Local Government’s New Normal with Erik Kvarsten, City Manager of Gresham, Oregon

The Mission: Local Government’s New Normal is an original ELGL blog feature by contributor Dan Englund that provides an educational, supportive lens into the “new normal” of local government by examining local issues, solutions, and stories from compelling government professionals and their cities or counties.  For the inaugural episode, we talked to Erik Kvarsten, City Manager of Gresham, Oregon.

About the City of Gresham

Gresham_Main StreetWith a population of just over a hundred thousand people, the City of Gresham is Oregon’s fourth largest city.  It lies just east of Portland with close proximity to three major Northwest natural wonders: the Columbia River, the Columbia River Gorge, and Mt. Hood.  A fun fact about the city is that before it was named Gresham, the area was known as “Campground” due to its nicely forested location that served as a stopping post  for early pioneers before moving on to Portland and the greater Willamette Valley.  Over a century later, the urban community is thriving with opportunity, but its changing landscape is continuously challenged by dynamic issues.  Today, Gresham is composed of compelling technological issues, emotional and physical tolls from the Great Recession, a media boom, new small businesses, growing big businesses, and complex local/state/federal pressures — all while the city is working hard to preserve the high quality of life that it’s residents have grown to expect.

Meet Erik Kvarsten

The City of Gresham operates under the council-manager form of government.  The mayor and city council are elected to be the legislative and policy-making body for the city and a professional city manager is responsible for day-to-day city operations.  So to help us understand local government’s new normal in Gresham, we sat down with Erik Kvarsten who has served as the City Manager there since August 2004. Erik is a seasoned local government veteran and a dynamic leader.  He’s a formally credentialed manager through the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and has over 30 years of city management experience in Oregon.  Prior to his arrival in Gresham, Erik served as Troutdale’s Administrator for 8 ½ years.  He is a graduate of the University of Oregon.

My immediate take on Erik was that he’s extremely smart, but I was most impressed by his kindness and understated personality despite his track record of success and the complex level on which he operates.  The more I spoke with him, the more I figured out that everything he does and says is directed by an innate self awareness with conscious and purpose.  ELGL was fortunate to get an in-person interview with Erik.  For the rest of this article, he provides his thoughts on city management through a series of questions to help us gain a better understanding of today’s “new normal” as it pertains to local government.

LOGO New Normal

…with Erik Kvarsten, City Manager of Gresham, Oregon

1. Most compelling current issue: The most compelling current issue Erik said they’re working on at the City of Gresham is the opportunity afforded by the changing technology landscape. 

“We are completing tasks on our phones that used to take hours and volumes of paper.  The speed of these changes has accelerated; where we are now is just the tip of the iceberg.  We must be open to these changes.  My career has spanned nearly the entire useful life of the fax machine, from when it emerged as an awesome new technology to where it is now in obsolescence, replaced by better forms of technology.  Our work and the services we provide will continue to be radically transformed due to the technological advances on the immediate horizon.” 

2. Coming out of recession: The Great Recession put fiscal constraints on all cities in Oregon.  During the recession, Gresham went from about 585 employees to around 500.  While there was a large reduction in development activity, a review of their Comprehensive Annual Financial Report from 2008 noted that Gresham’s economic decline was actually slower than that of other regions.  Erik said the worst part was the emotional toll on co-workers, family and the community who were dealing with the same issues of job loss, income loss, and general anxiety of an unsure future. 

“Our organization was steadfast through the recession.  I’m very proud of our employees; they remained positive, purposeful and committed to their work and the community.  However, doing more with less, and watching co-workers get laid off exacts a fearsome toll.  In Gresham, we tried to stay positive, work hard, and remember that the entire community was being affected.  At the same time, we were still making investments in the future and focusing on that kind of mindset.  Now is the time to encourage all, in their own way, to take good care.”

3. Local government communication: With many local news sources cutting down on their days of delivery and citizens turning increasingly to the internet for news, Erik talked about Gresham’s communication strategy.  He provided his general viewpoint on the landscape:

“It is the Wild West, now, in terms of the media environment.  Go-to media sources, like print, are reaching fewer people and publishing less often.  In-depth reporting is nearly a thing of the past.  I’m confident we will transition to another medium at some point, and traditional, unbiased larger-format news will reemerge in some form, but there is a bit of a vacuum right now.  It’s not clear where people are getting their information.  And many of the small format media sources, like blogs or social media, don’t even try to purport that they don’t carry a bias, so people seek media that just reinforces their favorite paradigm, whatever that might be.  The public exchange in the commons is really threatened right now.”

4. Economic development strategy: Economic development is a fascinating practice that varies across regions, dependent on diverse local resources and factors.  Erik talked about Gresham’s economic development strategy.  He said that economic development for the City of Gresham is two-pronged:

“We work tremendously hard to attract traded-sector investment, and help retain and support the fantastic employers we already have, such as Boeing, On Semiconductor, and Microchip.  While we have a good focus on traded-sector investment, we certainly haven’t ignored our small and medium-sized businesses.  In 2009, staring down the double barrel of an economic meltdown and the subsequent storefront blight it was causing, we put in place an aggressive small business incentive program which we coined the “Garage to Storefront” program because it was meant to help people take their concepts from their garages or kitchens and set up shop in key areas of Gresham.  The program has now expired after the initial year and two renewals; altogether it helped 144 new small businesses open up shop, filling over 225,000 square feet of previously vacant retail.  Our downtown business district is currently enjoying some of its finest years in a long time.”

5. Best projects: Sometimes the best projects a city implements are high profile success stories while many other project successes are rarely noticed by the public.  Erik shared his thoughts on the best projects during his tenure.

“The best projects are those that have been part of our unremitting organizational development efforts.  We just launched a Technology Assessment aimed at taking stock of our existing infrastructure and systems to develop a clear path for taking full advantage of the new data-driven and mobile technologies.”

6. Management Style:  Local government management involves managing externally and also the employees within the organization.  Many of the municipal accomplishments we’ve discussed so far are dependent on great employees, successful management and strong organizational leadership.  City Managers throughout the State of Oregon describe Erik’s management style as well respected, positive, creative, and innovative.  Here’s his words on successful city management:

“Align the organization’s purpose with the governing body; attract the very best talent; broaden the scope of what they do; align the talent with task; and stay out of the way.  Encourage and support creativity and slay needless process.  And, always be on guard against the twin toxins: pessimism and cynicism.”

7. Best Story: It’s been pretty serious until now, but we know that odd or silly things can happen in local government.  Erik told us his latest, best story and it’s pretty darn cool…

“Several weeks ago, Vice-President Biden called Jessica Harper in my office, just to say hello!”

TNT: Ten New Takes

1. If there were a freshman level university class on City Management 101, name 3-5 items that should be included in the curriculum? 1) Active listening  2) Active listening  3) Active listening

2. Name one or two of the biggest issues you see confronting local government in the next five years. Technology and all it implies.

3. We often learn from our mistakes. Name one or two career mistakes that you have made that you think we could learn from.  Assuming I know the community better than the elected officials.

4. Respond to the concept of schools as means of economic development.  Our fates are inexorably linked.

5. Name the best book(s) local government leaders should read.  Whatever best provides you with insight into the human condition. For me, it’s The Nature of Generosity by William Kittredge and The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth.

6. What artist, song or album do you listen to when you want to get pumped up about coming to work?  Anything from the venerable artist Townes Van Zandt, All Rebel Rockers by Michael Franti & Spearhead, and I Am Shelby Lynne.

7. Give us one of your strategies for successful #WorkLifeBalance.  Find and cherish the beauty in both your work and your passion outside of work.  And, ski a lot.

8. Hypothetically, if we find ourselves interviewing for a job in front of you, talk about some steps we can take to make a good impression.  The most important thing is to be genuine.  It’s the best way for me to learn if you and the organization fit.

9. Ask a question we should ask other local government professionals that would fit within this format which you want to know the answer to.  I’d really like to know what other City Managers see ahead in the future so I’d ask them, “In ten years, how will your day be different and how will the services we provide be different?”

10. Ask and answer a question we should have personally asked you with regards to this interview?

Q: How can local government workers react productively to the constant, daily pressures of providing services in our current political and societal structure?

A: MIT professor Edgar Schein lays out the single best principle for success in this regard: Find the capacity to be stimulated by emotional and interpersonal issues and crises rather than be exhausted or worn down by them.  -That’s an incredibly tall order, but it’s a great path to success.

Thank you!

Thank you to Erik Kvarsten for sitting down with me and agreeing to participate in this interview. Your kindness and generosity is as appreciated as your wisdom. May Townes Van Zandt continue to inspire us both #TheCommonCondition

Support the Cause:

Please stay tuned and in the meantime, tweet us who you would like to hear from or where you’d like us to visit by hitting us up @OregonELGL and me personally @DanEnglundMPA. For this assignment, it’s important we visit places and talk to local government professionals directly, so we’ll be doing house calls starting in the Portland area (and within a couple hours). See you on twitter soon!

Stay savvy, ELGL.

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