Important now: When everybody understands the rules and their roles, government works best. But when the rules are constantly changing, as they have regarding COVID-19, it’s important to build up a trust with the community by having frequent communications.
When he set out to follow the hum of his ambition for public office, Scott Chadwick didn’t expect to become so entranced by the roar of the bowels of government. The action there rang truer and louder for him.
Managing processes and controlling operations in the back-of-the-house is where Chadwick found his calling. In turn, delivering quality services to the front steps of the community has become his passion.
As City Manager of Carlsbad, CA Chadwick operates this coastal beach town of 116,000 residents with army precision and in lockstep with the City Council under a council-manager form of government. While members of the City Council are tasked with the future vision and direction of the city, Chadwick sees to it that those directives are executed efficiently and effectively, with an eye on technologies to support certain measures.
His experience in human resources and operations as well as a stint in the army have given him concrete footing for managing the city during the current pandemic and bringing stability to the related chaos. In the following interview Chadwick talks about the importance communicating regularly with the community, how the city is helping local businesses survive, and why he was reluctant to implement a teleworking program developed before COVID hit.
You’ve had a rapid rise in the city of Carlsbad beginning as Assistant COO in 2013 all the way to your appointment to your current position in 2018 as City Manager. What were the key skill sets that got you noticed by leaders along your career and by City Council?
The two biggest skill sets that really got me noticed were my high value on character and being a rules guy. For me, character matters most. I have a two-year-old at home and I do everything in my power to ensure that I continue to be a positive role model to her.
At work, I place a high value on surrounding myself with individuals who also place a high value on character and doing the right thing. The second skill set is being a rules guy. Rules and regulations are put in place for a reason. Government works best when you adhere to the rules that are out there. This allows for all parties to know, understand and operate within the parameters of said rules. And if the rules aren’t working, then set a course to change them, but do so transparently.
Your job is to execute on policy and directives approved by city council. How much input do you have on important decisions?
We have a council-manager form of government where they provide the vision for the high-level policy and we execute on that. I think it’s important that everybody understands their roles and responsibilities; that’s when government works best. I always want to be an asset to our Council who have been fantastic and supportive on a lot of the major initiatives we have going on.
When I first got here, they allowed me the opportunity to hire a person for the Chief Innovation position [filled by David Graham. See related story in this edition of CityRevive], which was truly the first in the region. Carlsbad was already doing some incredibly innovative things and we’ve tried to build on that.
I read that at one point you wanted to be an elected politician. When and why did that change?
When I was young, I very much wanted to be an elected official. I went into the army and then on to college, making sure I was building on that resume. In 2004, I began working for a labor organization and stayed for a number of years. That gave me a good foundation for my understanding of government.
The San Diego city manager at the time asked me if I would be interested in working on the management side and I thought, “I would be so well-rounded having labor and management experience. This would help if I ended up running for elected office.”
Once I started working in government, I realized having the spotlight on me wasn’t what I wanted as much as being able to get stuff done. I was working for the city about six months when the switch finally turned off. I realized that being an elected official is an admirable role and hats off to the folks that are doing it, it’s an incredibly difficult position to be in. For myself and my personality, I’m better suited at the back-of-the-house and making sure to execute on elected officials’ vision.
I know you have some leeway to present decisions to City Council. How much of input did you have in making decisions about COVID related issues?
When we declare a state of emergency, the City Manager is also responsible for serving as the Executive Director of Emergency Services and Operations. Once we were in a full-blown emergency, we continued to check in with Council on high level decisions but much of the day-to-day efforts ultimately falls on the emergency services role. We do frequent updates with Council, initially daily briefings, to make sure they are completely in the loop and supportive.
We did several videos and a city manager’s update every two weeks. Because COVID was so novel, we wanted to make sure everyone was receiving information that was easily readable and understandable. Then we began issuing a daily update because there was so much information out there. We started pushing that out the third week of March and posted information on our website. Also, anyone can sign up for our newsletter which we push out to the community regularly.
We tried to reach as broad an audience as possible. The more our residents and visitors understand what is going on the better we can slow the spread [of COVID]. As long as people understand the rules, regulations and why we’re doing things, the more effective our government is.
When you think about the many layers of directives that exist it can get confusing. Many of our residents are not familiar with how our government works. At the same time, we’re getting direction from the state which is further interpreted by county. Then the city must follow the county directives. A lot of times folks asked, “Why are you making us do this?” and “Why can’t Council do something different?”
It’s important to understand that in the pecking order we can be more restrictive than county on health and medical directives but not less. When the rules continually change it’s helpful to build up a trust with the community and having these frequent communications has really paid off.
What support measures does the city have to help the local businesses in regard to financial relief, like tax abatements, etc.?
Carlsbad has had an incredibly robust financial assistance program. We have a $19 million Uncertainty Fund which the Council had the forethought to build and develop over the years. We are in a much better position to weather COVID than probably a lot of other organizations.
One of the actions Council took was to reserve $5 million from the Fund to establish programs that would benefit our businesses, like our loan program where we recently waived our fees related to companies moving to outdoor activities.
There are $5,000 to $10,000 micro loans that start with 0% interest if paid back within six months. And that scales up If the loan is paid back in two years (see chart outlining loan terms). Then there’s the $10,000, $25,000 with a scaling interest rate but not to exceed 3%. They’re competitive with any other public sector lending and are administered by our local CDC Small Business Finance.
Council also had the foresight to establish an Economic Recovery and Revitalization subcommittee made up of a few of our council members. They meet every two weeks on items to improve and stimulate our businesses and that has been incredibly successful.
What are the changes happening now in your city that you think will settle in for the long term?
Ultimately, it’s going to be city council’s call on long-term changes, but we implemented a lot of things very quickly early on, like our teleworking program where we have over 500 employees working remotely. As a former HR guy, I had reservation about this. My management style is to walk the hallways; I like to have personal interaction with folks. It gives me a lot of comfort to see everyone working but when they’re not in the workplace, the old school mentality is, “How do I know they’re actually working?”
We were in the process of developing a teleworking program in December. Candidly, I was dragging my feet about its implementation because of my old school mentality. When COVID hit we no longer had a choice. We ended up rolling that out and it’s been incredibly successful, particularly with individuals with childcare issues. We have been able to accomplish the vast majority of what we would have onsite in the workplace. Obviously, it is not a one size fits all approach. There are folks that do need to come into work but that is one of the changes I expect we will be able to carry forward into the future.
Also, we have put a lot of city services on our website like videos and different courses that people can take. Our parks and recreation department has transitioned from being an in-person service to going virtual. The response we received has been phenomenal. There are a lot of folks who will want to see this continuing into the future.
Our pickup and drop-off locations for our libraries has been hugely successful too. The way we have been communicating with folks online is more efficient. We now have virtual inspections as businesses transitioned outdoors; we have the benefit of having a wonderful climate mostly year-round. When it is the appropriate time and we have COVID close to our rearview mirror we can start bringing things up to City Council for their consideration.
What are you most proud of in regard to your city’s response to COVID?
I’m most proud of the team. This was a situation where If you told me at the beginning of February that come July everything would be shut down and everyone is going to be teleworking, I wouldn’t believe you. It just didn’t seem fathomable. Here we are in September and our dedicated city employees have risen to the occasion and delivered services in a professional, timely fashion and haven’t missed a beat. They focused on the mission and continued to deliver services and I could not be prouder of them.
I also want to give a mention our communications team. Whether for their work on social media, our newsletter and signage we produce, they have just been phenomenal.
What surprised you the most about your community during this unprecedented pandemic?
How responsive and receptive they’ve been to following all the rules. We are in a continual state of flux with word coming down from the state and county. The community is very engaged and supportive and because of how strong they are, we were able to keep our COVID cases relatively low. To date, per 100,000 people, we are the third lowest in the region and the credit goes largely to the community. Plus, we are a tourist destination so that is very impressive.
You are very focused on using technologies to enhance city services. I know you came from San Diego which is a much larger city, but what are the most applicable technologies you’ve implemented in Carlsbad and can you give me examples of the benefits you have seen?
The digital platform on our website shows all the different services offered by the city of Carlsbad. We have been able to transition the vast majority of our services over to that and the nimbleness and responsiveness continues to be demonstrated daily.
Right now, we are working on a fiber network that will run throughout the city and are looking forward to getting it finalized and rolled out. Any way we can provide and improve our services to residents is a big benefit to the community. Again, it’s their tax dollars being deployed to make their lives easier.
During COVID we implemented “no touch” crossing signals timed with the traffic lights so pedestrians don’t have to continually push the button in order to cross the street. It’s in the Village, which is a high traffic area.
The path of innovation began early on here where we set out to improve traffic flow back in 2008-2009. There were stops and starts along the way, but we will be fully implemented by the end of this year and it’s a credit to the team that got this in place. It’s set up to keep traffic flowing and not only does it do that but it benefits our climate because we are minimizing idling at red lights and reducing the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions.
What are some of the most common hindrances you have seen in other cities that thwart innovation?
Micromanagement and a fear of change. Change is inevitable. How many dinosaurs do you see roaming around today? They are gone because they weren’t able to change. When you’re in government you need to embrace change because it is an absolute certainty that change is going to occur.
When you keep an open mind, that’s when innovation occurs. But if you dwell and focus on the realm of ‘no,’ don’t be surprised when you fall behind the curve. Our City Council are innovative thinkers. Right now, we have four council members and will be getting our fifth at the end of this election cycle. Each of them is incredibly innovative and the community has really benefitted and it’s been a pleasure for me to work with them.