Rebecca Brown is an intern with the Town of Canton, North Carolina. She earned a BA in history from Appalachian State University. Rebecca previously served in a congressional office, managed a political campaign, and worked as a marketing manager.
My PWE wraps up this week. Though I am sad to leave my position at town hall, I am grateful to have benefited from working alongside skilled people and gaining practical experience in local government management. Between finishing final papers, preparing presentations, and sheltering in place, I’ve been reflecting about how my experience started. As a final blog post, I am sharing more about how I chose a PWE and the lessons I learned along the way.
While I previously worked in government, I never served at the local level. Given UNC’s highly ranked local government program, a local municipality seemed like a good choice for a PWE. I also interacted each week with a classroom full of Leslie Knopes. As if I needed more convincing, their passion persuaded me that local government would be a great place to work alongside other individuals committed to improving their communities. A few months prior to starting my PWE, I met with an MPA alum for coffee. I wanted to hear about his experience as a graduate of the UNC MPA program living and working in my area. This individual had extensive experience working in private and public positions and multiple levels of government. He explained that he had worked in many rewarding positions but emphasized that “local government is where you can really make a difference.”
Searching for and completing the PWE has been a learning process. The MPA staff shared a list of alumni in my area shortly after my acceptance to the program. Over the next few months, I met with multiple UNC MPA graduates and received some useful advice about surviving the program, finding a PWE, and pursuing a career in public administration. In one of those meetings, an individual recommended someone else who could be helpful in my PWE search. One email later I secured a PWE, just weeks before the spring term started!
I learned two lessons along the way: take advantage of UNC MPA resources and be willing to expand your network. One of the most beneficial resources has been the MPA program staff. (Shout out to Susan Austin, Allison Binkley, and Kristin Pawlowski!) From sharing the list of alumni, to helping tweak my resume, to guiding me through the PWE contract, they offered invaluable assistance throughout the process. I began sending emails immediately after receiving the alumni list, many of whom were gracious enough to meet with me over coffee. During the meetings, I asked for advice and for recommendations of other people I should contact. I also reached out to former coworkers who were incredibly helpful in providing guidance and support. After the meetings, I followed up with a note or email thanking each person for taking the time to share their advice. Those meetings were an important source of information and eventually led to my finding a PWE. Being proactive is not always easy, but (at least for me) it produced great results!
We’ve all been inundated with news about the coronavirus crisis that the world is coping with these days. Throughout the ordeal, public administrators remain on the front lines of the pandemic serving in many roles at all levels of government. Living through a time of crisis is unsettling, but I am encouraged by the committed public servants I interact with each week both in my PWE and in the MPA program. Students showed up in class this week despite working twelve (or more) hour days responding to the crisis. They work in local budget offices and health departments and emergency management. They serve in state and federal agencies, preparing their communities for the ongoing situation and the recovery that will follow.
Two weeks ago (has it really been only two weeks?) I drove down Main Street in Canton on the way to my PWE and noticed that downtown was thriving. Workers stood on ladders erecting signs for new businesses. Shoppers passed through the doors of boutiques. Tourists sat on the patios of the local restaurants. Since then, measures taken in response to COVID-19 have resulted in rapid and dramatic changes. When I drove through town this morning, the sidewalks were deserted. Except for a small number of residents venturing out for supplies or employees traveling to their shifts, the streets remain noticeably quieter.
Changes brought on by this pandemic have fundamentally altered the way we live, forcing everyone to adapt. In many ways, being a student in the MPA@UNC program has prepared me for working in the current environment. As other managers, employees, and students face a learning curve transitioning to remote work and distant learning, my PWE and school work continue uninterrupted. Like everyone else, I wake up wondering what changes the day’s news will bring. And, of course, the coronavirus has disrupted much of what I do every day. I am forced to balance new responsibilities while remaining focused on finishing my PWE, writing research papers, giving final presentations, and completing final exams. For now, though, I am grateful to be part of a program that has enabled me to adjust to uncertainty and confront new challenges every day.
This week, I saw a governor being interviewed about the coronavirus. He described his state’s response to the outbreak and emphasized the need for competent public service leadership during the crisis. “This is government,” he explained. “This is what it’s about. This is the mobilization, the skill, the expertise to manage a government.” Across the US, as Americans are adjusting to a new way of life, public servants are stepping up to tackle the challenges brought on by COVID-19. As we know, there are capable, well-trained experts in local, state, and federal government who have the skills necessary to effectively respond to nearly any situation. The American public can always depend upon public services to continue, even when life around them seems to be coming to a halt.
Other than a run on the grocery stores, life in the town of Canton continues (almost) as normal. Children are still in school. The baristas at the local coffee shop are still serving up lattes. And people are still coming to town hall to schedule services and pay bills. Today I met with the town manager to talk about Canton’s response to COVID-10. The town’s emergency services employees have been preparing for the arrival of COVID-19 for weeks by practicing extra precautionary measures. After a discussion about cleaning methods and hand washing, my conversation with the town manager naturally shifted to collaboration. Officials in neighboring Buncombe County declared a state of emergency yesterday, prompting surrounding municipalities to release recommendations and information about their own approaches to the outbreak. In Haywood County, local and county officials along with nonprofit organizations are coordinating responses, ensuring that they are adequately prepared and that public services go uninterrupted. Despite the stress of the last week, completing the PWE during this ordeal has been a great learning experience in crisis management. Seeing local government function effectively is reassuring at a time like this. Dedicated public servants who continue to show up everyday offer an encouraging reminder that life goes on even in the midst of chaos.
Remember to wash your hands! If you need directions or inspiration, check out Gloria Gaynor’s instructional video.
This week I wandered over to the Canton Historical Museum, conveniently located beside town hall. As a history major, I have wanted to visit the museum since I moved to Canton. Caroline, the museum curator, greeted me at the door and was happy to show me around the many exhibits that line the walls of the old building. For a small town, the number and quality of items that have been preserved is impressive. Caroline explained that the extensive collection resulted, in part, from the pride of the residents and their desire to document the town’s story. She described the recent donation of a box of photos and documents found in an attic and walked me through the process of organizing and documenting the items. In 2004, the building flooded and some of the items were damaged or lost. Despite this setback, thousands of unique items remain on display, including a large exhibit from the paper mill and the original sign from an old train depot.
An item from Canton, Ohio, prompted me to ask about the connection. Caroline and a volunteer who joined our conversation explained that the piece, part of a bridge once located in the center of town, was the reason behind the town’s name. They described how a board member in 1893 stormed out of a meeting to decide the name of the town following a heated exchange. As he walked through town, the board member crossed this bridge and noticed the name “Canton” on the metalwork of the iron structure. When he returned to the meeting, the man recommended naming the town “Canton,” and the board unanimously agreed. After roaming through the exhibits, I am convinced that the museum staff could have offered an anecdote like this for every item in the museum.
Throughout February, my posts have featured women in local government, focusing on their roles and highlighting their contributions to the community. This week, we meet Kristina Smith, alderwoman for the town of Canton.
Many individuals point to a specific event that inspired them to enter public service. Hopeful MPA applicants may include descriptions of inspirational experiences in their personal statements. Politicians often tell stories describing encounters that motivated them to seek office. When I asked Alderwoman Kristina Smith what compelled her to enter public service, she pointed to a series of events. The city council meeting she attended as a young girl. The speech given by a president calling on individuals to get involved to make their communities a better place. An unexpected opportunity to lead in her new town.
The city council meeting Kristina attended as a young girl scout marked her first exposure to local government. She was struck by the diversity of leadership on the council. Following this experience, she realized serving in a leadership position does not require a specific type of person with a certain set of skills. Anyone can lead if they are willing to take on the challenge! Years later, Kristina moved to Canton with her family and became involved in her community. When the opportunity to run for local office arose, Kristina accepted
the challenge and was elected in 2017. In her new role as Alderwoman, Kristina enjoys engaging the community, problem solving, and always searching for the best outcome for Canton, regardless of the issue.
Given her experience, I asked Kristina if she had any advice to share with women interested in local government careers. Don’t doubt yourself or question your abilities, she said, “rather than asking yourself ‘can I lead?’ tell yourself, ‘I’m ready to lead.’” She emphasized the power of transferable skills and how beneficial they can be in taking on new opportunities. “There isn’t a single role for you,” she remarked, “think about all of your experiences and how they complement different roles.” As Kristina learned in that city council meeting, anyone can lead. The only limitations you have are the ones you put on yourself.
During the month of February, my posts will feature Women in Local Government, focusing on their roles and highlighting their contributions to the community. This week, we meet Teresa and Sandy, two individuals committed to serving the town of Canton in their roles as Accounting Clerks.
When visitors walk through the double glass door of the William G. Stamey Municipal Building in downtown Canton, NC, they are typically welcomed by a friendly greeting from Sandy or Teresa. Beyond being the first town employees that residents interact with, Sandy and Teresa keep the front office running smoothly by managing a diverse list of responsibilities. They field questions about trash pick up, board meetings, water services, facility rentals, and more, a task that often requires a lot of patience. Sandy and Teresa warmly welcomed me when I began my PWE and have since been very kind to answer my ongoing questions, including the ones for this interview! As they explained, to work in these positions, a person must have a strong understanding of local government and “everything that happens in town hall.” Serving in the position of Accounting Clerk involves more than just answering questions; they also process financial transactions and collect payments. Occasionally, their duties take them outside the office where they have participated in everything from working the Labor Day concert to driving a utility vehicle alongside town officials in the Christmas parade.
Despite the challenge of having to deal with complaints, Sandy and Teresa had a lot to say when I asked what they enjoy most about their jobs. They described how working in public service was more fulfilling than their previous positions in the private sector. Leaving at the end of a day knowing they have helped someone solve a difficult problem makes the job enjoyable. When describing the benefits of working in local government, they emphasized teamwork, learning, and community involvement. With a small staff, events like the Labor Day Festival requires months of planning and involves staff from every department. This is a point that might surprise people. As Sandy explained, “residents wake up and their trash can is empty or they show up to a large event like the Labor Day Festival and think it just happens. They don’t often think about the hours of work it takes from people behind the scenes.” According to Sandy and Teresa, having a good team not only makes a job more manageable, it also makes it fun.
Another perk to working in local government which Sandy and Teresa discussed is the opportunity to learn more about how the town functions. Years into their careers, they both indicated that they continue to learn something new every day. Learning about local government helps foster a better connection with the town and facilitates community involvement. For this series, I conclude every interview with the same question: What advice do you have for someone interested in working in local government? Their suggestion: Get involved in the community! At this point in the interview another staff person wandered into the conversation, and she seconded this recommendation. She also highlighted the importance of staying informed through attending board meetings or reading the minutes (available online). When I asked Sandy and Teresa if they would recommend a career in local government, they responded without hesitation, “yes!”
I have often heard local government employees explain that they love their jobs because each day brings new challenges and opportunities. The same has been true in my PWE. Last week, the town manager sent me an unexpected and fun assignment. I planned to start this week continuing my research on local ordinances but instead had the opportunity to write a report for the town’s planned upcoming dog park. Prior to this week, I knew nothing about dog parks, so I really enjoyed researching the topic and writing the report. Did you know the top citizen priorities for dog parks are typically cleanliness, shade, and water? I discovered best practices related to everything from amenities to location to surface materials!
Through my PWE, I am learning more about the range of responsibilities local government employees tackle every day. In Canton, that means completing tasks like delivering recycling bins, meeting with local business leaders, and planning events. As I mentioned previously, I have no local government experience. Completing my internship in a small town with a limited number of staff provides me with the opportunity to gain a broad perspective of duties and expectations required of town employees. While functioning with a smaller staff can be challenging, it also means that town employees develop a diverse skill set. The dog park is part of a larger parks and recreation improvement project, and I’m excited to see the transformation. As I continue in my PWE, I look forward to sharing with you the details of other assignments that come my way. With multiple projects planned, it’s an exciting time to be working with the Town of Canton!
Week two has been filled with research. Lots of research. In my first day on the job, I was handed a large binder containing the Town Code of Ordinances. I spent a couple of days reading through the binder familiarizing myself with the Town’s laws. The Town Code is available online, but I liked having the binder. It felt very official. Starting off with this assignment turned out to be really constructive given my lack of experience in local government and limited knowledge of the laws in my Town. After all, it would be difficult to work effectively without knowing the Town rules, right?
One of the benefits of completing my PWE here in the town manager’s office is the opportunity to work on projects like the one I completed this week. After taking the time to read the Canton Code of Ordinances, I began conducting research on sections that town officials expressed an interest in updating. My report this week related to the Town Sign Ordinance. I reviewed the current Sign Ordinance and researched ordinances in comparable municipalities then provided some recommendations in a report to the town manager. Throughout this process, I spent a lot of time searching Municode, reviewing Supreme Court cases, and reading through state statutes. Next week the Locating Legal Resources Activity is due in my Law class, and after all this research in my PWE, I am much better prepared to tackle that assignment! My experience this week also confirmed just how relevant that Law class is to a public service career. Next week I will be working on a really fun project that I am excited to share with you! Stay tuned!
On Monday, I began my PWE in the office of the town manager in Canton, North Carolina. Canton is located in Haywood County just twenty miles outside of Asheville. Surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains. Canton attracts adventure seekers who enjoy hiking the surrounding trails that include popular landmarks like Cold Mountain, floating down the Pigeon River that runs through town, or visiting downtown businesses that feature delicious southern food and locally made goods. In the center of town sits a large papermill that manufactures Starbucks coffee cups, juice cartons, and other paper products. Due to the central location and large size of the mill, the locals affectionately refer to Canton as “Papertown.”