T.C. Broadnax is starting to get a handle on what he calls the challenge ahead. On Thursday, a little less than a month before he takes over the Dallas city manager's office from A.C. Gonzalez, the Tacoma city manager sat down with the Dallas Observer for a discussion about his approach to the job. "People, I think, have come to appreciate my frankness and openness," he says. "And willingness to be non-governmental when it comes to talking to people." Here's the conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Dallas Observer: I've noticed that you've shown up a few times over the past couple weeks to tour the city. Has anything surprised you?
T.C. Broadnax: Nothing's surprised me. It's been a long time since I've been in Dallas. I've been here a few times for conferences and some workshops, since University of North Texas [where he received a master's in public administration] but nothing really has changed. I see they're still working on highways. It was pretty interesting to see some of the challenges, which are no different than in San Antonio or Tacoma, if you go to the communities that have similar types of demographic and historic under-investment. I've got an appreciation for how much work I'll need to do and how I'll hopefully be able to align staff better to meet those challenges.
After your hire was announced a lot of people, and a lot of media specifically, responded as if you were taking over a city plagued with crumbling infrastructure, the failing police and fire pension, stray dogs and the epidemic of homelessness. Do you think Dallas is especially troubled?
I wouldn't say Dallas is in crisis. I think the issues, particularly around the pension issues and lawsuit issues when you start to think about the magnitude that has been projected from both of those impacts, I think it's kind of daunting to people. When you read about it, and I think it becomes true, it takes on a narrative and a life of its own. I don't think it's in crisis. We do a budget every year here. They allocate resources. People continue to do and provide services. For me it's really how do you better provide those services. ... Dallas is a great city. I think maybe the attention is because it is such a great city and it's having problems that ordinary cities are having. I think that may be uncomfortable and uncommon. No, definitely not in crisis. Do we have issues? Sure. With people as bright as I know we have here at city hall and outside city hall, I know we can solve all those problems.
Do you have an opinion on the state of the pension crisis and maybe what should be done, or is it too early to ask?
It is definitely too early to ask. I need to get up to speed. There's a lot of information that I'm not privy to obviously at this point, because I don't start until Feb. 1. I'm looking forward to sitting down with our city attorney's office, our finance team, our mayor and working with our intergovernmental affairs team to figure out where we are. I'm hopeful that there will be some advancement in some things in Austin that will help us out before I even get here actually [in the new legislative session].
Broadnax at a Glance
Latest Gig: City manager in Tacoma, Washington (since 2012)
San Antonio assistant city manager (5 years)
Assistant city manager in Pompano Beach, Florida (10 years)
Master of Public Administration, University of North Texas
Bachelor of Political Science, Washburn University
Bachelor of Organizational Communication, Washburn University
Source: City of Tacoma
We've seen in some of the media clips from your time in Tacoma that you held public meetings with residents, something the manager's office here hasn't done in a while. Do you plan on promoting direct interaction between your office and Dallas residents?
It would be something I plan on doing. I really truly have to get an understanding of the current [budget] process to figure out what's good about it, what people don't like about it, what they're not receiving from it as it relates to engagement. I do hope to be out talking with people about the budget and what it means. We're about to start that process in, I believe, about two months. I've got to get not just up to speed on where we are financially, but how we're going to operationalize an engagement strategy and ensure people have an appreciation for what we do.
Who do you view as your primary constituency as city manager? Is it the people of Dallas? Is it eight votes on the City Council? Is it the mayor?
All of those groups. I think I've got to be responsive to 15 council members, 14 plus one, understanding by extension that they represent their communities and the citizens. Working with them and understanding their vantage point on what their constituents' desires are, I think that's important. Obviously, I work for the council. I'm their employee, but I also have an appreciation and will be working for the citizens through council members and directly in spaces that council is not focused on. I do believe the employees of the city are my main responsibility, ensuring that they're doing the work as the council has requested us to do it and as the citizens expect us to do it.
You said in an interview that you're doing your best if nobody knows your name. Do you think that that's really true, or would you rather Dallas residents be familiar with your office and the role that you play in the city?
It's a difficult question. I truly believe that if nobody knows who I am, then I'm effective, particularly if the service levels and the things that they get from City Hall are at the level that they want them. They vote for the mayor and city council. I am a conduit for getting the work done that they expect by way of their council members. I always defer to the elected officials and work with my department directors to ensure that they are truthfully the faces of their respective areas. I truly believe I don't need to be in the media. I don't need to be on the front page because that's not my style.
I like to just get it done. It's about results. We've done that, let's move on to the next. We've done that, let's move on to the next. Keep that going the way it's going and calibrate it should there be any issues. I was sincere when I said that. I truly believe that. My approach is to find ways to get things done and improve them so people's lives are better and they just don't know why or how or who did it.
How do you balance staying behind the scenes and maintaining a level of transparency, which was pretty low during the previous manager's tenure?
I don't think anything that happens behind the scenes has any correlation to the level of transparency of our government. If people expect me to be the person up front telling you everything that's going on, I think that goes back to a lack of understanding of what the city manager does. Transparency actually starts at the top of the leadership chain with me and my expectations of the people that work for me and the people that they work for, meaning citizens. I don't think not seeing me means you're not going to see a piece of paper with recommendations on it and/or an engagement strategy that has the people around the table that need to be around the table.
I'm city manager, so if you ask me about permitting at this level, I'm going to send you to the person who knows permitting at that level and expect them to give you all the answers and not for you to have to pull answers from them. They should automatically tell you everything you need to know and then see if you have any questions. That's just my approach. Sometimes governments, in general, don't share everything that should be shared to make you as informed as you need to be to give you the types of answers that will help you make decisions — until you ask. That is not my style, and that is not my expectation of people that I work with. Hopefully people will see, "Wow, something's different." We're getting different types of information and/or explanations that don't come with an expected answer at the end.
Do you have any specific ideas for increasing the level of transparency from staff in general and from the manager's office specifically?
I have to sit in the seat to understand what is or is not being shared, or the perspective of how we go about solving problems and who we invite into the room. I'm a big believer in inviting your uncharacteristically invited people around the table to have conversations about issues that affect them and their community. That's just my style. I'll get a sense, because I haven't started yet, for what and how we operate.
I'm known for, and I think it's been appreciated in Tacoma, that if I'm at a public meeting, and somebody asks me a question and I know the answer, then I'm going to give them the answer, whether they like it or not and whether I can get out of the room in one piece or not. People, I think, have come to appreciate my frankness and openness and willingness to be non-governmental when it comes to talking to people.
Did trying to be inclusive work in Tacoma and San Antonio? What strategies might you employ here?
It always ends in good results when you get more people around the table with different viewpoints. ... Don't ask them to come to city hall at 5 in the afternoon. Why doesn't city hall go see them at 7 p.m. in their neighborhood, so that they don't have to fight traffic and do the things while they're trying to get their kid ready for school, they're doing homework and hustling doing two or three jobs? Our day shouldn't have to end at 5 p.m. just because that's what the hours of this building are. That would never allow us an opportunity to engage with the public.
For folks who don't know who I am, I'm showing up. I'm talking to them. I've had those types of experiences. I've been in rooms where people have said, "I've lived in this community, and this organization has been in existence for 30 years, and you're the first city official that has ever come to speak with and address our population." That's telling.
That's just the kind of person I am, and the expectation I have of my staff is that we got to do those kinds of things. People need to be connected to their government. It shouldn't be a responsibility that they come and seek us out. We need to go where they are. You got to get all those people in the room and let them kick and scream at each other — mostly so they're not yelling at you. Then we come out of the room with everybody feeling like they've been heard, and I think that's the best type of process. I'm looking forward to it, and if that's not the case here in city hall, I'm looking forward to making sure that that becomes the norm, and I'm excited about the opportunity. That, to me, is just basic government.
What are some of your immediate priorities as manager?
How many minutes do we have left? [laughs] I'll say this. When people ask me about vision and other things, I don't have a vision as to communities. My job is to make sure that the 13,000 employees we have, the 27 or so that directly work with me, that we are getting better everyday. That we are responsive. That the things that the people scratch their head [over] or have often been frustrated about this building and the people in it, if we can find a way to remove those types of barriers and to advance what I would say is good government and be a model for how to do things. That's one of my focuses. The internal operations of satisfying the frustration levels that have not just been with council, maybe even citizens, maybe even the media.
As it relates to the community, I'd say really understanding and getting code enforcement. Dealing with and working with communities around homelessness, which is in epidemic proportions not just in Dallas but throughout the country. Finding ways to handle and be more responsive to our animal care and related services. Those quality of life issues. I'll obviously deal with the police and fire pensions and things. We got a lot of areas that we can be working in, and it's really about priority.
I don't think there will be a day that I don't have something to do. I'm excited about that. I like to work, and I like to see results. I'm excited and eager for Feb. 1 to get here. Ironically there's a council meeting that day, so I'm sure my whole first day will be consumed with that. I'm looking forward to working with this council. I think they have some great and high expectations of me, and I'm looking forward to meeting those expectations. I think the Observer obviously has no faith or confidence in me. I'm joking.
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Don't mix me up with our columnist, Jim Schutze.
I'm joking, I'm joking.
One last question. What are you looking for in hiring a new police chief to replace Chief David Brown?
Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to meet Chief Brown to have any perspective of what this community has experienced under his leadership. I think for me, one of the highest priorities is a person of impeccable integrity. A leader with presence and someone that truly understands and embraces community and policing and can rally his employees or her employees to find ways to make this community safe. ... I think we're going to start the process to select a firm to help us reach out and search for the best police chief in the country. We'll be doing that hopefully immediately preceding and/or maybe after I start work on Feb. 1. That is a really important priority for me to get that done prior to the summer.