach) asked me to apply for their vacant manager’s job.
  • Serving as the Incident Commander during two Hurricanes that occurred only seven weeks apart (Bertha– a Cat. 2 and Fran – a Cat. 3 in 1996) and helping the community rebuild.  It was the experience of a lifetime in so many ways, but I never want to do it again.
  • Having had the privilege of working with law enforcement officers and others from across the country increasing training efforts and awareness as it relates to reducing the leading cause of Line of Duty Deaths (LODD) for police officers – vehicle related collisions.  I hope the efforts I’ve made via conducting driver safety schools, writing articles, writing and directing the “Slower is Faster” video with the North Carolina League of Municipalities, promoting the national Below 100 campaign and giving presentations have resulted, directly or indirectly, in saving the life of at least one person – hopefully more.  Nothing is more sad than to read a LODD email notice from the Officer Down Memorial Page sharing the stories of how officers have lost their lives in collisions, especially in the case when the losses were preventable. One of the most important obligations we have as managers is to work hard to provide proper training and equipment for our employees so they can go home safely each day to their family and friends! I strongly suggest all aspiring manager’s sign up for the alerts at www.odmp.org as they provide a powerful reminder as to 1) the danger of your co-workers jobs, and 2) ask yourself if you and your organization take the business of employee safety seriously – if not, then it’s time for you to exercise some leadership.

We often learn from our mistakes. Name one or two career mistakes that you have made that you think we could learn from.

Being too generous with second chances.  Yes, many people deserve second chances, but it’s important to think about the impact on the organization and public perception when you do so.  In one situation I should have terminated a group of employees for some very bad decisions they made.  While it was a complicated situation, my failure to properly weigh the impact of allowing these employees to continue working negatively affected public perception of this department for many years.  Had I “cleaned house” it would have greatly shortened the recovery process. Over the years, I’ve steadily become less tolerant of poor behavior and performance.  I think part of that comes from experience and developing more confidence in one’s ability to make decisions in what are often complicated situations. Local governments are under tremendous pressure to do a lot with minimal resources.  So, when it’s clear (or fairly clear) that someone is damaging the efficiency, effectiveness, and morale of your organization *and* there is “just cause” to terminate them – it’s time to get them “off the bus.”  Letting problems linger too long can become a terrible cancer in your organization and cause you to lose your best employees.

The biggest mistakes have come from not following my gut instinct.  There have been two departments heads that I essentially terminated (i.e., they chose to resign at the beginning of the termination process) where there were early warning signs that I did not pursue aggressively enough.  In both cases the employee surveys indicated there were some problems.  I did probe and asked questions but didn’t dig deep enough.  And, let myself be satisfied with answers, that in hindsight, were superficial and inadequate.  I was busy with other priorities at the time and was too trusting in both cases.  The result was fairly lengthy investigations that were disruptive to the departments’ operations.  Both times I picked up a variety of warning signs in the back of my mind but dismissed them because I thought I was being overly picky, etc.  Anyway, I blew two opportunities to identify problems earlier in the process because I chose not to pursue my gut instinct.  Fortunately, we were able to hire fantastic department heads to replace these people and they did a great job in turning things around.

Our experience has been many of our friends, family, and neighbors are not well versed in what it is we do in local government, many think we are a “planner” or “mayor”. Has this been your experience?  

Yep, pretty much.  When I’m away from work I often avoid mentioning what I do for those reasons.  Plus, it’s good to have an escape as our jobs can be pressure packed and all-consuming for extended periods of time.

How can local governments better communicate their role in the everyday lives of the community? 

 

The first step is asking residents how they like to get their information.  In Hillsborough, surveys indicate citizens prefer getting their information in a variety of ways (e.g., website, TV access channel, social media, and newsletters, water bill stuffers).  The ability to use video on websites and social media have greatly increased our potential to share information with our citizens.  The most effective way to communicate key information is still one-on-one contact.  That means managers and other key staff need to make themselves available to have conversations in person, on the phone, or via email.  Putting yourself in more approachable situations, such as community events or being willing to talk to citizens in the store or other public venues, makes a big difference over time.  When our family needs to get something in a hurry from a local store my wife won’t let me go because there is a high probability someone is going to stop and ask me questions about something going on in town *or* want to vent about a key issue that is bothering them.

Would you encourage your family and friends to consider a career in local government? 

People have to find their own way in life.  No one likes to be pushed into something, so it’s critical that our daughters and others find a career that resonates with who they are.  If it turns out they were interested in exploring local government as a career, I’d be ecstatic to share my thoughts and encouragement.

Hypothetically, if we find ourselves interviewing for a job in front of you, talk about three steps we can take to make a good impression.

Learn about the organization/community and be able to weave that understanding into your answers.  It shows that you took the initiative to be prepared, are motivated, and organized.  That demonstrates the type of contributor you will be if hired.

Don’t have all the answers – it’s OK to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have experience in that area.”  We want to hire people who are candid, honest, and strong enough to admit they don’t know everything.

Provide a supplemental resume, in addition to your standard resume, that specifically addresses your experience and skills as they relate to this job.  I’m amazed how rarely this happens. Everyone always includes their standard resume and maybe includes a few “tweaks” depending on the job you are applying for.  It’s very simple to look at the job advertisement, list the key skills they are looking for, then, write a paragraph elaborating on your experience in these areas.

This accomplishes a several good things:

  • It does a better job of communicating your compatibility for the job (i.e., paints a clear picture of what you would bring to the job if hired),
  • makes it easier for employer to evaluate your skill sets, and
  • shows that you are organized and motivated.

I did this when I applied for the Hillsborough job over 16 years ago.  The executive search firm told me they’d never seen anyone do this and it was the best resume they’d ever seen.  This was shocking to me as it’s so simple to do.  When we hired our budget and management analyst seven years ago, she provided a portfolio of work examples during the interview process that clearly demonstrated she could do the job as well as other things that we had not even thought about.  Her portfolio made the hiring decision easy for us and she’s turned out to be a phenomenal employee and real difference maker in the organization.

Mentoring is such an important part of local government. Name three of your mentors.

  • Dr. Jack Vogt – my budget professor, major paper advisor in grad school, and co-instructor for many years in budget courses for local government officials.  He pushed me hard, set high expectations, and always provided support and encouragement.
  • Kai Nelson – he was the finance director for the City of Kinston when I worked there right after grad school.  I often joke that half of what I learned about local government Kai taught me while having lunch at Bojangles’.  He was so busy that eating lunch with him was the best way to get one-on-one time with him.  Kai is now the Office of Management and Budget Director for the City of Greenville, South Carolina.
  • Mitch Sizemore – former city administrator in Georgetown, South Carolina and my first boss.  He was merciless on editing my writing.  He repeatedly ripped it to shreds.  It made me mad, but it motivated me to get better.  Finally, at the end of the one year internship he returned a memo with no comments to me.  I felt like I’d just won the Super Bowl.  He also gave me a lot of projects to work on at the same time.  It was frustrating me at the time but taught me to juggle many things at once.

(Complete the sentence) In 2018, local government will be …………even more important in everyone’s lives due to climate change, a volatile world, and the impact of technology.

What question(s) should we have asked you? 

What’s the best part of being Hillsborough’s town manager?  When I roll out of bed every morning I’m excited to go to work.  It is an extreme privilege to:

  • serve such a wonderful community
  • work for elected officials who are smart, practical, and whose top priority is making the town a better place to live. They also want to do what’s right, and are great leaders that I enjoy learning from
  • have such amazing co-workers (the employees and our management team) that I admire, who regularly teach me  things, are innovators who have become  so successful often with limited resources
  • have a place to work where it’s fun, and
  • feel that I’m playing a small part in solving problems and making this town a better place to live for the community and my family.

When I left Topsail Beach over 16 years ago I thought I’d never have a better job as that was such an amazing experience.  So, I feel so incredibly fortunate to now have had what equates to two “dream jobs” in my career.

I wish everyone in ELGL the best of luck in finding your “dream jobs” during your careers.

Supplemental Reading

50 Nifty Profiles

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