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DEAR READER: Some things we've learned about our new city manager

Friday, April 29, 2011 | 4:35 p.m. CDT; updated 6:46 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dear Reader,

Our newest city manager punches the clock for the first time Monday morning. I’m sure there’s a steep learning curve ahead.

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Missourian reporter Ann Elise Taylor did her part in providing lessons to Mike Matthes about life in a town with lots of journalists.

Lessons like: Be ready for some polite persistence.

Taylor was assigned to travel to Des Moines, Iowa, for a profile of Matthes. She wanted to get a better understanding of Matthes the administrator and Mike the man.

The plan was to visit during Matthes’ last week in Des Moines’ employ. She called his office more than 15 times, she says, to the irritation of his assistants. One person who worked closely with him told Taylor that an interview would be extremely unlikely, given his schedule.

Eventually she was granted 30 minutes. (The interview stretched to 40.)

She asked to attend the goodbye party by Des Moines city staff. Nope.

She asked to tag along with Matthes and our own Councilman Daryl Dudley at dinner at the Texas Roadhouse during Dudley’s road trip for his day job. Matthes was hesitant at first, but eventually allowed her to sit in for the first 10 minutes.

Taylor wasn’t confrontational, as best as I can tell. She’s generally soft-spoken and polite. She simply wasn’t going to go away. Eventually, I think, she won him over.

Taylor got interviews with Matthes’ wife and a friend from college. She developed a story that serves as a dandy introduction for us.

And what did it tell us?

Our city manager plans to restructure around two assistant city managers. Former leader Bill Watkins met weekly with 23 city departments. Matthes would have these split among him and the two assistants.

More interesting to me is his plan to import a Des Moines publication he created: a yearly report on the performance of the city, sent to us in booklet form.

Setting measures for performance, and then being held accountable for them, is generally a good thing.

It’s a concept I wish we could see more from our politicians, elected or appointed, at every level. Instead, we focus less on how they govern than on how they’ll win a race.

On the national level, the best examples of this simple concept that I’ve seen come from the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact.com. It tracks promises made and whether they’ve been met, are making progress, or are just plain broken. Neither party is ignored: Check out the GOP Pledge-o-Meter as well as the Obameter.

You might have other good examples.

Journalists report for PolitiFact. In Des Moines, the annual report is as judged by an outside firm, according to Taylor’s story. How much latitude this firm would have here remains to be seen. Part of the Missourian’s job might be to assess the assessor.

He says he won’t push another idea he championed in Des Moines: a franchise fee on anyone who uses city gas or electric. By my reckoning, that means just about everyone save the homeless and renters whose landlords foot the bill. A challenge to the fee is at the Iowa Supreme Court now.

So what else do we know about Matthes from Taylor’s story?

Well, he’s from Chillicothe – so points there for having the good sense to be born in Missouri. He’s 42, so he could be approaching the do-I-need-bifocals? stage any day. And he’s known as “Mr. Fix It” in city circles up there.

He’ll begin writing a new chapter of his life beginning next week. We’ll all be a part of it.

Tom


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