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A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.
By Paula Bechtler
An unfamiliar path can be navigated more easily when experienced travelers shed light on your journey. As I began the second in a series of three conversations with practicing public administration professionals, I found myself fortunate to spend time with someone who has walked the same path that I now follow.
Mr. Robbie Rokovitz is a product of Kennesaw State University’s Masters in Public Administration program, where I am currently pursuing the same degree. For the past two years, he has served as the city manager of Hiram, Georgia. Rokovitz and his staff work to support a population of a little more than 3,500 residents in a bedroom community, located 27 miles northwest of Atlanta. Formerly a police officer, Rokovitz rose through the ranks of expanding neighboring city and county governments following the completion of his graduate degree. Each new position brought increased responsibilities and his skill set grew to include critical concerns such as public information and human resources. With the guidance and blessing of his mentor, Rokovitz finally landed his first post as city manager in Holly Springs, Georgia. Since that time he has held two other city manager positions, the most recent being his current position in Hiram.
Rokovitz reflects on his career path positively, saying, “The International City/County Management Association says the average tenure of a city manager is about three years and I’m a good example of that. All of the elected officials in each location where I have worked have been very supportive and I still count them as friends.”
Rokovitz likely enjoys such cordial business relationships as a result of his attitude toward intergovernmental collaborations. Whether he is negotiating special local option sales tax (SPLOST) fund allocations with his county-level counterpart, or coordinating efforts with colleagues from neighboring city government systems, Rokovitz tries to protect the interests of his city’s residents and elected officials while also maintaining cordial business dealings. “As city manager, sometimes I get caught in the middle and have to be the mediator,” he says, “but it doesn’t do anyone any good to wage a war.” Rokovitz says that while he might occasionally try to manage the expectations of the elected officials whom he represents, he also notes that they are in fact the ones who appointed him to his position. “My job is to make them look good and to push projects through that represent the will of the majority of the city council.”
When asked whether he ever feels pressure to help politicians ensure their political futures by making choices that will play well with voters, Rokovitz points to the establishment of a new city sanitation service. “We had multiple trash companies operating at once. If someone had a pick up truck, they could offer trash service in Hiram.” To alleviate this chaotic system, Hiram’s city council passed an ordinance in 2013, which stated that one sanitation company would be awarded an exclusive three-year contract to all city residents on a mandatory basis. While residents might have initially balked at being required to utilize one company with few opt-out clauses, they later found a number of positive changes in the ordinance. Trash could no longer be collected before 7 a.m. or after sunset, a recycling program was established and there would be less trash collection-related traffic within the city. In the end, the city government, the elected officials and the voters whom they represent all benefited from the legislation. “I just try to do what is best for our organization, the city of Hiram,” Rokovitz said.
Given the financial struggle that has faced many city and county governments in recent years, I asked Rokovitz what advice he would give current MPA students regarding fiscal responsibility. “Always manage financial matters as though you are in lean times,” he responded quickly. “It’s easy to cut back on the low hanging fruit like fireworks and tree lightings, but you have to be careful when it comes to essential services like police and fire.”
The city of Hiram is located in Paulding County, which was hit especially hard by declines in the real estate market. While not having ad valorem taxes in the city limits of Hiram ostensibly lessened the impact on the general fund budget, many other sources of revenues used for operations declined. One of those sources of revenue happened to be the interest accumulated within the reserves, which has been used over the years to balance the annual budget. In addition to cutting expenditures for day-to-day operations, Rokovitz and the staff looked to identify new sources of revenue, while being mindful of the impact those revenue sources, like increased issuance of liquor licenses, would have on current residents and businesses.
Most importantly, Rokovitz says managers should recognize and reward employee loyalty when things turn around. “You need to look at the people who are still there, who made sacrifices and thank them, both verbally and tangibly, if possible,” he said. Rokovitz went onto state that, “Your biggest asset is always the people who work for you, and you couldn’t provide services if not for them.” He urges future public administrators to surround themselves with team members whose credentials can make their department work as a unit. “You manage things, but you lead people,” Rokovitz said as we parted, quoting noted author Stephen Covey.
Author: Paula Bechtler is an MPA student and staff member at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at [email protected].