COLUMBIA — Inside a city government building on the banks of the Des Moines River, future Columbia City Manager Mike Matthes’ office shows subtle signs of change.
Hanging on the wall behind a conference table, a dry erase board is wiped clean. Only the essentials remain on top of the large wooden desk opposite it: a concrete paperweight with nothing beneath it, a container with a few mechanical pencils and Bic pens, a yellow highlighter and a pink one. A single cardboard box, half full of papers and books, remains open to the right of the desk, waiting to be filled, taped up and sent to its new home in Columbia.
The box, along with a sparsely leaved plant, a white coffee maker and a print of a Van Gogh painting, will soon be making its way to Columbia City Hall, where Matthes, most recently an assistant city manager and chief information officer for Des Moines, will be taking the post of city manager May 1.
In Matthes’ Des Moines office April 7, his second-to-last day working in Iowa, the 42-year-old sat at the room’s conference table with his hands comfortably clasped in front of him.
He spoke warmly and calmly, his sentences sprinkled with subtle hand gestures. His expression brightened when he talked about his two children, twin 7-year-olds, a boy and a girl. His tone remained confident as the conversation broached affairs of city government. After 15 years of being promoted through a panoply of positions in Des Moines, he was more than familiar with the subjects.
His colleagues said Matthes is known for improving the departments he works in. His leadership helped turn the city’s Housing Services Department around; the same is true of its Information Technology Department. Innovative ideas are his forte, and service-oriented leadership his working philosophy.
Matthes plans for his reputation and record to continue.
As for what he hopes to accomplish in Columbia? “Leave it in better shape than I found it,” Matthes said. “It’s the Athenian Oath, right? That’s the fundamental oath that we all take, I think.”
Moving up through the ranks
Matthes’ former boss, Des Moines City Manager Rick Clark, said that as early as his days as a management intern, Matthes had a knack for understanding city management.
“One of the things that I like about Mike is that he seems to have an innate ability to understand the challenges that I have as city manager,” Clark said. “Some people don’t really understand what you have to deal with in the capacity of city manager, but Mike got that. ... I always felt like he understood where we were going, got the issues, understood the constraints and challenges that we had and helped me navigate around those. That’s a very valuable thing.”
Matthes’ talents attracted attention and led to promotions. Over the course of his 15 years in Des Moines, he held the positions of management analyst, deputy housing director, housing director, assistant city manager and chief information officer, respectively.
Clark said he thinks that this experience bodes well for Matthes’ future in Columbia.
“The interesting thing about him is that he’s really the classic example of somebody who has worked his way up through the ranks, starting at a relatively low position and then being promoted a number of times,” Clark said. “I think the impressive thing about that is when somebody is able to start at a pretty low level and then demonstrate their abilities and talents and get promoted so much in their career over 15 years.”
JJ Musgrove, a close friend who attended Graceland University in Iowa with Matthes, said that working hard to improve his position is something Matthes has been doing since his childhood in Chillicothe, Mo.
Matthes was raised in a single-parent household by his mother, who graduated from MU with a degree in library science. His father, a tile setter, was out of the picture, Musgrove said.
“It was a struggle to make ends meet when he was growing up, that’s for sure,” Musgrove said. “But he made the best of that. He worked hard, and he got himself into college and took off from there.”
Despite financial hardships, Matthes has fond memories of growing up in the small farming community.
“John Cougar Mellencamp probably represented it pretty well — 'Small Town,'” Matthes said. “It was a great place to grow up. It’s small enough that it was pretty hard to get into too much trouble, even if you went looking for it.”
After graduating from high school, Matthes was accepted into Graceland, where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in history. In addition to maintaining his grades, Matthes held a job as a short-order cook to help pay tuition.
“He was able to put himself through college, one year at a time,” Musgrove said. “It has always been a struggle financially, but he has made his way in the world, and that’s just a remarkable thing. Nothing was ever handed to Mike. He had to really go out and fight for it.”
While balancing work and school, Matthes found time for extracurricular activities.
“In college, he was somebody who would seek leadership types of positions because he felt like he could make a difference in those types of positions,” Musgrove said. “He was the co-editor and then editor of the yearbook, was very active in the history club there and was in theater.”
Musgrove got to know Mike through theater, when they acted alongside each other in school productions such as Arthur Miller's "All My Sons."
“He played Joe, the father, and I played the role of Chris, his son,” Musgrove said. “Michael was kind of a laid-back personality individual — very smart, very funny. ... He was somebody everybody wanted to be around because he brought fun and joy to any get-together."
Matthes’ interest in history and theater led him to an internship at Living History Farms, an interactive historical museum near Des Moines, where he met his wife, Bobbie Matthes, in 1991.
“He was the blacksmith, and I was a day-camp counselor,” Bobbie Matthes said. “He was awfully cute, and I actually avoided him for several months. Then I couldn’t avoid him anymore.”
The couple married in 1992. According to Musgrove, they still have a black-and-white photograph of Matthes in his blacksmith attire, sitting atop a horse and buggy at Living History Farms.
In 1993, the couple went to graduate school at Iowa State University. Bobbie Matthes pursued a master’s degree in education administration; Mike Matthes pursued one in public administration. By that point, he had a keen interest in city government.
“I think it appealed to me because I felt like it works so badly,” Mike Matthes said. “I think most people that age think the government’s not got it going on, and I certainly felt that way. So I got involved because I didn’t think it worked very well, and I wanted to change that.
Bobbie Matthes said that, aside from his family, work in government is what her husband is most passionate about.
“One thing I’ve always admired about him, while we were dating and on the journey that we’ve been on together, is that he really believes that government can work,” Bobbie Matthes said. “He’s passionate about that city-level commitment to people and doing what’s right for people and making their lives better. He just really believes in it and is terribly excited about it.”
After finishing his degree at Iowa State in 1996, Mike Matthes was offered the management internship that started his career in Des Moines.
“He was hired by our then-city manager, Eric Anderson,” Des Moines City Councilwoman Christine Hensley said. “Eric had a program where he brought in interns that he went out and personally interviewed who were really top of the list, top of the class, and Mike was one of them.”
'Mr. Fix It'
In Des Moines, Matthes has earned a nickname among his colleagues.
“Up there, they call him ‘Mr. Fix It,’” Columbia Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley said. “It’s because he has been able to look at problems and come up with solutions.”
The title first emerged when Matthes took over the role of housing director in 2000.
The Des Moines Public Housing Authority, which organized the city’s housing for low-income residents, was a stand-alone organization before the city of Des Moines took over the agency because of disorganization and low performance.
Tim Shanahan, executive director of the nonprofit housing organization Hawthorn Hill, said it was a struggle for Des Moines to transition to maintaining the new housing department.
“It took a long time for things to get settled out there,” Shanahan said. “They had a department director that could have been a lot better. It was after that person had left that Mike came in and really started cleaning up the department.”
This was no small feat, Shanahan said.
“It was a large department,” Shanahan said. “A lot of funding comes through there — a lot of funding — so it’s really important that things are done correctly. Not just organizationally, but you really have to have things financially done correctly.”
In part, this consisted of an effort that Matthes spearheaded. Previously, Des Moines’ public housing had been owned by the city, and the city served as the low-income tenants’ landlord. Matthes and his colleagues realized that by privatizing a portion of the housing under the Section 8 program, the city could save money.
“The truth is, the government as a landlord is far less effective and far less efficient than Section 8,” Matthes said. “You can house many more families through the rental program than you can through the landlord program. So, we realized that, and we decided to grab the bull by the horns.”
By taking this step, the department was able to house more families, eliminate its deficit and collect a $13 million endowment fund from the sale of the housing units to put back into Des Moines’ public housing, Matthes said.
“It sounded too good to be true because everybody does win,” Matthes said. “But at the end of the day, we said: ‘Let’s try it. We’ll sell half of it and see what happens.’ Well, amazingly enough, everybody did win.”
Shanahan said that neighborhood associations and nonprofits in the city were hesitant to support the sale of public housing. Originally, he doubted it himself.
“I was afraid that there was going to be less affordable housing,” Shanahan said. At the time, Shanahan was working for United Way of Central Iowa.
Matthes worked to ease tension by way of presentations and meetings.
“It took a lot of work, a lot of neighborhood meetings and a lot of meetings with housing nonprofits to convince them it was a good idea,” Matthes said.
According to Shanahan, Matthes’ efforts were effective.
“He convinced me,” Shanahan said. “Nothing ever really rattled him. I think he was always able to answer questions, even when they got pretty pointed. I never saw him in a situation when he took it personally, which sometimes can be an issue when people start questioning pretty hard in terms of something that you’re doing. Mike always handled it very professionally and with a very professional demeanor. He always did the best he could to answer the question.”
Matthes' improvements to the Housing Services Department also included implementing new performance measures for its employees. Shanahan commended Matthes on the leadership he provided during the creation of the Polk County Housing Continuum, a collection of housing providers, nonprofits and government entities that allows for better communication among housing providers and better services for those in need of housing.
Matthes said his work in Des Moines’ Housing Services Department is the aspect of his career he’s most proud of.
“You know, the housing department was rated just about as low as you can get" by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development "without having them come take it over,” Matthes said. “In fact, they had threatened to. So we went from that to HUD calling us a ‘high performer,’ which is like an 'A' on the report card. So that’s really rewarding.”
Emerging as a leader
Based on Matthes’ work in the city’s Housing Services Department, Clark assigned him to the post of chief information officer in 2007. This position put Matthes in charge of Des Moines’ Information Technology Department, which had been struggling under poor management.
“When he went into it, the IT department was a mess,” Des Moines City Councilman Brian Meyer said. “We had a former director who there were a lot of problems with. He came in and cleaned it up.”
Although Matthes’ background was not information technology, Clark thought Matthes was the right man for the job.
“His fundamental talent and skill is as a manager of people,” Clark said. “The reason I wanted Mike to do that was because I really thought our issues in IT were more in terms of 'How do you manage that function?' ... What Mike brought us, which was so appropriate and so needed, was this ability to manage that piece of our operation really effectively.”
Des Moines City Councilman Skip Moore said that after the problems under the previous chief information officer, he was relieved to hear that Matthes was taking over.
“I was a little shocked at how fast he learned it because he didn’t have a background in IT,” Moore said. “Now, there was a lot of turmoil under the previous IT director. There has been none under Mike.”
Clark said the most important change that Matthes contributed to the IT department was centralizing it. Before centralization, each Des Moines city department maintained its own information technology staff. By consolidating it all into one department, the city’s technological functions improved, Clark said.
“It’s leaner," Clark said. "We’re spending less money than we were on it before, and I think we’re delivering a higher level of service to the organization than we were before. Mike has really been the key player in all of the organization happening.”
City colleagues commend Matthes’ dedication to keeping lines of communication open during his time in the position.
“He’s the kind of guy who, if he had something on the City Council agenda, he would call you in advance to discuss it with you so that you had all of the information you needed,” Moore said. “And if you told him, ‘I’m not going to support this,’ there was no problem. He didn’t lobby or anything. He said, ‘OK, I respect that.’ So he made it easy to work with him.”
Matthes made sure council members’ questions were always answered, colleagues said.
“His attention to detail and his ability to understand is great,” Meyer said. “My experience with him was when I said, ‘Mike, I have these problems; this is my issue,’ he would focus on it, learn it and would find a way to get it working.”
Creating revenue, controversy
Clark said one of Matthes’ virtues is creativity.
“He’s always sort of been like the smart kid in the class,” Clark said. “He was always the guy that had the new idea, or the new way of thinking about something. He was always on the side of ‘Have you thought about this? What about that? Here’s a way to save some money,’ or ‘Here’s a way to improve customer service,’ or ‘Here’s a way to generate some revenue.’”
One idea was Des Moines’ franchise fee, which charges consumers a 5 percent tax on their electric and gas bills.
“The reason for it is that gas lines and electric lines are located within the public right-of-way,” Clark said. “So there is a cost imposed on the city by allowing those utilities to operate in that fashion. ... Mike was the guy who said, ‘Let’s take a look at that and pursue it,’ and we did.”
The fee generates more than $12 million for the city annually, Clark said.
The franchise fee has not been free of controversy. In 2004, Des Moines resident Lisa Kragnes filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming the fee was illegal.
The legal battle that ensued comes down to an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court by the city of Des Moines, which was filed in 2010. A decision regarding the case has not been made, and the approximate date of a decision is unknown, Des Moines Deputy City Attorney Mark Godwin said.
During the course of the trial in 2009, the Iowa Legislature passed a law stating the legality of franchise fees. But depending on the court’s decision, the city of Des Moines could be forced to refund as much as $40 million to taxpayers, Godwin said.
“It wasn’t 100 percent successful, you know; there was a lawsuit and all of that, but I’m confident the city can survive that,” Matthes said. “Let me just say, that’s all in the past.”
The Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Des Moines was packed when Dudley, his wife, Rita Dudley, and Matthes met for a 5:30 p.m. dinner on a Thursday in early April.
Peanut shells that had been thrown to the floor by customers crunched as waitresses hurried by, hoisting trays of food into the air. Their collective chatter and the twang of a country song filled the large room, where families and groups of friends ate steaks and hamburgers.
The Matthes party sat in a booth near a corner. Matthes sipped a bottle of Budweiser. Dudley pulled out a folded piece of yellow legal paper where he had scratched out a list of Fourth Ward issues to discuss with the incoming city manager.
The Dudleys had traveled to Iowa to attend a Hy-Vee health marketing meeting and a Hy-Vee gas station meeting.
“This is a chance to get to know each other,” Dudley said. “We couldn’t let the chance go by, since we were in the same town at the same time.”
Matthes has been making an effort to get to know Columbia, Dudley said.
“He’s trying to get a head start on our city by spending time with each City Council member," Dudley said. "It allows him to get familiar with how we think and what we think is important.”
Matthes said an immediate problem he hopes to help tackle when he starts in Columbia is fixing potholes. On a more long-term level, he hopes to revamp the structure of city government to make it more efficient.
“It’s not to cut it, and it’s not to shrink it,” Matthes said. “It’s to structure it so that it focuses on the goals the council has set. ... Right now, I do see a bit of a disconnect between the vision the council has put together and how the city is structured. There might be more efficient ways to do things to really achieve those goals.”
Matthes’ tentative idea includes empowering Columbia’s two assistant city managers. This means some city department heads would deal directly with assistant city managers, who would then report to Matthes. In the past, City Manager Bill Watkins met with each of the 23 departments every week, Columbia Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl said.
Although Matthes said that he was not directly involved in creating Des Moines’ comprehensive, long-term plan to manage the city’s growth, he also said that he plans to share the knowledge he has gained with Columbia as it works to create its own comprehensive plan.
Matthes said he was "tangentially involved” with the comprehensive plan developed in Des Moines. “But, I followed its process. We updated occasionally, and I’ve been involved in that. ... I’ve helped incorporate some of that, helped draft some pieces, but it’s not my work."
"My real involvement has been helping staff implement those ideas. ... So what I will do in Columbia is share the insights that I’ve had, but it’s up to the community to decide if that’s valuable or not.”
A smaller idea Matthes plans to propose to the council is creating an annual city performance report similar to the one he spearheaded in Des Moines.
The report, which analyzes the performances of each city department based on surveys conducted by an outside firm, is sent to Des Moines residents in a booklet that resembles a magazine. Along with the statistics, it displays works donated by Des Moines artists.
Although the city of Columbia already gathers similar data every other year, the information is only available to residents through the city’s website.
“The cornerstone of the annual report is, ‘Here’s what the goals are, here’s what we spent the money on, and here’s the outcomes of what we produced with the investment,’” Matthes said. “In a way of speaking, it communicates with the shareholders and the people that own the business — meaning the people that live in town. It’s an annual report on their investments.”
Making the move
Although he said leaving Des Moines’ will be bittersweet, Matthes said he and his family are ready for the move to Columbia.
“We’re excited to start new,” Bobbie Matthes said. “I mean, how often do you get to start a new life in your 40s?”
The Matthes family recently visited Columbia to look at schools and houses. In their quiet Des Moines neighborhood, a red-white-and-blue “For Sale” sign is staked in the grass of their well-kept lawn.
Bobbie Matthes, who has been packing the family’s belongings and researching schools since her husband was selected as Columbia's city manager, expressed joy in the professional move.
“I think I started crying because I was so happy for him,” Bobbie Matthes said of the moment she learned about the new job. “I’m so proud of him, so very proud of him. He’s such a good man. I believe in him so much and trust him, and I think this is an incredible opportunity. I’m thrilled for him. I think he deserves it so much because he’ll do well.”
Mike Matthes had similar feelings.
“I’m just so enthusiastic about it,” he said, his smile widening. “I really do think I can bring some value to the table.”