Q&A with Normal's Pam Reece: Tight Budgets, Transparency, and Job Creation | WGLT

Q&A with Normal's Pam Reece: Tight Budgets, Transparency, and Job Creation

Feb 9, 2018

A major transition is now underway in the Town of Normal, with retiring City Manager Mark Peterson turning the keys over to his top deputy and now successor, Pam Reece.

Reece’s hiring as Normal’s next city manager was announced last month. She’ll be only the third person to ever hold the job, following long tenures by Peterson and his predecessor, Dave Anderson. Peterson’s last day is March 30; Reece’s first day on the job is April 2.

Reece joined GLT’s Sound Ideas for an interview covering everything from her passion for local government to her leadership style. Here are excerpts from the interview, lightly edited for clarity and length.

After you take over as city manager, will you be hiring an assistant city manager or deputy city manager to replace you?

That will be eventually in the works. Right now during this transition, we’ll use internal staff for an interim period until we can get settled in and determine specifically what skills and duties we want to assign the next assistant (city manager) or deputy (city manager). There will be a little bit of time before we move forward on that.

How much time?

I anticipate it could be six months or so. The reason being, we’ve got a number of transitions going on in our organization. As you know, with the budget, we’ve eliminated some positions. Some of those are coming from the administrative area of the town. With the loss of those positions and reassigning those duties, we need to make sure we are going forward in the right way, defining the job description, the duties and skills we need. We’ll use an internal staff person to help through that process.

Normal’s next budget year—fiscal year 2019—will be a lean one. You’re looking to close a $3 million budget gap. Other cuts the Town Council seemingly agreed on include the Normal Newsline newsletter and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. banquet. What are some cuts that residents might notice, and what are some cuts you think they won’t?

Through this process, we’re certainly going through some belt-tightening. And that does force us to be a little bit more efficient and cautious, and hopefully that won’t necessarily impact services at all. People won’t notice that.

One area that I think people might notice is the elimination of the drop-box recycling program, which we intend to move forward with. That program does serve a portion of the community that currently doesn’t have access to curbside recycling, so with the loss of that program we want to make sure we can pick up the pieces elsewhere, so that will be sort of a puzzle piece thing that we take to council and find solutions for.

But in general, through this process, although it’s very difficult to lose staff and not a situation we want to be in, we do hope that the impact to the community is relatively low.

We do have a plan to eliminate and reduce some of our grant funding. For example, the Harmon Arts Grant. We intend to drop that by 50 percent for the time being. In addition, the loss of the Bone Historic Preservation Grant. So that does impact some folks, certainly.

You’re the first woman to become city manager in either Normal or Bloomington. Can you talk about the significance of that and how many women leaders there are in municipal government work?

When I first started in our profession here in Normal, the groups we participated in, the International City/County Management Association, and the Illinois City / County Management Association, in the early 1990s, there weren’t that many females that attended the meetings. There were some female city managers, village managers typically up in the metro (Chicago) area, but none downstate at that time.

There has been growth in female leadership at the municipal level—both city and county—and I’m just proud to be part of that group. I’m very excited.

The Normal Town Council is known for its short meetings. Sometimes just a few minutes if the agenda is light, with less public discussion than what we see down the street with the Bloomington City Council. Is that a sign of a lack of transparency—that decisions are being made preliminarily behind closed doors—or should we read that some other way?

I would hope that’s not the case. But certainly I could understand why someone might think that decisions might be made that way, and that would be very unfortunate because that’s not what’s happening. I would like to believe that (the town staff is) providing a lot of great information to the council in advance. We provide very thorough reports in my opinion.

But again if there’s some concerns that we’re not sharing enough information publicly, or if there’s curiosity about how the city council reached a decision, perhaps we can do better in sharing that information.

Some Uptown Normal business owners and residents have raised concerns about the Trail East development project, which could ultimately lead to three older buildings on Beaufort Street being demolished. What is the sense you got from the Town Council during the last discussion on this, and how do you strike the right balance between future development and historic preservation?

Certainly, there’s a balance. We want a balance. Normal has done a pretty good job of that in recent years. In fact, many of the buildings that have been designated or have some sort of historic value, have undergone façade improvements just to improve the buildings. Of course, the Normal Theater—we don’t even really need to talk about that. It’s exceptional.

"Although it's very difficult to lose staff ... we do hope that the impact to the community is relatively low."

The next project—on that northeast quadrant of the circle, so to speak—we’ll have to talk to the developer. We haven’t even met yet. We’ll be talking soon about design concepts, and then we’ll have to evaluate what the possibilities could be. And if the council determines that the buildings in the 100 block of Beaufort should be preserved, then we’ll have to see if we can work around that. At this point, no decisions have been made.

The original plan for uptown redevelopment—way back in 2000 and 2001—did indicate those buildings would be gone and replaced with a newer structure. So the original design concept—and that’s a strong word, because it hasn’t been designed yet—but in terms of the proposal and the developer’s response, did comply with the plan. But no final designs have been made yet.

The Town of Normal has a reputation for being fairly aggressive with economic development incentives—luring businesses to town or helping existing ones to grow. What’s your philosophy on economic development incentives and striking a balance between growth and not giving away the farm?

There’s no specific formula, honestly. Every project is unique and has to be looked individually, at the investment, the cost versus the benefit. Moving forward, much of the investment decisions that the council and town staff are evaluating, we’re focusing on job creation. And the investment is not just public investment, but private investment. If it’s creating jobs, then what? What do those individuals have? How can those individuals who are earning their living, how will they impact their community in terms of housing and such? It’s a much broader picture with no specific formula.

But jobs are paramount in that formula?

Absolutely. We want to have people here. With that comes the investment.

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Reece:

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