EPISODE TWO: Kudos City Manager for Crisis Communication

April 10, 2020

Eric Ries said “Better to have bad news that’s true than good news we made up”.

As I research my next possible tour of duty, I am learning about innovations, best practices, experiments, and just general ideas about municipal services and non-profit activities.  Looking for work, forces us to investigate information that we would not necessarily research otherwise.  Preparing for interviews exposes us to new knowledge. Yay!!!

I will share in this blog, new ideas, models, practices, views, stuff that municipalities are doing that is COOL and PRACTICAL- C&P.

The C&P Award goes to……City of Oxnard, CA.

In my thirty years in municipal government, I witnessed city managers who treated bad news like COVID-19, those who found imaginative ways to dress up the truth to the point of creating a parallel universe, those who were painfully honest and sadly departed prematurely and a very small minority of a few good men/women with the unique ability to provide accurate bad news while showing a ray of light. I like to say that if lemons come our way, we can make lemonade, lemon meringue and lemon chicken. Making the most out of lemons is different however, than City Manager Nguyen’s accomplishment in his Budget Message for FY19/20. Making dishes out of lemons means that we magically make something that wasn’t there before. Mr. Nguyen does something far more difficult in his budget message. Mr. Nguyen tells his council and community that FY19/20 requires severe cuts and requires bold decisions. He tells the problem, but then presents solutions; not silver bullets or bandaids, but actual strategies for moving forward. He takes the lemons, he accepts the lemons. He shows many recipes that can transform bitter lemons into sweet bites, but he never pretends that the lemons are not acidic, bitter and hard on taste buds.

https://www.oxnard.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/FINANCE_ADOPTED_Budget_Book_19_20.pdf

Facing tremendous financial challenges including a structural 9.2M deficit in the General Fund, City Manager Nguyen embraces the challenges of the past. He does not run from them, nor uses nice euphemism to avoid the truth. He summarizes historical mistakes in a manner that any resident reading the budget book can easily understand. He does not try to confuse the reader or hide facts by inundating us with code citations, law, excel tables or GASB rules; he does not insult our intelligence. The message is humble and respectful; he does not throw his predecessors under the bus. He owns the problems and then provides evidence on how his administration is fixing it and will fix it. The message goes on to describe specific cuts for various departments indicating WHAT got cut and HOW MUCH it saves. 6.9M worth of cuts are narrated with humility. His message clearly describes the same information in graphic form through a table that outlines each department and proposed revenue and expenditure changes- leading to the the 6.9M in cuts.

The City Manager has more bad news. To balance the current fiscal year, he must take 2.3M from reserves- thus reducing general fund reserves to 9% (vs. the city required 18%). Ouch!!!. He addresses this problem by asking for a reduction in the 18% goal itself with the commitment that the City will eventually return to it. His mastery of municipal budget is reflected by various strategies from inter fund borrowing to use of interest earnings. His approach continues to be clear, in plain English, to the point, humble, truthful but most importantly, hopeful.

Budget messages are often NOT cool and practical. Of all the things to write about, talk about a dense topic…this is why the award goes to Mr. Nguyen. He made a dull, dense, generic, exercise into an engaging, easy to read, respectful, professional and glass-half-full message. Thank YOU.