Letcher: I couldn’t let down city in its time of needby Carli Brosseau on Apr. 28, 2009, under Edge, Local
Letcher says a top priority is balancing city budget
It’s hard to get Mike Letcher to boast.
Tucson’s new city manager emphasizes that he’s been second in command a long time, that he learned his lessons through time and practice, that he’s not the type to jump at the top job for the prestige.
In talking about his ascension to city manager after eight years in the deputy spot, Letcher does not focus on how the promotion is the capstone to a 30-year public service career.
For him, it’s more personal, more about the process of government. Letcher has now held the jobs of two mentors of his early management career – Mark Keane, former Tucson city manager in the 1960s, and Jack Urie, former Tucson No. 2, whom he met after graduating with a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kansas.
When he says that, he beams.
But the moment’s brief, cut short by a glimpse at a Post-it note on the table in his office: another task, another meeting.
It’s been three weeks since Letcher, 55 took up the city manager’s seat, first as interim following the firing of former City Manager Mike Hein, then without the qualifier. The City Council voted April 21 to ask him to stay on. He had planned to retire in November.
Letcher stepped in amid a recession that’s chopped about 20 percent from the city’s sales tax base and threats from the state Legislature to make over or squelch downtown redevelopment plans.
He inherited a bureaucracy slimmed by incentive retirements and reorganizations and staffers nervous about the economy and more management change.
The past weeks have been a whirlwind of meetings, briefings and late-night budget revisions. He and the city are negotiating his pay and benefits.
The Tucson Citizen sent Letcher a list of questions to gain more insight into the man who now runs the municipal machine:
QUESTION: Why did you agree to be city manager, especially given the problems besetting the city this year and into the future?
ANSWER: It may be hard for some people to understand, but there are times in our lives when we have to do the “right thing.” I could not just walk off and let this community, mayor and City Council and employees down. It’s not in my DNA to leave when there are problems.
Q: What made you decide not to retire? How long do you plan to be city manager?
A. I owe a lot to the people who trained me early in my career in Kansas City, Charlottesville (Va.) and Amherst (Mass.). Most importantly, I feel that by continuing to work I can honor the investment that former Tucson City Manager Mark Keane and his Deputy City Manager Jack Urie made in shaping who I am today. There is no way I would let any of them down or others who shaped my career by leaving at a time when I am needed the most.
Q: What does your family think about the decision, especially considering the time demands?
A. My family is supportive.
Q: What’s good about Tucson city government? What needs to be improved?
A: It’s not about what is good or bad. We have to find within this community and ourselves the will to make things better. We need to focus more on what is best not only for today, but the many tomorrows that will come. Remember, we are all part of this community and the government that is responsible for serving us.
Q: What are your top priorities in the short term and in the long term?
A: Balance the budget, work with the Legislature to strengthen Rio Nuevo, maintain our bond rating, improve communication and relationships with our mayor and City Council and city employees. Create meaningful opportunities to engage citizens.
Q: Assess the status of Rio Nuevo. What’s its future?
A: The mayor and council are taking great steps to get Rio Nuevo aligned with expectations of the state Legislature. We are doing all of the right things to ensure that Rio Nuevo will continue to improve our downtown.
Q: Describe your management style.
A: Work with the community, mayor and council and employees to build the strategies, organizational structures and systems to continue to maintain our quality of life in Tucson. I’m the same person at work as I am at home. What I say is what I do.
Q: How will your leadership be different from Mike Hein’s?
A: I don’t compare myself in management style to other people. I’ve got my own style.
Q: How did working under Mike Hein and Jim Keene (the previous two city managers) prepare you for this job?
A: Both Mike and Jim did great things for this community. I appreciated the opportunity to work with both of them.
Q: What was the best thing you’ve done for Tucson?
A: Developed the concept of the Financial Sustainability Plan. (The plan allocates increases in revenue to public safety, parks and transportation. Because revenues have declined, the plan is suspended.)
Q: What successes did you have in other municipalities that you could apply here?
A: Setting annual work plan and management expectations with the mayor and City Council. Engaging the community in dialogue on city issues. Align employees and their work with the needs of the community. Letting employees know that they are appreciated and we need them to provide excellent customer service to citizens. Innovating constantly to find better ways to cut costs, diversify our revenues and improve services.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself. What do you like to do outside work? Do you have any group affiliations? What causes do you support?
A: I love running with a group of friends every Saturday. My family and I have a great church we attend. I love attending football games for my youngest son. My oldest son and I love getting sports autographs. I am very proud that my middle son may follow me in public service. I have a great friend and wife.
Q: What should Tucsonans know about you that they probably don’t?
A: I was raised in the military and have moved my whole life as a kid and in city management. My family and I have found our home in Tucson. We plan to live here as long as God has planned. It is an honor for me to serve you. I will not let you down.
Education: master’s in education from the University of Kansas
Years in Tucson government: 8
Total years in government: 30
Former posts: city manager of Winsooki, Vt., city manager of Sedona; assistant town manager of Amherst, Mass.
Family: married, with three children