Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Roanoke’s new city manager has a good sense of humor

Christopher Morrill and family

Christopher Morrill and family

With the search executive Colin Baenziger’s words still floating in the frigid air Monday Roanoke learned who the new city manager will be come March 1, 2010. Baenziger who has a sense of humor, as does Roanoke’s new city manager said, “City managers are inherently masochists … they think they can fix anything.”

The new manager is an Assistant City Manager from Savannah, Georgia with a population of 143,000. An ever smiling 47 year-old Christopher Paul Morrill was flanked by his wife Kimberly and his two sons. David and Declan are in kindergarten and 7th grade. They were excited about seeing snow for the first time and dismayed that they had to hit the road at 1:00 for an eight-hour drive back to Savannah.

Morrill and his family barely made it off the Municipal building’s fourth-floor elevator before being surrounded by media and followed into the Mayor’s office where they posed for pictures with their two very patient boys. The talkative outgoing boys almost stole the show as Council member Gwen Mason appeased the younger with candy on the dais.

Gwen Mason gives candy to Morrill son

Gwen Mason gives candy to Morrill son

Morrill was picked from 104 applicants. His starting salary will be $170,000 a year. The city along with moving expenses will pay for trips to Roanoke to find suitable housing. Council member Gwen Mason indicated that it is unlikely that there will be any overlap with the exiting city manager, Darlene Burcham. He seemed to already have a grasp of the issues as he interviewed Roanoke as much as Roanoke interviewed him. Burcham sat in Council Chambers and  listened to the praise heaped on her successor.

He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Holy cross and a Master of Public Administration from the University of North Carolina. Morrill was Assistant City Manager in Savannah for eight years where he also served as Senior Municipal Finance Advisor and Budget Director.

There was no compelling reason to leave his position in Savannah but he felt he could make a difference and help Roanoke become not just a better city but a better community. A Roanoke move was only one of a few cities that he considered. He enjoys the mountains and his wife’s family is near by.

Morrill is said to have a collaborative, teamwork style and a record of guiding and empowering his staff. He does not micromanage but stands ready to take control in a crisis.

His sense of humor was evident on Monday as he smiled and joked with the Mayor, media and family. He said he strives for a pleasant work environment. Elected officials from Savannah noted his strong leadership in these hard economic times. Financial planning is professed to be one of his greatest strengths.

Darlene Burcham looks on at her successor

Darlene Burcham looks on at her successor

He has learned an approach called Budgeting for Outcomes that essentially allocates funding to those services that are a priority to the residents instead of focusing on cuts in each department. Morrill envisions a big picture while relying on a competent staff to carry out the details.

The Budgeting for Outcomes approach to finance has provided a new way of measuring the performance of an organization. It compares the outcome of one city with other cities across America. Funding is provided to those services that have had clear outcomes of meeting priorities.

A lesson learned by Morrill was an experience he had with a public park project that received resistance from residents who had not been involved early on in the project. The lesson he said was, “Do not assume the community members will see and embrace the vision of a project if you do not spend the time educating them.”

Challenges Morrill sees that faces Roanoke’s City Manager:

  • Encouraging economic development that is a good fit with the community;
  • Working with the school board to improve the City’s schools;
  • Finding ways to help the poor climb out of poverty rate;
  • Working with the community to improve the neighborhoods; and
  • Addressing code enforcement issues.

Studying the city’s issues would be first on his “to do” list as he enters the position. Followed closely by learning Roanoke’s history and neighborhoods. Last but not least he will assess the city’s financial position for fiscal year 2011.

A city manager must be out in the community and transparent to earn the trust of the community and when things are wrong, one must acknowledge that says Morrill. Savannah has a program similar to Roanoke’s Leadership College where an eight-week course that educates residents on each city’s function.

Morrill has a good relationship with the media and has worked with both television and print. He understands that the media plays an important role. He is honest and straightforward with his answers.

Councilman Rupert Cutler who is on the Personnel Committee with Council member Gwen Mason said, “ his combination of budget expertise, being a people person and working in a minority community” ranked Morrill at the top right off the bat. Cutler who flew to Savannah with Councilman Court Rosen said that Savannah officials offered him, “a money-back guarantee – we’ll take him back in a heartbeat.”

Mayor Bowers thought, “people in Roanoke are going to be very enthusiastic… he is bright, eager and has a record of being very creative with city government challenges.”

In his interview the list of adjectives or phrases Morrill used to describe himself:

  • Enjoys working with people,
  • Visionary,
  • Progressive,
  • Good sense of humor,
  • Values relationships, and
  • Builds consensus. 

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Community, Roanoke City Politics

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