HIGHLIGHT: Town of Chapel Hill Emergency Communications

sunset image of Chapel Hill's downtown Franklin Street
Downtown Chapel Hill – Franklin Street

Today is October 21, 2019 – this puts us 3/4ths of the way through hurricane season. 

Chapel Hill, even though it is pretty inland, has been hit by hurricanes in the past. Just last year, Hurricane Florence hit Chapel Hill bringing more than nine inches of rain over four days. 

Weather emergencies pose a unique challenge to local government leaders (often MPA graduates). In times of emergencies, local governments benefit from having an infrastructure to be able to communicate to residents during times of high need. This information includes providing evacuation routes, shelter locations, and weather updates. 


That the Town of Chapel Hill won an Award of Excellence for Hurricane Florence Communication. The Town was awarded this recognition by the City-County Communications & Marketing Association (3CMA) last month.

We are so proud to be apart of the Chapel Hill community. It’s also good to know that our local government works hard to serve us well in our times of highest need! 

See original article here

Week Eleven: The Final Chapter

This is my last post for the summer, and it is very bittersweet for me. I have loved working for the City of Durham, and my last day of work this Friday will be an emotional one. I have had the best supervisors (seen below), worked on projects of great interest to me, and have been able to network with more passionate local government employees than I can count.

As a final project, I have two presentations I will be sharing with the Director and Assistant Director of the Budget & Management Services Department. First, I will give a brief explanation of what I have done this summer. And second, I will give an in-depth presentation about the local sales tax research project I was tasked with. After combing through data from 2008-2019 and running a variety of Pivot Tables, I feel ready to present my findings.

We have several local sales tax revenues that come into the City of Durham, which have been designated to us by the state. Articles 39, 40, 42, and 44 give explanations about where the money is coming from, and where it is allocated. One of my charts, explaining how revenues have changed over time, can be seen below. If you want to see more of my charts and tables, feel free to reach out to me.

When I first started my professional work experience, I was desperate for any recommendations people would have for me. So check out my tips for starting a new job or internship!

          1. Watch as much stand-up comedy the night before to get you relaxed before the stressful first day
          2. Find ways to connect with people in and out of your department, especially other interns
          3. Volunteer to work on every project that interests you because no matter what it will be a learning opportunity
          4. Write down all of your best memories, and ALSO everyone’s book/podcast recommendations, as they are usually related to the field
          5. If you’re working for a city or county, find ways to learn the ins and outs of each department so you can apply each lesson to your career after graduation

The rest of my week will be filled with tough goodbyes and several final lunches. But in two weeks I’ll have to get back to school and I am (shockingly) excited about it. I cannot wait to apply what I learned in the field to the classroom. Now I’m one step closer to making change on a local level. Let’s do this thing.

Image result for im ready gif leslie knope

Week Ten: City of Durham Ride-A-Longs

My supervisors have been incredibly supportive of me getting a well-rounded local government experience. One of their goals as part of my time in Durham, was for me to have several ride-a-long opportunities. As the summer has gone on, I have been able to meet with Inspections, Public Affairs, Solid Waste, Police, and more.


For my Inspections ride-a-long, I was with a member of the building inspections team. They generally look at the framework for incoming businesses and new homes. This division recently started using GIS to map out their route each morning to determine where they needed to go. Previously, they would have to create their own map, which added about an hour every day. By creating this system, it has increased productivity and allowed for more inspections per day to be accomplished.

On this ride I learned more about the City of Durham, and all of the moving parts that go into accomplishing a project. For example, for a house turning into an Airbnb that is changing its basic structure, at each stage of the changes, all divisions of Inspections must go to the site to approve their work. This can create “red tape” but ensures that all structures are as safe as possible.

Public Affairs

One of the jobs of the Public Affairs Department within the City Manager’s Office is to run the live-streams of the City Council meetings. Although at first it might seem simple, once you get a behind-the-scenes preview, you can better understand the complications. There are six different cameras, on at all times, and two people need to be in the back room monitoring them the whole time. Additionally, someone not on-site works on the closed captions the entire time. There is usually a delay in speech, and that is because they are on a call listening to the meeting. City Council nights can be exhausting for those who stay to create the televised session, but it adds to transparency.

Image result for durham city council chambers

Solid Waste

This was an INCREDIBLE experience. I really got a better understanding of the City of Durham by spending four hours on a garbage truck. I was on one of the “exempt” trucks, which means that the truck picks up garbage from a resident’s address if they cannot take it to the curb themselves. These trucks go to each home, find the trash can, and empty it in the back of the truck personally. I did not even know this was offered by the City of Durham, and was in awe of the benefits it provides.

During my ride-a-long, I was on the recycling truck, and realized just how inaccurately people recycle. Although I’ve always known the process isn’t perfect, I was surprised by some of the things people considered to be recyclable materials. Durham’s Solid Waste Department is working hard to educate people about how to get rid of their trash, but hopefully more people will catch on.



The Police Department was one of the ride-a-longs I was most excited for, and it lived up to the hype. Although it was raining and nothing too wild happened, I gained valuable knowledge on how the department functions. First, all issues that are called in need to have someone dispatched. Someone has to deal with the situation, even if it may seem insignificant. Further, a lot of people call the Police for problems that officers cannot do anything about it. For example, if two people bought something together and one of them takes it, the Police cannot file a theft report, because they technically obtained it together.

Image result for police city of durham

If you ever get a chance to attend any sort of ride-a-long, I recommend you take it! You’ll learn more than you could imagine.

Week Eight: From Local Government to Presidential Candidate

Local government has many incredible leaders, but the 2020 Democratic debates showed just how many people are hoping to make the jump from the local to federal level. Although Mayor Buttigeg and Mayor de Blasio are the only candidates running that are still in local government, 8 of the 20 candidates who debated this past week got their start there. That’s 40% of the candidates!

Image result for yay gif

The eight folks representing local government during these debates are: Cory Booker (former Mayor of Newark, NJ) , Pete Buttigeg (Mayor of South Bend, IN), Julián Castro (former Mayor of San Antonio, TX), Bill de Blasio (Mayor of New York City, NY), John Hickenlooper (former Mayor of Denver, CO), Beto O’Rourke (former Mayor Pro Tempore of El Paso, TX), Bernie Sanders (former Mayor of Burlington, VT), and Eric Swalwell (former City Councilor of Dublin, CA).

While I was watching these debates I couldn’t help but analyze some of their roles. As some of you may know, most local governments have either a Mayor-Council or Council-Manager form of government. In Mayor-Council governments the Mayor is in charge of day-to-day activities. One example of this is New York City, NY. Whereas, in the Council-Manager form, city managers are tasked with these activities. The City of Durham functions as a Council-Manager system.

In a recent article in CityLab, several leaders discussed their experiences in local government, and how this would inform them in the role as President of the United States. Hickenlooper said, “I do think that having been a mayor provides wonderful training and experience of finding ways to bring people together and achieving goals and accomplishments through that unity.” One book called, “If Mayors Ruled the World,” points out that local governments are capable of changing the world because they rely on collaboration and interdependence. This type of leadership will be necessary going forward as politics get more complicated.

Image result for leslie knope local government

Personally, Governor Hickenlooper’s words were encouraging to me, because it shows that people are realizing the change-makers that exist in local government. More people are understanding our dedication to creating positive communities, and our drive to further this.

No matter what happens, we all know the best Mayor of all time is Mayor Max of Idyllwild, California.


An actual sidewalk in downtown Salisbury

First off, congratulations for looking at a picture of a sidewalk and thinking “that looks interesting” – you may be in a small but important group of people!

The truth is, sidewalks (like many local government services) are often overlooked or forgotten about because they aren’t the flashiest topic. However, a lot of foresight and planning is put into these sidewalks by people, like the engineers in Salisbury, so that the citizens they serve can get around a little bit easier. For example, sidewalks are built on a 2° slant so that stormwater will run into the gutter, instead of collecting in a puddle that hungrily awaits your brand new shoes. Further, the incline of a sidewalk ramp cannot be greater than 8° for wheelchair access. Oh, and the truncated domes that stick out right before a crosswalk – those help people with vision impairments know when they are about to cross the road. Admittedly, I think most of these features are required for ADA compliance; however, I felt it was worth pointing out the small details that go into making everyone’s commute a little easier. Sidewalks – you don’t think about them (or their features) until they aren’t there.

Just so that you don’t think life in Engineering is all about sidewalks, I’ll move on to some GIS (Geographic Information System). You may recall that I used GIS while with the Planning Department. Well, here it is again, and in case the message hasn’t come across – GIS IS HELPFUL IN MANY WAYS TO LOCAL GOVERNMENTS, SO GO LEARN HOW TO USE IT! Seriously, if you can take a class, you should. I plan on taking one next spring myself.

GIS with Curb and Gutter Layer and Aerial Imagery

Ironically, one of my GIS projects involved…drumroll please…SIDEWALKS (right when you thought you had escaped). The Engineering department is updating the GIS Sidewalk layer to show sidewalks that have been added since the last aerial imagery was taken by Salisbury in 2014. Using the newer aerial imagery from 2018, I traced out every new sidewalk on public streets that I could find (cross your fingers that I got them all), which can then be viewed for various purposes, like tracking sidewalk cleaning.

For my other GIS project, we move slightly off the sidewalk…and onto the curb. Actually though, I used the aerial imagery (and Google Street View when harder to see) to highlight every Salisbury street that has a curb or gutter. This layer (pictured below) will eventually be used to help with street cleaning, insuring that every known curb/gutter and corresponding drain are free of debris so that the stormwater system can work properly.

Close-up of GIS Curb and Gutter Layer
The Entire Curb and Gutter Layer for Salisbury with Stormwater features marked by icons

Engineering may not be in my wheelhouse, but I certainly enjoyed my time in the department. At the very least, it made me appreciate the little things that make a town better for the people that live in it. And yes, I do like sidewalks! What gave it away?

Week Four: “I Hear People Caring Loudly at Me”

This week was one for the books. For everyone who has watched “Parks and Recreation,” we all remember the moment Leslie Knope explains the feeling of town halls and although there was no yelling, there were many moments full of folks caring for their community.

The week was all about taking the budget from proposed to adopted in the City of Durham. It started with budget work sessions on Wednesday and Thursday. These lasted all day and consisted of each department explaining their upcoming budgets, as well as highlights from the previous fiscal year. It was a great opportunity to learn more about what different departments have planned for the coming year. City Council members use this time to understand what is in the proposed budget and ask a variety of questions. This helps ensure they can answer questions that arise from constituents. A photo from the event can be seen below.

After this finished, it was clear that the Council had more information they wanted to discuss about some items in more detail before making a decision. So they will be holding another work session this Thursday to dive deeper on a handful of topics they will decide to fund or remove from the proposed budget. I will be sure to update everyone on these discussions next week.

I am excited that I will now be working on a multi-departmental project about fees in the City of Durham. The team working on the project has not decided which fees to look at, but we are in the brainstorming stages. Once this is decided, we will dive into the data and look at the equity of fees, and what changes could be made to benefit residents that need it the most. Updates will come on this initiative, but I am extremely excited to learn more from our findings.

In other exciting news, Durham reached their Participatory Budgeting goal and in the first year of voting had over 10,000 residents vote on how they want to spend $2.4 million! The votes are still being tallied and the winning projects will be  announced later in June, but it will be great to find out the winners and see the implementation of these projects. I am assisting in tallying the votes, and have loved watching the democratic process. 

Data, Strategy, and the MPA Degree

The strategic use of data is everywhere in the field of Public Administration. For public service leaders to be effective in the modern era, the skills to collect, analyze, report, and operationalize data are essential. In an article in Public Administration Times entitled “Data Insights Lead to Better Public Administration,” Bill Brantley writes, “good policy analysis has always relied on data and statistical analysis to understand policy issues and formulate appropriate policy responses.” He also points out that “our ability to collect data” has changed and that we have more tools and more capacity to collect data than ever before. The federal government is currently working an overarching data strategy with a goal to “leverage data as a strategic asset to grow the economy, increase the effectiveness of the Federal Government, facilitate oversight, and promote transparency.”

Word Cloud prepared by the author.

With that in mind, the MPA program at UNC requires coursework in data analysis. All students take a data-driven Research and Analysis class each semester of their first year in the program. Another required course, Organizational Theory, gets into the topics of performance management and strategic planning. Students can also dig deeper into data with electives in topics like performance management, productivity, decision analysis, and benchmarking.

Earlier this week our student ICMA chapter invited UNC MPA alumni Monica Chaparro and Josh Edwards to discuss their professional experience with data and strategic planning in local government. Monica is the Program Manager of Strategic Planning and Performance Management in the Budget Department in the City of Raleigh and Josh is the Assistant Budget Director of Strategy and Performance as well as the Director of the Innovation Team for the City of Durham.

Reflecting on her UNC MPA experience, Monica shared that “David Ammon’s Productivity in Local Government class coupled with Maureen Berner’s program evaluation class piqued my interest in the intersection of data and strategy. Beyond piquing my interest, those classes equipped me with the foundational skills I needed to flourish in my first job, which involved managing the Balanced Scorecard for one of the City of Charlotte’s largest departments.” Josh had a similar comment, adding, “whether I am working on building data capacity in my organization, helping a department develop key performance measures, or analyzing data to help improve city services, I am thankful for how well Professor Berner, Professor Ammons, and Professor Morse helped develop my analytical toolkit at the MPA Program.”

Current MPA student and Wake County Budget and Management Intern Aaron Brown is also very interested in the intersection of data and strategy. He is taking Performance Management with Professor Rivenbark because it brings together data analysis and strategic planning. Aaron thinks that strategic planning is key because “I want my data analysis to matter.” He told me that he believes public service leaders can use data to give them a “tangible direction” and can help measure progress on “real goals that you can reach out and touch.”

Student Perspective: MPA and Emergency Management

This week’s blog post looks at the MPA degree in the context of emergency management and shares the perspective of Max Dixon, a current MPA student.

One of the most crucial responsibilities of the public sector is emergency management: preparing and responding to disasters. The recent devastating effects of hurricanes in the southeast remind us how important this work actually is. When the worst happens, we have to rely on trained professionals to help us. University of New Orleans Professor and former chair of ASPA’s Section on Emergency and Crisis Management John K. Kiefer says that Emergency Management is “at its core, public management” (2013). Esteemed scholar of Emergency Management William Waugh further defines it as “the management of risk so that societies can live with environmental and technical hazards and deal with the disasters that they cause” (2000, cited in the above-linked paper).

Chapel Hill is among many communities in North Carolina that have seen flooding in recent hurricanes. (Photo: Durham Herald Sun.)

An MPA degree is important because government agencies and nonprofit aid organizations need skilled professionals who effectively and efficiently guide emergency responses, getting resources where they need to be as soon as possible to help those with immediate needs. The MPA Program can help prepare professionals for these situations. For example, we need people who are able to manage relationships across levels of government (Intergovernmental Relations), understand funding streams and reporting responsibilities (Public Budgeting), and lead and motivate teams in times of crisis (Public Service Leadership and Organizational Theory). We also need the skills to evaluate previous disasters and collect relevant data to analyze how we did and how we can do better in the future (Analysis & Evaluation, Performance Management).

Max Dixon is a current second year MPA student. His Professional Work Experience this past summer was with Cumberland County Emergency Management and he has served in many different roles in the United States Army. I asked him about how MPA courses affected his experience. He said that “organizational theory set me up well for understanding how the system is put together with overlapping layers of local, regional, state and federal resources and trying to figure out the lines of responsibility and authority.” He added that “PUBA 711 (Public Service Leadership) will likely be beneficial to anyone going straight from the MPA program into emergency management.” For those at the beginning of their careers with little experience in the field, “understanding their own leadership styles and how stress effects them should prove very useful.”

Alumni Spotlight – Stephanie Watkins-Cruz ‘18

From time to time, we will be featuring alumni and students in our program.  Mostly so you can hear about what people do with an MPA and what gets them ticking with regards to public service and public administration.  Here is our first!

“Public service is a great way to extend the reach of those fighting for their communities, homes, and livelihood”

Stephanie came into the program passionate about public service and specifically affordable housing and housing insecurities.  “Housing is more than a roof and four walls,” she said. “It involves your surroundings, the health of your environment, and what you have and don’t have access to. At home is where your identity takes root.”

Continue reading “Alumni Spotlight – Stephanie Watkins-Cruz ‘18”


MPA Matters seeks to explore and explain all the current happenings and pursuits of those interested in public administration and public service. Special focus will be put on highlighting careers in public administration and the current initiatives of the MPA at UNC program including our faculty, current students, and alumni.