The hurdles that black public administrators face

At the county, city and town levels, governments often employ professional administrators hired by elected boards. Black public administrators sometimes face sp...

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At the county, city and town levels, governments often employ professional administrators hired by elected boards. Black public administrators sometimes face special challenges. For what those might be and how the federal government can help, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the executive director of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators and the fifth in our series of recent inductees into the National Academy of Public Administration, Marcia Conner.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Conner, good to have you on.

Marcia Conner: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me. Looking forward to the conversation.

Tom Temin: Tell us more about the forum itself. That’s an organization I confess, I have not been familiar with.

Marcia Conner: The National Forum for Black Public Administrators, we are really known by the name and NFBPA. We’ve been around since 1983. We were founded in South Florida, we have over 2500 members, 36 chapters, and 350 jurisdictions. Our members are across the country. They can be anywhere from city, county, and we do have some federal members who have joined our organization. Our vision is that we’re the nation’s premier organization which inspires leadership development and service excellence with integrity, and accountability while transforming the way we govern. Our overall mission is really to serve as a catalyst link in public and private organizations, as well as academic institutions to support the professional development of African Americans choosing public service careers. So we do a lot around leadership development and mentoring and providing leadership development for those who choose public service.

Tom Temin: Yeah. Alright. And do, just out of curiosity, do most of the municipalities or governmental units that employ your members support their membership in the organization?

Marcia Conner: Yes, I’d say about 90% of those who belong to our organization, they are supported by their municipality or local government.

Tom Temin: And public administration at that level takes many forms. Sometimes you have a strong city manager, legally speaking, that is, and they can hire and fire the police chief and the fire chief. Sometimes they’re more under the thumb of the local officials. It just depends on the whatever the jurisdictions articles of constitution are. So what special challenges do black public administrators have in your experience?

Marcia Conner: Well, I would say in some ways, our challenges are not unlike other managers in terms of how they govern cities and run their cities that you have challenges with public safety, economic development, housing, etc. But I do think they bring sort of a unique position in terms of point of view, particularly where you have communities that have diverse or not diverse or experiencing diversity with their communities. They generally are well educated, they’re bringing their experiences from other cities and counties, to the workforce. And I think bring all the attributes that you would want and a great leader or manager.

Tom Temin: And have you seen, say, suburban or areas that were traditionally mostly white — is there more willingness to hire managers, administrators, regardless of their racial background now, say than 10 years ago?

Marcia Conner: I would say yes, we’ve seen quite a bit of that, for example, you have some that are still being first in communities. The city of Raleigh, North Carolina just hired their first African American city manager. Wake County, who one of those members is actually on our board, Wake County, North Carolina, a couple of years ago hired an African American gentleman from Virginia. So we still are seeing some firsts in terms of the areas. Baltimore County just recently hired its first female and African American county manager. So we are seeing firsts but I don’t think that it’s any different in terms of bringing the best professional to do the job. I think that is really what the cities and communities are really looking for. I think that there have been more opportunities since maybe the 1980s for African Americans to be in those leadership positions.

Tom Temin: And you yourself were city manager of Austin, Texas. And that’s not exactly a little Hamlet.

Marcia Conner: Well, I was the actually assistant city manager in Austin. I’ve been the city manager of Durham, North Carolina. I’ve worked for Arlington County, Virginia as a budget director. And I really started my career in Miami Dade County. So I’ve worked for large counties, medium sized cities, as well as small towns.

Tom Temin: And all of those jurisdictions, at some point look to Washington for one reason or another. Maybe it’s a grant for a new police car or something, public works projects or any number of issues. What does Washington, what do the programs administered by federal agencies look like to local administrators in terms of their efficacy and responsiveness?

Marcia Conner: Well, I would say there are some programs that the federal government does very well As you know, the census, one of the things, it’s really important for local communities to have the census count correct, because they will affect in some ways the type of money they will be received from federal government. Community Development Block Grant is one that I think local communities really rely on in terms of affordable housing, EDA money for economic development you have for small towns. Main Street money. So, you know, there are different varieties of money, I think, localities also look to the federal money for operation of jails and prisons. So it runs the gamut in terms of things that you have. So clearly, we do rely, particularly in the social services area, heavily on federal funds. I would say if you’re going to give a report card, I think in some ways, it works really well. If your community that’s struggling and not getting enough of the funds that you need, of course, you’re going to hear a different perspective. And always there are more needs, clearly, then there’s funding to go around for many of the services that are needed. Recently, the National League of Cities released a report on the priorities of communities across the country, said that when you talk to cities across the country, there were four areas that were really concerned for them: economic development at the top of that, infrastructure, as well as housing, while we receive federal funding for many of those, they are really administered on the local level, and where the funding of the federal government funds short, then those municipalities and local governments are challenged to make that up through property tax, through assessments, if it’s road or infrastructure. So as you know, infrastructure has been a big discussion over the last couple years, there’s still a need for our streets and our roads, also to improve our water systems. So there’s definitely a need there. And just one that’s probably a little more close to cities right now is the issue of the CARES Act money where in fact on the front lines these cities have to deal with businesses closing, they’ve had to deal with the hardship of restaurants closing, unemployment locally. And so you look to your local municipality to sometimes pick that up. There’s that need and request because much of the CARES money went to larger jurisdictions, 500,000 and over. America is made up of lots of towns and cities that are below that. So there is still a need for the funding to help with the economic recovery of the cities and towns.

Tom Temin: And just a quick question, do you feel that, say the small cities and towns that might be contiguous to the really big urban areas, I’m thinking, say of Massachusetts, which is 351 cities and towns, there’s a whole bunch of them clustered around Boston, do they have sort of a better crack at some of these things, by knowledge or experience than, say, an isolated town like in the middle of Colorado that could be nine hours from Denver?

Marcia Conner: Well, I’d say if you’re closer to a large and growing urban community, if you have a great relationship, you’ll know that local officials really try to work with each other, then you have an opportunity, perhaps have shared in some funding. And usually, they’re cooperative agreements between the cities and the counties for services. So you benefit. But if you are further away from an urban center, I do think you are, in some ways, very challenged. You have the benefit in larger areas to do cooperative agreements, you have lobbying that can be done on mutual aid agreements and things like that. But if you’re out there by yourself in small towns, really, you depend on your congressman, your state, probably a lot more than on some of them being able to get funding from the federal level.

Tom Temin: I remember two cities, two tiny towns rather in New Hampshire, it took them two years to negotiate a deal to buy a grade-all jointly, a $60,000 piece of equipment, you can’t do much without grade-all even to this day. And so now you are a fellow in NAPA. And we should point out the offices of the organization are in Washington. What do you hope to do with what kinds of projects and panels and so forth connected to NAPA are you hoping for?

Marcia Conner: Well, one of the things I find that’s very great about NAPA is they have something called Grand Challenges where they’ve identified some key areas that they would like to have research done. And it really invites both federal nonprofit and local government input. And so there are a couple of areas I am personally interested in. Some of them around economic development, some around the future of work. I think those are probably areas that local governments really can give a perspective in terms of having their voices heard. A lot of us are focused on resilient communities. How do you withstand storms? What’s the future of work in terms of now we’ve gone through COVID? We realized that perhaps we don’t need all the employees in one building. And so I think the ability to bring a local government perspectives to some of the research that they’ve done, it’s really for me a great opportunity.

Tom Temin: Marcia Conner is executive director of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators and a new fellow in the National Academy of Public Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Marcia Conner: Thank you, Tom. I appreciate that.

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