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Listen to Episode 6

Brian talks with Kate Fitzpatrick, Town Manager of Needham, MA, about how she got her start in local government, what they're doing to encourage women to join in and how she organizes her day. Kate has over 20 years over experience in varying roles at the Town and shares many stories of her journey growing with Needham.

You can check out the Town of Needham website here - http://www.needhamma.gov/.

Show Script:

Kate
There was a lot of worry at the time that it would be sort of a loss of citizen engagement in government because those boards wouldn't have the responsibility of hiring people. I think it's proven successful. But there are still people around to kind of want the old days.

Brian
Welcome to another Gov Gab radio podcast. I'm your host Brian Ondrako and thanks again for being a part of this episode and excited to introduce the Town Manager at the Town of Needham, Massachusetts. Kate Fitzpatrick had a wonderful conversation with Kate and she's kind of moved up the ranks.

The Town of Needham for many years now holding the seat of the Town Manager. And we really got into a lot of great discussion around what she's doing in the Town, how they're kind of adapting and working with Council, those type of things. So I think you guys will really enjoy this episode excited to get into it. So without further ado, let's jump into our chat today with Kate Fitzpatrick. Kate, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining today. 

Kate
Thanks for inviting me. 

Brian
Yeah, I'm excited to chat with you learn a little bit more about the Town there as well as your journey. And that's actually where I want to start. Because, you know, when I talk with a variety of different, you know, leadership roles from different communities around the country, you know, sometimes with mayor's right, it's they're doing a short term, maybe they've done some on the Council before some committees, you kind of dedicated your life to the public sector, right. So I'm curious to start off why was that important for you? Was that something growing up you were always involved in or something that changed as you kind of got older? Can you start sharing that and then we'll kind of go on some time.

Kate
From there, absolutely. So, you might find this interesting, Brian that as an 11-year-old, I had a paper route. And I know you did, too. And so I spent a lot of time on the paper route. And the DPW folks from my town put up a replacement street sign on my street, and it was spelled wrong. So I live on Lindbergh Road, and he was named after Charles Lindbergh. And they left off the h. So I was 11. And I wrote a letter to the town saying, you know, why Charles Lindbergh is important and why the street name should be right. I mean, they came within like a week and changed it. And that for me was just really said, wow, you live here, you can ask your town to help you and they will. So that was really my entry into my first foray into local government.

As a side note, on my 40th birthday, my husband called that town and got me a copy of the street sign for my birthday, and it came and it was spelled wrong.

Brian
Full circle. Exactly, exactly. Yep. So why did you want to continue down that path of that? And what was intriguing about that for you? Right? 

Kate
So I went to school at a desert institution whose motto is men and women for others. And I really grew up in a service oriented home where it was expected that we would be involved in service. And then I got an MBA with a concentration in public management. So it was all about working in government. I knew I never wanted to run for office, that wasn't something that I was interested in. But I evolved in several jobs, where working at different levels in government and trying to find the right one. Because really, it sounds trite, but helping people is one of the joys of life and that's where I found my niche.

Brian
That's really awesome. So you've, if I saw correctly, you've been in the with the Town for many years, is that right? You kind of worked your way up. In the different roles, is that right? Can you start? Was it something intriguing? I'm just curious. I mean, that's a that's a rarity nowadays right to be in one kind of role or one organization will call it quote-unquote, right? for an entire career for a lot of career. Tell me what about the Town intrigued you what why have you kind of stayed around there? 

Kate
That's exactly right. And it's it's unusual to stay. It's not so unusual to stay in the same field, but it is fairly unusual to stay in the same town. So my first government job was with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and I worked in a in a variety of roles all in human resource field. And I saw this job ad and this is in the days, you probably don't remember, when all jobs were in the newspaper and they were in tiny little print, you know, in a whole section without a job and I thought it was intriguing. And when I came here 20 more than 29 years ago, believe it or not, I was really struck by how close town officials are to the people they serve. 

So when I worked in the Commonwealth, of course, it was way pre-911. But people still didn't come into the building. Customers didn't come into the building. And when you work in a city or a town hall, they right there. I mean, I, if you ask any city or town administrator, or town manager, if they've ever been followed into the restroom by somebody who wanted to ask them a question, they'd all say yes, so it's very local. And it really gives such an opportunity to be able to hear people's issues and try to respond to them on an individual basis, as opposed to setting more sort of statewide policy. So I came here as the HR director, and then I became the assistant town administrator, also HR at the same time. And then my predecessor moved on to another community and I became the town administrator. And then a few years later, the town changed its form of government to create a town manager form of government, which is the slightly more centralized from a budget and personnel perspective. So I became the Town's first town manager. And so we only had one town manager, and we've only had, been a woman. So that's kind of a big deal for us.

Brian
That's really interesting. And for the folks that maybe don't know about the different forms of government stuff, can you share like one: How did that impact going and changing that? Was that like most people didn't even know or care about that? Or was that like a big kind of ruffle some feathers in the town?

Kate
Oh, I would say it's a big change. And it may seem very unusual if you work in a city council, city manager form of government, and that's always been there. It's just so it's hard to imagine our form of government here in New England, where we in our case, we have a representative town meeting form of government, which means there are 252 residents who gather in May and they do all the work they do the zoning, they do the appropriating.

They do the bylaw changes, and then they go away. And they might come back one day in the fall. And so the government is very slow. And the work is done by sort of what we call a divided executive. So we have a select board who is sort of like a city council but doesn't have the legislative piece. And that's who I work for. And then there are a number of other appointed and elected boards, who at the time of the change in government, hired their own staff. So the library trustees hired the library director, the parks and rec commission hired the parks and rec commissioner, that those kinds of things. So when we change the form of government, all of those appointments are now made by me. And we centralized the budget development and there was a lot of wary at the time that it would be sort of a loss of citizen engagement in government because those boards wouldn't have the responsibility of hiring people. I think it's proven successful, but there's still people around who kind of want the old days back.

Brian
I feel you. They don't want to change old. They're old school and want to keep it that way I get it. Yeah. What? What have you learned? I'm always intrigued, especially as you move up the ranks and different roles. And I think it's so vital the things you do and maybe it's a maybe go back to the paper route days. But what have you learned kind of early in your career that's really set you up for success, you know, being the town manager now.

Kate
I think that I find my way I'm kind of a relentlessly optimistic person. So I really believe there's a solution to every problem. And on my best days, I can, I can see it in the future. And so I try to take every opportunity to hear people out and to connect with people directly. Making connections with people is the way that I find is the way to get the work done. Because in my particular situation, you know, issuing orders or directives, isn't going to necessarily be successful. In a lot of ways, our job is to relationship build and to manage by persuasion. So I think I learned that early in terms of trying to make connections and trying to work with people directly, as opposed to a top down situation.

Brian
And that's actually good, maybe, you know, sidestep with that. How do you work with the council and other committees and those type of things? Is that a, you have to dance around a lot of things as you guys have more direct conversation, what's kind of the relationship there? Because obviously, that could be you know, there can be some contention points and some work very well together, depending on the jurisdiction. 

Kate
That's right. So in Needham, we have a select board, actually, it was called the board of selectmen until just this year, and we asked the legislature to allow us to change it to to select board recognizing that words matter. And so we have five members, they're all elected, and I work directly for them. And I think there's probably not a day goes by that I don't speak to one or two of them and just to, you know, get feedback and concerns that they that they see out in the community or that people ask them about. I think the most successful board manager relations have the highest level of communication and remembering to treat each member equally in terms of the communication so that if, you know if there's something in the information you've passed on to one just make a huge effort to get get that information to everybody else. I think another tip for success for manager council or manager board relations is always respecting new ideas. I mean, if you've been in place a long time, you know, you've tried something four times it didn't work, but you have a new elected person and they want to try it again. You have to really look at it and say, yep, we'll try it again. Kind of going outside of the comfort zone and looking at new approaches. I think that's especially true if you've been somewhere for a long time.

I guess Finally, I would say that the board members or council members are always out in the community hearing from people and that when, when you possibly can, helping them solve their constituents' problems, or telling them when they can be solved. It's just such a, it's really helpful for them and usually doing this work so they can help people and make their community better. And so recognizing that and prioritizing It is critical.

Brian
What do you find in terms of your specific role in any kind of can take this a few ways I kind of, you know, maybe the positive each and every day if you kind of look at your date, and maybe it's something like what would people be surprised to know that you do day in and day out that they would they wouldn't even think of from a town manager position. The traditional right is I oversee all the departments, public work, police fire. I oversee Emergency Management through our departments as well. And that's something that maybe people don't know that communities are wary and concerned and actively involved in planning for emergencies on a basically on a daily basis at something that would be different.

Kate
Public works tends to take up probably 75% or more of the work that I'm thinking through by Director of Public Works and his staff are on speed dial, because so much of what we do that people see and feel is public works, you know, potholes, street sidewalks, snow removal, water, sewer, parks, mowing, you know, street signs and those kinds of things. And they're really things that people can see every day and understand. So they're asking about them all the time. Traffic and parking tend to be the number one and number two things people want to come in and talk about or complain about. And I think maybe something people wouldn't expect is that our office here, we we tend to end up being the default place where special events go so we run a lot of special events in town and, you know, we had recently a Needham resident Aly Raisman, who won gold in two Olympics. We had two major community events in order to celebrate her. And we have a hometown hero astronaut, Sunita Williams, and so you end up not knowing anything about NASA and then communicating with them. So it's, it's a little bit of a different thing every day.

Brian
I wonder if you can share and this is more curiosity at my point, but maybe other folks have this as well, because I come from a small town, upstate New York, some people may know Endicott. But you get obviously with the varying weather conditions throughout the year, especially obviously, the wintertime and the unknowns. How do you guys properly plan for that? And obviously, you only can plan so much. But from a budgeting standpoint, from a being able to know hey, what patterns like what do you guys look at to try to get ahead of some of those conditions, if you can at all? 

Kate
That's a great question. We have a very sophisticated snow operations. I mean, we had we've had it for years because it's really, you know, the old joke is that that's what gets mayors unelected right is snow and potholes or trash pickup. But it's evolved. We have a very strong map of the community we have a mix of employees and contracted services who provide it. And some of our new generation managers have really brought in technology to improve snow ops and they're using technology to call in all the contractors at the same time instead of having to dial 50 people which was in the old days and, and that all of their work gets uploaded and we don't have to enter the payroll anymore. We're putting in a mesh network that might in its next evolution actually detected the temperature of the of the roadway underneath. So we'll know if we have icing emergency condition. So strangely, technology has really improved our snow operations in Massachusetts. You can overspend your snow and ice budgets, the only line you can overspend. So we essentially we know that we tend to spend every year we put that money in a reserve fund, and if it's not needed for snow, it's just it's sent back to to the fund balance. Snow operations is a very important aspect of upstate New York and in our part of Boston here, it is something we think about all year. We have training on it, they have conferences on it, they practice it. So it is it is an important part of our work.

Brian
What do you find for your role specifically? What's the favorite part of your job?

Kate
I would say the variety every day, there's something new. You know, I'm talking to a group this morning about feasibility study. I'm doing a podcast. You know, it's just this something new every day. You really see tangible results when you're at the local level on the front line, so I can drive through town and see parks and rail trails and buildings that I've had a direct hand in being part of why they're there and you see them every day. I think that that's really fulfilling.

Brian
Yeah, that's pretty cool. Again, being able to do a lot of different stuff and you don't get bored with it right? What are some decisions you've made that you you know, you've been proud of, kind of it could be span, not just the town manager role, but as you said, some prior roles, even anything you can share, that's kind of been something impactful for the town that's been important for you. 

Kate
Sure, I would put those into categories. The thing that I've been most happy about in Needham is being part of some of our capital facility projects. And we had a school for instance, that we couldn't rebuild on its own site, and I had a hand in actually buying a farm and we've transformed it into a school. Another one we had we just for about a decade. We tried to find a place to put a center for senior center. And we just couldn't find a location. And I was part of a team that made an arrangement with the Commonwealth to share land. And so those things, you, most people would say, wow, that that's kind of behind the scenes, but that is the kind of work that we do. And so those are things I'm very proud of. We've added many, many communities, add school buildings, and we have as well, but in the last decade, we've added we've renovated our town hall and a historic renovation, and we added a brand new outdoor pool with a new building. We added the senior center and we added another administrative building, which is really unbelievable in terms of when you think of 15 years ago, all those things were sort of happening in one building, and now we spread out and we've been able to improve our services through those buildings. So that's what I see as a really big accomplishment. The other things sort of related to work but also to some of my personal goals is that I was involved in the founding of the women leading government chapter here in Massachusetts. And this is a an organization that we're working with our state association to empower women to participate in local government and to succeed and to move up. You may know that the number of women who are running cities and towns across the country is up, it's stuck at 13%. For years, it's up closer to 19% by my account. But still, it's nowhere near representative. There are a lot of women in local government, probably more than half of local government staff are women, but they're not. They're not willing to step up to the top job, or to the second to their third tier jobs. And so I've working with a lot of wonderful women here and across the country in order to take the time now to make inroads in that. 

Brian
That's really neat. That's awesome. You setting that up? What do you do from a you doing a lot of different things? Right, you're involved in a lot of stuff hands on a lot of different pots. Do you have any like daily habits you follow or any routines Seems to kind of keep you structured, keep your time kind of focused on certain things, anything you do in particular you'd share. 

Kate
So, the assistant manager here calls it the bedrock laptop from the Flintstones, but I have a, you know, a sheet of yellow legal paper, and I have a list on that every single day. I am a list maker. And there's so much happening. If I don't write it down, I will forget it. So I make a lot of lists. I have a list. Just on that pad. I have a list on my rocket book. I have posted notes everywhere. So I'm always trying to make make sure I don't forget things by list making and then I can use those lists to prioritize. And I use the list to set my week I try to set next week on Friday afternoon because it really helps me get in and hit the ground running on Monday.

I have long-term goals and I sort of write those on my list to make sure I look at them a lot. Trying to determine it's something that I'm working on is really achieving our goals are if it's just easy, so that's why I'm working on it, you know, try to set habits that way. And I also believe in this, it's not quite Inbox Zero, but it's inbox 100. For me, if I can end the week with only 100 active emails, I just feel lighter and better and able to attack the work. Before I learned how to file on Outlook, I would have you know, tens of thousands of emails because I didn't really know how to organize them and so that's something I couldn't recommend highly enough is to just you know, make your your inbox not quite so threatening to you.

Brian
I agree fully with that I've actually taking that mentality as well as like I try to get almost know when an email comes in the certain times that look at them only keep the ones I need to or you know, either forward them on, delete them, answer them and just get them out of there. So I agree with that philosophy as well. You don't feel bogged down. 

Kate
Exactly.

Brian
I'm going to take a slight off ramp for a second because one of the things we chatted about before, but I'm curious, you know, learning obviously evolving and kind of get better. So you now started a blog, you're in the podcasting a little bit, share a little bit about that, because I'm curious of why you got into some of that stuff. And for podcast, what are you listening to? What are some things you're learning from that experience?

Kate
Oh, great question. So I felt I was at a point in my career where I wanted to do something to keep myself engaged and interested and, and also to share because once you get to a certain point, you know, people do tend to ask for your advice or your opinion, and you know, trying to shape the local government community and make sure its vibrant, because it's devoted my life to it. So I figure, I want to make sure it stays active and vibrant. So I started serving some colleagues to see, you know, you know, how, how do they balance work life? How do they handle all these night meetings? What is their resilience? When did they decide to change jobs? And so I've been taking that information and makes writing a book about it seems kind of a daunting first step. And writing a blog is it's one of the things that does hang over you I'm sure you know, but it's just an easy way to get some information out there, get a dialogue started with the people I care about. And it's just been a fun creative outlet for me. So that's why I started to do that just last month as a matter of fact, so so that's a new thing. And podcasts, I actually had to have someone show me like where the podcast button was about a year ago. And then I follow a lot of people who are in the, in the space of how to make yourself happier and more engaged at work, you know, so I listened. I listen to books about podcasts about books, I listen to podcasts about happiness that listen to podcasts about time management, about meditation, I mean all the things and then there's you know, some that are just for fun.

Brian
Any particulars you'd call out or?

Kate
Boy, so I listened to Laura Vanderkam before breakfast. She has a short one every day. I listen to Happier by Gretchen Rubin. I listen to 10% Happier by Dan Harris. I listen to the Lazy Genius. I listened to What Should I Read Next about books and every day somebody is recommending a new one that I should be listening to.

Brian
Now that's great. Yeah, the one I was going to I was going to suggest I don't know if you ever heard you know who Adam Grant is? 

Kate
Oh, yes. Yep. 

Brian
Yeah, he has. I think it's called Work Life. If I recall, if I'm, I'm trying to pull up here now as I'm talking to you. I believe that's what it's called. But anyways, that's a phenomenal Yeah, work life. That's a really cool one. It gives a lot of insight into into work life balance and things to think about organizational structure, those types of things. So that's another. 

Kate
That's exactly what is interesting about podcasts is that every time I listen to one, somebody else who has their own podcast, so they listen to them. So like Annie P Freeman that does The Next Right Thing. I think they were all talking about Adam Grant on the last round of podcasts I listened to so really your advice, that's fantastic. Can't forget GovLove, you know, the ELGL podcaster. They talk to people in our business. I have that one too. So I'm always recommending them to people.

Brian
Yeah, and it's just that, you know, the nice thing is a podcast that they a lot of them go very niche. So again, depending on what you want to learn about, I think there's a lot of opportunity to find someone you like and kind of stick with it. So that's really cool.

Kate
Let me just add one more thing is that I'm one of those people who doesn't like to do just one thing at once. So if I'm walking, I've actually started running to them, too. So you know, it's good for exercise, it's good for having something to do with you have to commute. And that's what they're really great for.

Brian
You can start your own up there, you doing your blog, and maybe you start running for the town, put you on the spot.

Kate
I gotta leave that to you for now.

Brian
I appreciate that. Well, a couple more things, I just want to get your take on because obviously looking at the the growth of the town and what you guys expect, what are some challenges maybe you guys are for seeing over the next few years or anticipating that maybe you're trying to get ahead of or at least you know, haven't focused in your mind a little bit to be more proactive with?

Kate
Yes, so we have spent a lot of money lately on new buildings, our most recent is that we're totally reconstructing our main police and fire station and our secondary fire station. And we have a big school project that's ongoing right now and some other small projects. So the community has been very generous and very supportive. But there are there are still a number probably five high priority structures that we really need to address. And it's going to be very hard to add anything to the tax burden that we already have out there. So it takes a lot of careful planning to try to figure out how to get those needed infrastructure projects moving when we've just done so many. And we're also mindful about making sure that we keep we capture this economic development wave. That's that's happening right now the economy is good, we're prime located to get some more economic development happening. And those projects tend to relieve the tax burden for our residents.

Brian
Now, how do you guys prioritize those things? You said, hey, there's like five things on the list? And who knows, maybe there's a couple of smaller ones. But how do you guys prioritize? Is it based fully on? What budgets available? Or is it just aging infrastructure like this has to be done? There's no question about it. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kate
Yeah, we have a very robust planning process. Every year, we develop a five-year capital plan, every seven to 10 years, we do another master plan for all of our facilities. And we map out exactly what order we want to do things. And then we plan our spending accordingly. We've had some projects where we've actually saved up some cash in order to be able to get the project going. So when you have a building that you need that, you know, you need to do, say $7 million, one of our last buildings, we pulled together funding from from all sorts of different places, so that it wasn't all borrowing so that we could get that project done. So it's it's tackling each project creatively, but also having a plan so that when debt falls off from some projects, the new ones are coming on. And then that's just all all known.

Brian
And you get an opportunity, again, being how swamped, you are with a lot of this different stuff, do you get an opportunity to talk a lot with your peers, either in the area or across the country on what they're doing? Well, or maybe seeing, hey, they're not doing that this? Well, we should avoid that you get that opportunity at all?

Kate
Yes, in fact, I'm very involved in our state association, and we're a fairly small state. So we are able to have, you know, seven to 10 formal events a year that we meet together. And it really is the best part about it is the networking and trying to find out what is working and what isn't working, I talked to colleagues a lot either by email or, or on the phone less so on the phone than they used to be. And I'm also participate with the International City Management Association. And I've met a lot of people that way. And so I'm able to reach out, serve on a couple of national boards. So that's a really good way to hear what's happening in other places. Most the most often thing people want to know is, is town meeting really a thing. And so I spent a lot of time educating people on our on our form of government. But then I've gotten some great approaches to some innovative things that we could be doing here, from people from other states.

Brian
Anything to share that might be worth knowing?

Kate
We actually had a conference on innovation in an April. And using technology. In fact, Dude Solutions and city See Click Fix using some of these technologies to do even more interesting things. When I was at that conference, we use the See Click Fix for our work order system in public works. And we are implementing a Bigbelly trash solution here in Needham. Bigbelly headquartered and founded in Needham, I would point out, and I found out at that conference that Bigbelly can actually interact with See Click Fix without a human involved. And that was such a just a great thing to learn about. And I've been pursuing, like, how can we make that happen here? And I never would have known that if I hadn't been at that conference.

Brian
Now, that's really great. Again, that continual knowledge again, are we going to do it now? Or in the future release? Having that inside? There's really cool. Well, let me ask you this. So obviously, you know, spanning your, your all the different things you've learned and experienced and conversations have whatever, has kind of a lasting impression of the interview here. And you can take this on whatever tangent you want, kind of more open forum here. What advice would you share? is there is there a quote you live by Is there a certain kind of structure of advice you'd like to give one or two pieces of nuggets, and this could be I kind of like to ask you to take it in two forms. One is other cities, leaders, maybe it's other, you know, council members, mayor's etc, advice to them, and then to, you know, the citizen out there and things that they could be doing or advice to share to them anything in particular in those two categories? You kind of share to end the interview on?

Kate
Yes, I would say advice to other managers is be as upbeat as possible, listen closely to what's happening in your community. And I like to say that there's nothing that substitutes for story, if you're trying to get something passed, it could be anything, a big initiative or a small initiative, or, or why you need to cut down six trees on this sheet that nobody wants to cut down. What's the story about that, you know, give the examples of where trees and falling down if they're dead, or that they cause the most problems in in storms and that kind of thing. So using story really gets people in the community to understand what it is that we're trying to do. For residents, I would say, I think that a good way to be involved is to find something that's important to you and then get involved in it. A lot of times residents will get their first interaction real interaction with local government is when they're opposed to something. That's what gets people out. They don't want this structure there. They don't want this thing happening. They don't want a real trail in their backyard. And for people, if they're opposed to something to get out and to be open minded for compromise, because there's always there's always people on one or the other side of a proposal. And I think once I found many, many people who've come out to be involved, stay involved, because then they realize how how much residents can affect their own hometown by participating in volunteering, and then they stay in and they stay volunteered. So I think that's the advice I would give them.

Brian
That's really awesome. Okay, this has been an absolute pleasure. Really, really nice to get to talk with you hear about your journey a little bit. Some of the great things you guys are doing there in the in the town. So thank you so much for for coming on today.

Kate
Great. Thanks for having us in Needham is a great place.

Brian
Hey, everyone, just one more quick thing before you run along on your day, please head over to iTunes, leave us a quick review, give us a rating. Let us know how we're doing so we can make this podcast better each and every episode. And really put out a good product here for you guys to listen in and learn a little bit more about your local communities and some of the folks that are running them. We certainly appreciate you sticking in listening through these and providing that feedback and hope you guys will join on the next episode. Take care and have a phenomenal day.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai
 

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