Outgoing city manager reflects on his tenure in Alexandria

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Outgoing city manager reflects on his tenure in Alexandria
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Former City Manager Rashad Young said he will always look fondly on his time in Alexandria, where he was often the face of difficult changes, both in city government and for the city as a whole.

Young resigned at the end of 2014 to become the D.C. city administrator under new Mayor Muriel Bowser. When he was appointed to the Port City’s top administrative job in 2011, he was both the youngest and the first black city manager in Alexandria’s history.

Young was often the face of controversy, whether it was in guiding major development plans to fruition or announcing the possibility of using eminent domain in the long-running dispute with the Old Dominion Boat Club. But he said among his proudest achievements were internal policies in city departments to modernize practices.

“I’m really glad some of the major development planning pieces got accomplished, like Beauregard and the waterfront,” he said. “But I’m also proud of the organizational things we’ve done around performance management, the budget and the budget process. That work continues as we speak, as we gain the ability to be more transparent and become able to think about the budget process in a different way.”

Young highlighted improvements to the city’s human relations processes, from consolidating HR departments to the establishment of an ethics hotline and internal investigator — a response to a rash of arrests of city employees in 2011 — as well as implementing a pay-for-performance system at the upper echelons of city government.

He acknowledged that as a public official, one often becomes the lightning rod for criticism on any given proposal, regardless of whether it was a personal initiative or done at the behest of city council.

“I think in general, you have to have a thick skin for this job,” Young said. “One of the things I tell people is you have to put criticism in the proper perspective. It’s important to listen to the pain and the pressure points that people have, and use that to help form different pathways or strategies.

“I have to remember that people aren’t criticizing me, Rashad Young, the individual. A lot fewer people know me as the individual; they know me as the city manager and they’re criticizing the person occupying that seat.”

Harder than dealing with criticism was being the bearer of bad news, Young said. And with the dwindling budgets of the past several years, it was a job he had to do more often than he would have liked.

“It’s tough,” he said. “This is a community that has high expectations for service and are accustomed to receiving them, so it’s not easy and it’s not a position that anyone wants to be in, to say: ‘Wow, we really can’t do things like that anymore.’

“It’s hardest when standing in that town hall meeting and to have to explain why you made a tough choice or why you’re recommending something that people don’t want to see … That’s when you feel really lonely. But that’s one of the most important aspects of being a city manager, finding the right balance and having to sometimes communicate those difficult messages.”

Since Young’s departure, city councilors appointed long-time city employee Mark Jinks to serve as acting city manager. Young offered some advice to whoever replaces him on a permanent basis: start slowly.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “No matter how ambitious your agenda is, your list of things to be accomplished, they can’t all be accomplished at once. The pace of change has to be measured and monitored to be successful, and it has to be done in a way that stakeholders can absorb and understand and buy into it.”

And Young had one other pointer for the next city manager: embrace Alexandria’s unique character and level of engagement.

“Just recognize how special this community it is, its history, the community dynamics and the level of engagement,” he said. “People have a passion to see the city do well. People levy criticism and have opinions because the common interest really is the same: for the community to be successful.”

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