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LeeAnn Carlson: Why I'm Running For Councilor-At-Large

Carlson talks about how she would improve services while reducing costs

LeeAnn Carlson: Why I'm Running For Councilor-At-Large

 

LeeAnn Carlson is on the 2012 election ballot for a seat as councilor-at-large with the Real Progress Montclair slate. The following is a press release from Real Progress Montclair that includes questions posed by the slate. The slate is headed by mayoral candidate Karen Turner.

REAL PROGRESS MONTCLAIR: What made you want to go into Montclair politics?

I decided to run for Town Council because I see a need for real, strategic thinking in Montclair’s government. 

My own property taxes almost doubled between 2003 and 2009. My husband and I had lived in two other towns before Montclair, where the property taxes rarely, if ever, increased. I started to worry about what these escalating taxes, with no end in sight, would mean for Montclair residents 10 years from now --- and how they might affect the sustainability and diversity of the town.

The truth is that Montclair is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and haphazard cutting will not solve the problem. What we need is an entirely new approach.

REAL PROGRESS MONTCLAIR: What is your professional background?

I have a bachelor of science in engineering from Michigan State University, and a career as a management consultant for Andersen Consulting and as a brand manager for IBM. What I liked best about both jobs was the focus on problem solving. My career was about studying an industry, market, or company to look for inefficiencies and then create solutions to address the opportunity.

REAL PROGRESS MONTCLAIR: How would you apply your professional experience to an approach for Montclair?

When I first moved to Montclair, I was raising young children and wasn’t focused on what was happening in our town government. I was part of the 70% of registered Montclair voters who are active and engaged at the national level, but who don’t vote in the local elections. In the last election, I was so energized and invested in Obama’s campaign that I wasn’t even thinking about our own municipal election. I see now that what happens at the municipal level touches people’s lives just as much – different issues, but ultimately important in a very real way.

Three years ago I became very concerned that Montclair was on an unsustainable path, without an eye to the future. I decided to get involved to see how things might be done differently. So in 2010 I became a founding member of Concerned Citizens of Montclair (CCM) to see if I could use my professional experience to help research ways to modernize Montclair’s operations. Karen Turner brought her expertise on the financial side, while I focused on what other towns have been doing to provide better services at a lower cost. We did find areas that I would describe as low hanging fruit (e.g., poor use of outsourcing, a large fleet of personal cars, very high administrative overhead). The deeper we looked, the more we found. But in the end, the real answer doesn’t lie in cutting current expenses. The greater opportunity will be to change to a management culture that relies on true accountability, at all levels.

The RPM slate fervently believes that we must invest in our schools and libraries if Montclair is to have a bright future.  We need a vision and a sound foundation if we are to create opportunities for businesses.  And the only way we can make these crucial investments is if we dramatically change both our cost structure and how we manage our operations.  We must change the mindset of our government to one that works on the behalf of the residents and for the future health of the town. 

REAL PROGRESS MONTCLAIR: What do you suggest?

To improve services while reducing cost, our government needs to shift to an organization that focuses on customer-service, innovation and efficiency. Cities and towns across the country are grappling with the same issues as Montclair. Some of these cities have successfully changed to become organizations that foster collaboration, accountability, and transparency. The result has been reduced costs, increased customer satisfaction, and greater job satisfaction. While these various approaches have been studied and adopted by many others, I think Montclair’s current management culture is resistant to change.

We need real accountability in our government. Right now goals aren’t set, performance isn’t measured, expenses are not tracked to budget on a monthly basis, and employees are not reviewed. Other towns have found that “things that get measured --- are things that get done”. 

Our current government isn’t focused on customer service. This leads to a gradual degradation of service levels. Ultimately, it doesn’t serve the long-term interests of those employed by the town either. I say this as someone who grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, the daughter of autoworkers – my dad middle management, my mom union. I saw an industry erode over time; companies with a culture that went from strong to complacent, with a workforce that wasn’t focused on the future. It was hard to imagine 20 years ago, when I was still living in Detroit, but today the management culture at Ford – my parents’ company - is very different. What had become stagnant and without vision, is now becoming collaborative and forward thinking.

REAL PROGRESS MONTCLAIR: What is the parallel between Montclair and the car companies?

At the Town Council meetings, when pressed to keep taxes down and do things more efficiently, some on the town council kept insisting that ‘Montclair is special’, ‘you need to pay more to live here’. It made me think of the car companies in the 80s, and their insistence that people in the US would never prefer “those Japanese cars” to a car “Built in the USA”. They were sure that our cars were “better built, better looking”. Then a few years later, as things started to slip it became “ours are just as good!” Then, “we can’t compete: our union costs are too high”. Without self-awareness the world can change and you don’t realize it until it’s too late.  

I do believe that Montclair is truly special and holds a unique spot in the tri-state area. But I also believe we are short-changing the future of our town if we don’t take a thoughtful approach to how we do things.

REAL PROGRESS MONTCLAIR: Where would you start?

With the big picture. The people I speak with agree that Monclair’s commitment to a diverse community is part of what brought them here. If this is to include economic diversity, we need to make Montclair more affordable. The question becomes, “How are we going to make it happen? How can we keep costs down and still invest in our schools and our future?”

RPM will start by doing a fiscal audit to create transparency into how our money has been spent and where it is going. 

At the same time, we will do a top-down analysis of Montclair’s municipal organization and identify areas of opportunity. We have a top-heavy management structure with very high costs. There are savings that can be found through reorganization and combining departments. Sharing services with the schools needs to analyzed, and the opportunities quantified. One example is the maintenance of buildings and grounds, including purchasing of equipment and materials. 

Outsourcing non-essential functions needs to be part of the analysis. There are several areas that lend themselves to outsourcing. Areas frequently considered are engineering, back-office procedures like billing, and yes, trash and recycling. The reason trash and recycling is often outsourced is because there is a lot of competition and private companies have economies of scale, more modern equipment and are more focused on efficiency. Trash is also frequently outsourced because it has very high capital expenses and is an area of significant savings. Millburn voted unanimously to outsource trash and recycling just four months ago. Their very detailed analysis – which included all internal expenses, not just salaries and benefits - found they were able to cut their costs in half, resulting in a five-year savings of $4.5M. Morristown outsourced their trash two years ago and also realized a 50% savings. Montclair’s internal costs are much higher than either Millburn’s or Morristown’s, so the potential savings are even greater. Montclair must be willing to have an objective, substantive, and informed conversation on this topic.

The questions we should be asking are: How can we reduce costs but provide the same or better services? What structural changes can yield results? How can we ensure a town government that is both responsive to its residents and supportive of its employees? 

The foundation for real and effective change is accountability. The members of the RPM slate will pass resolutions to adopt a management framework that requires the use of regular follow-up, real metrics, and closely managed budgets. It takes time to change the management culture of an organization and it cannot happen without absolute commitment from the top. But it can be done, and other towns are doing it. Montclair can too.

REAL PROGRESS MONTCLAIR: Where does that leave us?

Real Progress Montclair will develop a strategic plan for Montclair, to see where our town could be in 10 years, 20 years. And we will find the most  effective way to get there. It will be essential to change our structural costs so we can do more, with fewer resources. At the same time, we need to shift our management culture to one that requires real accountability; we need management that sets goals, measures results and has consequences. A vibrant, forward-thinking Montclair must include a management culture that stresses customer-service and innovation.

REAL PROGRESS MONTCLAIR: Why RPM?

I do believe Montclair is a strong, cohesive community, with residents who will welcome a group dedicated to strategic, thoughtful change. I don’t believe it will be easy, but I do believe that with the right people in office it can be done.

 

 

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