ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The desk arrived last week, but the mostly bare walls in Steve Garrett’s office in city hall indicate the reality: Hillsboro’s new city administrator is on the job, but he’s still in the process of making himself at home.
“We’re over the tripping-over-each-other stage and figuring out who’s doing what,” said Garrett, who completed his first month on the job Monday. “I think we’re ahead in the game. But ask me again in a month.”
Garrett, who was city manager in Stockton before coming to Hillsboro, faces the challenge not only of starting a new job, but defining a new position. Hillsboro has been without a city administrator’s role since 1983.
Garrett was among the 25 candidates screened for the position by the Kansas League of Municipalities, and one of four candidates interviewed by the city council and mayor.
Garrett said he became intrigued with the position after noticing how long it remained unfilled. He decided he wanted the job when he made his first visit to town.
“I was really impressed with what I saw,” he said.
Garrett’s enthusiasm for Hillsboro hasn’t waned after four weeks on the job.
“So far I am still sold on the community,” he said. “I still see in Hillsboro all the promise I saw earlier.”
He said he and his family have felt welcomed since moving here late last month.
“Hillsboro is made up of people who like people,” he said. “And it goes up from there.”
Garrett and his wife, Angel, have three sons: Joshua, age 9; Jacob, 4; and Jackson, 2.
He said Joshua is enjoying Hillsboro Elementary School. Garrett and his wife have been impressed, too.
“The school is truly a good school,” he said. “Every community thinks their school’s great. I would venture to say that when people in Hillsboro say it, they would be more accurate than a lot of people would be.”
On the job, Garrett said his first priority has been to find out more about the people he is responsible to and those he is responsible for.
“I’ve had some discussions with some of the councilmen and have been getting to know the city departments and where they are, and trying to get a feel for the department heads,” he said.
Garrett said he believes one of the most important things a city administrator can do is to know and understand his bosses and his employees.
“It’s almost to the point where you need to be a mind reader,” he said. “I need to understand how each councilor would think about various proposals, and then also understand each of the department heads to know the best way to communicate with them and get the most from them.
“We’re still getting to that point,” Garrett added.
Communication will be key to his success here, he said. That applies to his bosses and his employees, but also his relationship to the citizens the city seeks to serve.
“Coming from a political background, you’ve got to get your message out there,” he said. “A lot of the things we do are pretty fuzzy to folks. It’s important to get our message out there. It’s still open to public conversation, of course. And if we’re doing something wrong and somebody else has a better approach, please tell us.”
A case in point for building better communication was the Oct. 26 public hearing on home-based occupations that he attended six days into the job.
“I was glad to see people cared enough to come out,” he said. “That’s a good thing. One of the things that surprised me a little bit, though, was that the public perception appeared to be 180 degrees from the intention of the (ordinance) change. I’m not sure why that is.
“One of the ways we can ensure against that is better communication. Some of this stuff can be hammered out in plenty of time to give people some time to chew on it.”
Garrett said one of his early tasks has been to review procedures. Some of the procedures have already been changed, and he expects more to change as he goes along. Change is necessary to keep the city abreast of the times.
“We have to decide whether we’re going to get in the town business or get out of the town business. That we’re still here means we’re going to stay in the town business, so there are some things we need to do.”
One of those things is to modernize the city’s procedures and the services it offers residents.
“I like small towns, but we’re also competing with Singapore these days,” Garrett said. “We are attracting people here who are used to the things they have in large cities. I think it’s imperative that we meet that need if possible. We have to think like the big guys do.”
One place Garrett wants to begin is providing better customer service.
“What we’re trying to do is benefit the community,” he said. “But if the community’s not sold that we’re benefitting them, we’re not doing our job.”
He also said it’s time for small towns like Hillsboro to look to its neighbors to help achieve greater efficiency.
“One thing people will hear me say is, ‘We’re all in this together,'” he said. “Sometimes ‘we’ means Marion County or folks outside the city. If there’s a way to get a bigger bang for the buck by going in with the county or with the City of Marion or somebody else, we ought to pursue that. If we can create an atmosphere where we can share services and not lose anything for ourselves, that benefits all of us.
“When you have some outside input, I think it helps a community because you can get stagnant from time to time, or you get institutionalized. Sometimes you have to shake some of those things up.”
Above all, Garrett hopes to assure residents that their city government is looking out for their best interests.
“It’s really important that the folks have confidence in the city government,” he said. “I hope I can be a part of that. They really have a lot, already, to be confident in.”
Garrett is experienced enough to know that despite his best efforts, some people may not be convinced about city government’s good intentions.
“Some people we’re just not going to win over,” he said. “But we really don’t have anything to hide. I’m not gaining a lot, other than my paycheck, by being here. I don’t have anything to hide from anybody.
“The plan is that we’re going to make this place a lot better and a lot smoother,” he said about his new role in city government. “It’s going to be a change for the good and I’m looking forward to getting a chance to prove it.”