By David Unmacht
I focused on the ashes dripping from his cigarette, which were missing the ashtray and falling onto the papers and desk, as I nervously listened to the city administrator welcome me to City Hall for my first internship. On a bitter cold day in early January 1981, I drove one mile from my college dorm to Waverly (Iowa) City Hall to—little did I know then—launch a career in local government.
My impressions of that first meeting are all that remain: City Hall abuzz with voices, smoking (still generally accepted and prominent), and commotion from the excitement of the new year. Typewriters and adding machines endlessly banged away creating noise that signaled activity, energy, and the public’s business at work.
I was simultaneously thawing out, lost, in awe, anxious, overwhelmed, curious, and interested. The city administrator was Michael Schneider, and he could sense all these emotions and more in this college student. To his credit, he put me at ease and allowed me to breathe (despite the cigarette smoke).
Over the course of three months, Mike guided me through city tours, meetings with department directors, City Council meetings, research projects on who-remembers-what, and meeting the mayor. Yes, the mayor! In April, I completed the experience with a $300 stipend in my pocket and a burning desire for more.
A few months later, I was deep into another internship in the City of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. I was a graduate student at Drake University. This internship lasted eight months and allowed me an opportunity to make a real difference. My contributions included writing personnel policies, making council presentations, and assisting office staff with various duties. The city administrator was Mark Miller (now retired) and we occasionally stay in contact, often reminiscing.
Without Waverly and Pleasant Hill, there would be no jobs for me later in Belle Plaine or Prior Lake. The indelible memories of mentors and internships created a foundation for my public service, personal priorities, and professional goals. Internships, field work, and fellowships are experience seeds planted by today’s leaders to help grow and develop future leaders.
Recently, as part of my performance review with the League of Minnesota Cities Board, I outlined five overriding legacy goals for my tenure: maintain the outstanding relationship with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT), ensure the League’s member services are excellent, continue to develop the League’s culture, achieve personal and professional fulfillment, and implement mentoring as a core function of our mission and work.
Serving as a mentor is one of my most fulfilling and personally rewarding experiences. Through a combination of luck, skill, and hard work, I have been blessed with so much in my career, I feel an intense obligation and burning desire to give back to the future generation of city leaders. When either students or people looking to change jobs in mid-career ask for help and advice, it’s a privilege and honor. Mentoring is not hard work; it’s fun. It’s not draining; it’s stimulating. It’s not time-consuming; it’s investing in your future.
My adjunct faculty work provides me a direct pipeline to students, and I’m very optimistic about the future. Still, the recruitment challenges for cities are great, the most pressing being the competition for limited workers and working to ensure that the best and brightest choose local government. Serving as a mentor is one small way each of us can do our individual part to seek and find replacements that are even better than we are.
With strong support from our Board of Directors, a high priority for League staff is our mentorship program. We hire interns, fellows, and externs, depending on how the position is created and funded and what type of work is performed.
We are currently piloting a prototype model fellowship program in partnership with the cities of Delano and Minnetonka, simultaneously employing interns that rotate among the three organizations. (Read more about this program.) Our goal is to allocate time, talent, and resources to ensure the future of local government is in good hands.
Thanks, Michael and Mark. I think you would be proud of me, not for what I’ve done in local government, but for doing for others what you did for me.
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: email@example.com or (651) 281-1205.