What was your local government moment? What keeps you in local government? Who have been the influences in your career? We take a deep dive into these questions by asking you (the practitioner) to tell your local government story. You can sign up to participate in the bi-monthly feature at Finding Local Government. Thanks to Matt Wojnowski, City of Altus, OK, for developing and coordinating the feature.
By Sam Anselm, City Manager, Town of Joplin, MO
My first exposure to local government happened when I was thrown in jail at the age of seven or eight years old for some trumped up charge that I can’t even remember. The arresting officer happened to be my grandfather, the marshal of the town I grew up in, and we were on a school field trip to city hall to learn more about our police department. Thankfully the charges didn’t stick (future employment background checks to worry about), but that visit to city hall was that experience that lit a spark inside and started me down the path of a career in government.
The Bush/Dukakis debates in 1988 (I was 12 by then) exposed me to the idea of making laws, rather than enforcing them, which was an idea that stuck with me through high school where I was selected with the honor of representing my school at the American Legion Missouri Boys State program (Doniphan, class of ’93, rules!). My plans were to go to college at the University of Texas – Arlington, where I thought I’d get a degree in political science, serve as a congressional staffer, and eventually make a run for elected office. But as many of these stories go, a girl came along and interrupted my plans.
You see, I actually met my wife when we were in second grade (she may have even been with me on that field trip to the jail, now that I think about it), and we started dating in high school, but with plans to go our separate ways in college. However, after high school I quickly discovered that I missed my girlfriend terribly, and love ultimately won out, so we decided we’d transfer to Northwest Missouri State University together. It was at NWMSU where I discovered the public administration program, and that spark from so many years ago quickly ignited into a flame. In my mind, having an opportunity to witness first-hand how local laws and programs are made, and being in a position to implement them, was an intriguing blend of skills and opportunities.
Three years and a bachelor’s degree later, I was a college graduate anxious to get started in the workforce, so I mailed a resume out to every city in St. Charles and St. Louis County, Missouri. Luckily, one of those resumes landed in the right hands, and I was hired by the City of St. Peters to collect data and help implement their new pay plan. Nearly a decade after that, with stops in their purchasing and human resources departments and picking up several mentors (Carol Barrington, Tim Arnett, Cathy Pratt, and Bill Charnisky, to name but a few), our first child and a master’s degree along the way, I accepted a position with the City of Ferguson, Missouri, where I served as the assistant to the city manager for three years, taking on responsibilities in human resources, information systems, economic development, and public information.
I currently serve as the city manager for Joplin, Missouri. But if you’re curious to know why I love working in local government, you don’t need to look any further than what has transpired in our community over the past five years that I have been in Joplin, to understand why. Aside from having public service in my blood (my afore-mentioned grandfather, and my father, who served in the US Army and later as an air traffic controller with the FAA), I’ve gotten to witness first-hand the awe-inspiring things that can happen when all facets of a community come together to face adversity, led by 50,000+ citizens with a “roll up your sleeves, strap on your boots and get to work” attitude.
Just to be in the mix as residents rebuilt homes, businesses reopened and new ones came in (and continue to do so, thankfully), and as our local, state and federal partners joined together to rebuild our infrastructure and schools, has been the most humbling and rewarding experience of my professional life. But public service is about more than accomplishments that you can put on a job application…
I’ve fallen in love on three different occasions in my life – with my wife of 16+ years, with my four children, and with Joplin, Missouri, my city. The opportunity to be involved with our city council, residents, and businesses in shaping the future of this community is what keeps me energized to come to work every day. And along the way, if I can work to become half of the public servant that my grandfather was, I will have had a long and successful career.
Local government isn’t always rainbows and unicorns, and sometimes you get knocked around, but if you have a passion for making a difference in this world, I’d encourage you to start within your community and look into #localgov as a career option. You won’t regret it, and may actually find that you love it as I do. Love is what public service is all about.