Ron LeBlanc, City Manager of Durango, Colo., was named the 2016 recipient of the Leo C. Riethmayer Outstanding Colorado Public Administrator Award. Named for the founder of the School of Public Affairs, the Riethmayer Award annually recognizes a distinguished Colorado public servant.
We asked LeBlanc to reflect on his career, advice he might offer to current students, and the future of the public administration profession.
What sparked your interest in public administration and local government specifically?
My interest in a career in public service evolved from a desire to engage in improvement of the public good. I never saw myself in a corporate context. Local government is the level of government that has the best opportunity to make a difference.
After serving an internship for the City of Longmont, my first position was “Administrative Intern” at the City of Arvada working for Craig Kocian, the City Manager. Part of my job duties was handling citizen requests. Some of those requests were made over the phone, but most came by U.S. Mail in the form of a letter. We had time to think and process the information before a response was crafted.
Six years from my first day on the job in Arvada, I was appointed Interim City Manager, a position I held for 10 months at the age of 30.
It was then that I realized that my education and training would be applied to situations that no one could have predicted or even imagined.
Was there a particular person or mentor who had a large influence on your career path?
My first boss, Craig Kocian, City Manager of Arvada, greatly influenced my decision to become a city manager. Craig was a dynamic manager who worked well both with the general public and with elected officials. He was articulate and communicated very effectively, an example that I’ve applied throughout my career.
I was fortunate to have this early experience in Arvada. It was a young management team — Craig was only 10 years older than me — but highly skilled, and all of them went on to prominent positions. I think of it now like a Super Bowl championship team breaking up the year after they win the title.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I have left every community that I have managed in better condition than when I arrived on the job.
Is there anything you would do differently?
Yes, my career should have reflected a better work/life balance. Part of that is due to the nature of the job, but I placed a lot of focus on my career and missed out on some opportunities with my family.
I do think that finding a good work/life balance has become more difficult over the years; that’s the case in many professions. Work life has expanded, and the nature of work has changed. As I mentioned before, when I first started out I would answer letters from citizens. I had time to discuss issues with divisions heads, or whoever I needed to talk to for more information, then craft a response. Now citizens will send a text and expect an immediate response. If they don’t get it, they’ll call and/or email.
What advice would you give to a student who is considering an MPA degree and/or a career in public service?
Based on my 40 years of experience in local government, I would offer the following advice:
- Understand the value of communication. Don’t wait until there is a crisis to develop good lines of communication. Today’s public sector environment is characterized as “bitch and fix”. Use every opportunity to educate and win over those who are demanding and lack understanding.
- Networking is a force multiplier. Critical to any career is the development and cultivation of a professional network. Don’t limit your network to people who work in jobs like you have. Find people who excel in their positions and learn their secrets, practice their behaviors and understand what makes them successful.
- Don’t waste a good crisis. The Gold King Mine Spill provided an opportunity to showcase positive aspects of Durango. City staff were able to reinforce ties with counterparts from La Plata County. Our staff used the opportunity to display our professionalism to the Governor and his staff, both U.S. Senators, and officials from various state and federal agencies.
- Be wary of the leadership void. There are plenty of examples of leadership voids at all levels of government. It is up to you to change that. Leadership is essential to the success of any organization. Avoid being sucked into the cynical vortex, that downward spiral of negativity. Remember others are watching you. Stand up for your principles and ethics. Always lead by example.
- Always serve the greater good. There is more to gain by working as a team and being part of an organization than there is by advancing your personal interests. Common goals, vision, and values will carry you further than self-aggrandizement.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future of your profession?
The city management profession is entering a period of unprecedented change. There will be more experienced people retiring or leaving the profession, and fewer people prepared to step into those positions with adequate education and experience.
My hope is that students entering the job market remain focused on serving the public good. These future professionals will need to aspire to the highest ethical standards, be willing to work hard for little public recognition, and wait patiently to be rewarded by the implementation of their ideas and projects.