Friday, November 6, 2015

Looking Where StrongTowns Points to Spot a Rara Avis

Those who have spoken with me about municipal government have likely heard one of my favorite sayings, “If your city manager and planning director aren’t at risk of being fired at least once a year, they’re not doing enough to make your city a better place.”

Like most good aphorisms, it contains a grain of truth along with a dose of exaggeration.  Productive city employees shouldn’t be expected to continually skate near the edge of termination.  Not only would excessive changes be disruptive to city halls, but employees, no matter their position, are human beings, with human concerns about supporting spouses with community ties, taking care of children trying to enjoy their high school years, and not risking retirement vesting.

Furthermore, innovation should not be encouraged only at the top, but should spring from everywhere in city halls, with everyone from the city manager to the custodians encouraged to offer ideas to improve city services.

Nonetheless, we need city managers and other folks near the top of municipal organization charts to be particularly alert to new ideas.  Thus, I was intrigued when StrongTowns offered a link to an audio interview with the city manager of a small town in Kansas who had become a devotee of the StrongTown message.

I’ve often written about StrongTowns, a Minnesota non-profit that decries the unsustainable costs of suburban sprawl and advocates for a cautious approach to municipal growth and finance.  In their words, a StrongTown is one that “is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets, and long term liabilities.  Their mission statement concludes with “We’ve run out of money.  It’s now time to start thinking.”

Readers not yet familiar with StrongTowns are encouraged to download their Curbside Chat booklet, which lays out the StrongTowns philosophy in a simple but comprehensive form.

I may not agree with every conclusion reached by the StrongTowns folks, but I heartily support their overall approach to municipal management.  Many of my posts are linked on their website.  And I’ve belonged to StrongTowns long enough that I’m included in their Founders’ Circle

The audio is StrongTowns founder Chuck Marohn interviewing Toby Dougherty, the City Manager of Hay, Kansas.  Hays, a city of 21,000, is described as the largest city in northwest Kansas, which says a lot about northwest Kansas relative to the Bay Area.  (The photo shows the view from the Rooftop Restaurant in Hays and is from the website

The interview runs 52 minutes, so may go beyond the attention span of some readers.  But I’ll share my listening experience in the hope that it gives a flavor.

Not being good at single-tasking, especially if the task is staring into space while listening to an audio interview, I soon found myself engaged in tidying up emails when listening with half attention to Marohn and Dougherty drone on about the Hays as a regional center and home to Fort Hays State University.

And then suddenly I was caught up short.  Dougherty was talking about the need for his town to be financially sustainable and to reject development that wouldn’t generate enough property tax revenue to support its long-term maintenance.  He was talking straight from the StrongTowns playbook.

I knew there were a few StrongTowns believers in city halls.  I’ve met and listened to some at the Congress for the New Urbanism annual meetings.  But those encounters were like looking at birds in captivity.  I was pleased to know that the folks existed, but away from their natural setting the impact was muted.

Listening to a city manager talking the StrongTowns line, perhaps sitting with his feet on his city hall desk in a small Kansas town, was far more real.  It was like stumbling across a ruby-throated warbler singing its song directly to me in the heart of the woods.  Yes, StrongTowns, by interviewing Dougherty, had pointed him out to me, but there was still an electric thrill of discovery.  And it was great.

My favorite moment was when Dougherty talked about how, after long puzzling over contemporary city finances, he came across the Curbside Chat, found the message compelling, and forwarded the link to the City Attorney.  At 1:30am the next morning, the City Attorney emailed back a simple “Duh.”  And just like that there were two StrongTown converts in the Hays City Hall.

As homework, those who aren’t yet familiar with StrongTowns are strongly encouraged to download and to read through the Curbside Chat.  For those with 52 minutes to spare, extra credit is available for those who listen to the Toby Dougherty interview.  But even for those without the 52 minutes, please take my word that there is something thrilling about hearing the StrongTowns message coming from the plains of Kansas.   It gives hope.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the relationship between underfunded pension obligations and urbanism.  I’ve often written that the pension difficulties are a sign of the suburban mistake, but I’ve recently come to a further conclusion about an ethical relationship between pension debt and urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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