We sat down with new Village Manager Tom Barwin in December, around the time he completed his first 100 days in office. He’s too new to be our Villager of the Year, so maybe he’s the Newcomer of the Year. He’s certainly one to watch.
Wednesday Journal: Are you settled in?
Tom Barwin: I’m starting to settle in. I’m starting to know the folks I work with and get a feel for the board and a feel for the community. I’m living on Lombard, right across the street from Barrie Park. I’m hoping to buy one of the Barrie Park homes. I have to sell my home in metro Detroit and hopefully we’re going to get an offer in the next week. I don’t have all my furniture there yet, but I’m not spending a lot of time there, either. I mean, I’m basically just sleeping there. Not only with two or three night [board] meetings a week, but I had a neighborhood meeting [for various groups and organizations] in someone’s home probably every night the first six weeks I was here, which was very informative and helped get me acclimated in the community.
And on weekends, my son plays football [and basketball] for the University of Cincinnati. I try to get to as many of his games as possible, so I’ve been traveling a lot. I’ve driven to all of the games but one.
WJ: What did you hear from these community groups?
TB: The first impression I had was just the mere fact that there are so many people in organizations that follow community affairs and that there’s such an interest there. [That and other observations] really confirmed what I had been told, that this community has a-what I call “civic infrastructure”-that appears to be second to none. That is a terrific asset from a manager’s perspective. It’s a great forum for feedback.
Not everybody likes to come to board meetings. Not everybody likes to stand up in front of a microphone and in front of a cable TV camera. Not everybody’s looking for their 15 seconds of Andy Warhol fame. People have sincere concerns, observations, great ideas, but they’re also very busy in their daily lives. That’s the reason I’ve always made it a practice to try to get out in the community to hear from folks in their realm, in their comfort zone.
But the consistent message was … just some hope that we can get the village functioning in a more almost business-like function. You know, more focused. Surprisingly pretty much across the board, it’s a sentiment that the village itself had fallen into a pattern of almost exhausting people interested in village affairs by meeting three or four nights a week for three or four hours at a time, which is having the unexpected result of maybe even less citizen participation because people are glazed over from the ongoing, never-ending conversation on certain subjects and issues.
But I think there’s a reason that began to occur. When a community is without a manager for an extended period of time, you can have a board that comes in and fills the vacuum, and publicly starts having the at-length detailed conversations that normally we may have had administratively.
It seems the pendulum is starting to swing back. The board is down to two meetings a week. I hope in ’07 we can get it down to one meeting a week, once we deal with some of the backlog of issues.
WJ: What will be your first major accomplishment, and when will it happen?
TB: I don’t know if there’ll be anything along those lines because I don’t really look at the job that way. I hope there’s a whole bunch of wonderful things that occur over the next 5-10 years, which is how long I anticipate being here. But I think a part of the secret to what I have been told has been my success is good listening skills, try to understand the strengths of the community, and try to work with those and tease those out and embrace them and move forward with where the opportunities are. The management team’s role is just to be a part of it and facilitate it, to support the strengths of the community and address problems as they occur.
For example, the Marion Street decision. I think time is going to prove that was a great decision. I think in a year or 18 months from now we’re going to be celebrating a new vitality in the central business district. We’ll be announcing new businesses opening and making major investments. Local folks will want to check it out, go see it, and hopefully enjoy what’s there. That isn’t necessarily going to be anyone’s legacy, but it’s going to be a healthy change.
We’re not going to be missing in action here, the management team. To the board’s credit, ever since I started here, they’ve been very open in asking for management’s input, observations, advice, experience.
For example, last night [during a meeting to decide the fate of Marion Street], I could have, might have-and some managers would have-not entered the conversation. Whatever the board does, the board does. I pointed out my feelings and experience to them regarding the importance of on-street parking, what role it can play in creating an environment and how important it is to commerce. And they allowed me to state my position. It may not have been in line with what the majority was thinking, and it clearly wasn’t. But I haven’t been discouraged from doing that. I love an environment where people can debate and everybody can put their cards on the table and then make the decision based on everyone’s best ideas, experience, research.
Nine out of 10 times, you’re going to get the best decision possible [that way].
WJ: What about managing the organization itself?
TB: If there is a legacy, I would certainly like it be to create or maintain a workplace where we do have a team environment and an approach where we’re all striving toward the same goals, where folks work together, communicate, and where we’re all trying to respect each other and nourish each other’s professional growth and career development, and quality of life-quality of work life.
I try to maintain an open-door policy here. I have talked to a good number of employees on all levels of the organization. I’ve found they’ve had some really terrific ideas that, for some reason, they had felt some reluctance to express.
I do hope in ’07 we can get our contracts all negotiated and get ahead of the curve.
WJ: What are your accomplishments so far?
TB: My personal goal is to get the board/staff relationship functioning effectively-to have a great communication system, establish some kind of trust and respect that we need to move forward on challenges and opportunities in a timely fashion.
And that’s a two-way street. The staff has to trust democracy and who the people put in place, and hopefully we can earn the respect and trust of elected officials so we cannot waste time on questioning each other. [Questioning] is a healthy thing to a degree. “Trust, but verify” is fine. We’ll put the verification materials right in with the summary in any recommendation we have.
In my view that’s changed dramatically already. It’s almost gone 180 degrees. The conversation’s more constructive.
What I’d like to contribute is to keep this a community of great neighborhoods. That just sounds like rhetoric, but I think you have to keep working on that. You don’t get that everywhere.