In Phoenix, nothing succeeds like Frank

by Robert Leger – Oct. 31, 2009 07:14 PM

The Arizona Republic Frank Fairbanks smiles when he’s asked if he has any advice for David Cavazos, who on Friday will succeed Fairbanks as Phoenix’s city manager.

“David’s been around a long time,” Fairbanks says. “I’m not sure he needs a lot of advice.”

Perhaps not. But Cavazos can find plenty of advice just by studying Fairbanks’ 19 years as Phoenix’s top staff person. It’s a remarkable tenure, nearly three times the average for city managers across the country. Few city managers stay in one place for two decades, and those who do tend to live in smaller communities.

“For a large city, that is a pretty impressive number,” says Michele Frisby, spokeswoman for the International City/County Management Association.

So, how did he do it?

“Success belongs to the organization,” Fairbanks says. “If the organization is successful and moving ahead, accomplishing its goals, it’s probably simpler to stay with the person at the top of the organization. I guess I’m still the city manager here for the same reason Joe Paterno is still the coach at Penn State. If you win far more than you lose, it’s easier to keep the person you have.”

But Paterno’s employment doesn’t depend on nine bosses who change with every election. Any successful city manager has to have a deft political hand.

“The challenge is to let the council know you want to work for them and support their goals,” Fairbanks says. The council is the elected representatives of the people, and it’s not his job to substitute his opinions for theirs. He’ll give advice, including the costs of implementing an idea and potential unintended consequences.

“But when they vote, I actually try harder to successfully implement an idea that I don’t like than an idea that I personally like,” he says. “My personal opinion doesn’t really matter.”

That humility has been a theme throughout his tenure.

In any large organization, he notes, the people at the top of the organization chart want credit for successes, which can leave people on the front lines feeling unappreciated. That’s not the only drawback.

“I’d be doing incredibly well to come up with one really innovative, good idea a month. That would be 12 a year,” Fairbanks says. “If all of our employees come up with one good implementable idea to improve services a year, that would be 14,000 improvements. It’s a win for me if credit goes to the employee and encourages them to come up with another good idea.”

Besides, he adds, he’s really a shy guy who doesn’t like a lot of attention.

So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that when he’s asked to list his top accomplishments, No. 1 is building a strong organization with talented people.

There also is downtown revitalization (“Most of the ideas came from the council,” he says) and the infusion of Arizona State University students bringing excitement and support for small businesses. Light rail. Services to the homeless. The dramatic turnaround of south Phoenix.

“Some cities deal with blight and decaying neighborhoods by leveling them, dispersing low-income people and bringing in middle-class people,” he says. “We worked hard to work with the people living there and trying to create a rising tide lifting all ships. We’re not done, but boy, it is dramatically better.”

Fairbanks sees the same thing happening in Sunnyslope and beginning in west Phoenix.

He’ll hand that and other continuing efforts to Cavazos. Fairbanks sees other challenges facing the city’s future leaders.

He expects Phoenix to become a denser urban environment, through need and choice. The need to conserve water will push people into apartments, condos or duplexes. Rising fuel prices will push people closer to their workplaces. And young people often prefer to live in an urban environment with lots of action and employment options.

But, as the city gets bigger and bigger, people can become alienated from the city and its government, Fairbanks says.

The city will need to continue encouraging strong neighborhood groups and village planning because “it’s easier to identify with a smaller group that you have more in common with,” he says. “We need to work to maintain connections so the citizen not just thinks but feels the connection.”

As for his future, little is set. He has turned down a few job offers. He plans to volunteer with his church and ASU. He sees retirement as a sabbatical.

But he is looking forward to Friday, his first day as a retiree. It’s his wife’s birthday, and he’ll spend more time with her on her special day than he was able to during the past two decades. And there will be a special feeling Friday morning, when he walks out to his driveway to pick up his newspaper.

“I’ll be able to get it and not have to worry one little bit about what’s in there.”


Robert Leger is an assistant editorial-page editor for The Arizona Republic, handling the opinion pages in The Phoenix Republic.

via In Phoenix, nothing succeeds like Frank.


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