Lsno/fog
27°
Lsno/fog
Hi 29° | Lo 20°

City Manager Goes ‘In Depth’ to Put His Mark on Lebanon

  • Before a taping in White River Junction, CATV producer Luke Chrisinger adjusts a camera while Lebanon City Manager Greg Lewis, seated at left, chats with Don Schagen, the city’s wastewater treatment supervisor; Jum Angers, water supervisor; and Mike Lavalla, director of public works. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Before a taping in White River Junction, CATV producer Luke Chrisinger adjusts a camera while Lebanon City Manager Greg Lewis, seated at left, chats with Don Schagen, the city’s wastewater treatment supervisor; Jum Angers, water supervisor; and Mike Lavalla, director of public works. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lebanon City Manager Greg Lewis. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Lebanon City Manager Greg Lewis. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Before a taping in White River Junction, CATV producer Luke Chrisinger adjusts a camera while Lebanon City Manager Greg Lewis, seated at left, chats with Don Schagen, the city’s wastewater treatment supervisor; Jum Angers, water supervisor; and Mike Lavalla, director of public works. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Lebanon City Manager Greg Lewis. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Lebanon — Sitting at a round table with a wrinkled tablecloth across from one of his department heads last month, City Manager Greg Lewis described how he had been observing the onset of spring.

“As I was driving here, I looked out, I saw … a couple of colorful birds, a squirrel that seemed to be meddling,” said Lewis to the city’s recreation director, as the cameras rolled.

“We’re waiting on the snow, of course, but the sun is out, it’s warm, and you have the city manager guaranteeing this is the last snowfall we’ll have this season, so that’s my guarantee to you.”

Thus began a nearly 35-minute Cable Access TV program that aired in mid-March, one of nearly 100 episodes of the city manager’s own Lebanon In Depth show, which presents Lewis’ take on issues as controversial as the traffic patterns around Colburn Park and as mundane as residential sprinkler requirements.

Lewis, 66, brought his straight-to-video strategy with him from his previous job as Niagara County manager in upstate New York. He said the CATV show falls under a broader strategy to engage and inform Lebanon residents of city government activity, but it runs in tandem with a concerted effort in City Hall to keep tighter control over the information the administration makes available to the public.

“The videos are very much a window because I think pictures say more than words, although there are words being spoken,” said Lewis. “We’ve just kind of opened that up, and we’re trying to get a 360-degree understanding.”

The city manager’s office has uploaded 115 videos to YouTube since Lewis took over in February 2011, the majority of them episodes of the biweekly In Depth program, which has aired since July 2011. The number of views a video typically receives fluctuates from around 30 views to as many as 216 views for a recently aired episode focusing on the future of Lebanon College under its new president, Ron Biron.

City Councilor Erling Heistad has seen a few of the videos, and said that they tell of the city manager’s energy and dedication to his job, which he described as “beyond anything I’ve seen others do.

“He is very anxious to have people know what the government is doing, to know what he is advising, to know how he thinks and feels,” Heistad said.

No Place Like Home

Lewis was born in Kansas, the son of a truck driver. His mother worked as a waitress when she wasn’t tending to things at home.

After graduating from Kansas University in 1969, Lewis was admitted to Washburn Law School in Kansas, but his plans were cut short after he was drafted to the Army in August 1969. Lewis earned two Bronze Stars for valor as an infantryman in Vietnam, and was honorably discharged in the summer of 1971. He then entered the law school that had admitted him prior to his induction as a soldier, though he quickly shifted from being an attorney to the arena of public government.

“I found I preferred working with people in city halls and county offices serving the public over engaging in legal battles in the courtroom with adversaries,” said Lewis.

Lewis held some low-profile county manager positions in small, rural Minnesota counties.

Then, in 2003, he became the first person to take the post of Niagara County manager, an administrative post in a highly political environment. He held the job for 71/2 years, then started in Lebanon in February 2011.

City councilors have spoken approvingly of Lewis and his two-plus years here, highlighting his organizational skills and ability to motivate city employees, over whom Lewis keeps a close watch. Lewis describes his role managing city employees as “leader and a coach.”

While city employees take their marching orders from the manager, Lewis takes his from city councilors. Under Lebanon’s city charter, the manager implements the policy that is set forth by the council.

Handling the Press

Lewis has implemented a media policy, which was approved by the City Council, requiring all requests for information to be routed through his office. He said that department heads sometimes want his advice, depending on what information is being requested and the “ramifications.

“The department heads want to make sure that their coach is also agreeing with what they’re going to be saying,” he said. Nonetheless, he added, “I have not found myself disagreeing with what they are saying.”

The media policy emerged from the Governance Committee, a subcommittee of the City Council that consists of three councilors and the city manager. Lewis has enforced the policy, strictly at times, over commonplace happenings in the city, such as water main breaks.

Over the summer, a reporter who approached Lebanon Public Works employees seeking information about a water main break was handed a “Media Request Form” by members of the work crew. In years past, such city workers often freely discussed what they were fixing.

The form offered space for the journalist to fill in his or her name, media company, contact number, deadline date, “topic of discussion,” and additional information. At the bottom of the sheet, bold words read “This request will be forwarded to the appropriate spokesperson.”

While maintaining close oversight of all communications from city employees, Lewis insisted that transparency is a priority in City Hall. He stressed that administration works to “make sure that everything is properly handled in compliance with the legal requirements that are New Hampshire law.”

“Transparency doesn’t mean creating confusion,” said Lewis. “Transparency means providing straightforward answers to what the inquiries are.”

Lewis also oversees two direct electronic communication systems called “LebNews” and “LebAlert,” which allows the city to contact residents directly on issues such as water main breaks and trail closures. He added that LebNews has 1,604 subscribers, while LebAlert has 1,207 subscribers, thought there is overlap between the two.

While his support of the media policy focused on the procedural, Lewis has chided the media on his blog, which can be read at lebcitymanager.blogspot.com.

In November, Lewis wrote an entry lauding outgoing Lebanon Police Chief James Alexander in a blog post titled “Chief Alexander — Best Ever, Best Ever Will Be!” In the entry, which commended Alexander for his work with the department following his retirement announcement, Lewis described Alexander as a “strong communicator, a straight shooter, and very transparent to both the public and the media.”

“I have observed him handling difficult public customers; trying, overweening, aggressive columnists, bloggers, and reporters; and important editorial board members all with aplomb and resilience,” Lewis said.

A Manager Who ‘Gets It’

For what it’s worth, city councilors and department heads alike have waxed enthusiastic about their city manager.

“He’s everything I thought he would be,” said Finance Director Len Jarvi, who served as the interim city manager before Lewis took over and interviewed him several times before he was hired for the job.

“Lebanon is a very complicated city,” said Jarvi. “It’s not a very big city, but it’s a complicated city.”

Jarvi pointed out that the city of more than 13,000 carries a “full load” of services including police, fire, solid waste and an airport, along with utilities such as water and sewer service. The city’s population is also known to double in the daytime. There are more than 170 full-time employees working for the city, and 15 working part-time. “I’ve always thought the position requires somebody that’s been around the block a few times,” said Jarvi.

Assistant Mayor Steve Wood has served on the City Council during the tenure of six different city managers. He said Lewis has “a profound respect, maybe even affection, for the way representative government works.”

“There have been times where I’ve wondered whether the city’s (past) administration was just thinking of the council as a necessary nuisance, which it is in a way … but Lewis really gets it, ” said Wood.

Like other councilors, Wood also alluded to what Lewis calls his “listening tours,” which are informal sit-downs between the city manager and many entities inside and outside of Lebanon, ranging from Hypertherm to the Fore-U Golf Center, to use recent examples.

Notably, the city manager has visited all of the nonprofit human services agencies that receive city funding, which was reduced by 10 percent under Lewis’ 2012 budget.

“He really does engage people,” said Wood, “And I don’t know where he finds the time.”

One of the nonprofit executives Lewis met with was Roberta Berner, executive director of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council. Berner said she “really appreciated the visit,” which she said mostly consisted of Lewis sharing his vision of human services and listening to get a better sense of what the nonprofit deals with on a day-to-day basis.

“I think it’s always helpful to get out of your office,” said Berner. “It probably helps him as a city manager to understand the nuances of what goes on in the community to a much greater degree than just looking at reports on paper.”

Lewis spoke to Lebanon’s position as an economic hub for Upper Valley residents, many of whom live outside the city’s tax base.

“It’s a very challenging city,” Lewis said. “It’s kind of pressing me, in terms of what I know professionally.”

This Time, It’s Personnel

In his vision of local government, Lewis said, he focuses on the “people side” of things.

“I listen to learn, and then I take the learning and I apply it to what I can influence,” he said. “Because I can’t really control things. I can only give influence.”

Since taking the helm, Lewis conducted a job search several months long that led to the hiring of Andrew Gast-Bray as planning and zoning director, filling a key position overseeing development in the city. Job searches are under way for two other important posts: police chief and deputy director of public works — a position created by Lewis to serve as second-in-command for the department busy with citywide sewer projects and aging infrastructure.

In overseeing city departments, Lewis speaks in terms of what he calls “outcomes,” which are guiding principles for each department. He contrasts the philosophy of providing outcomes with “doing tasks,” which he said would be a more “bureaucratic approach.

“If I do ‘x’ number of (patrol) hours, I’ve done my job, or if I’ve done this many hours of work on (a sewer project),” explained Lewis, “that’s really not what we’re about.”

Lewis said that the morale of city employees has been high, but “it has been difficult with the layoffs.”

In the 2013 city budget, one part-time and four full-time positions were left unfunded but not eliminated, which means the positions could eventually be filled. The vacant positions in this year’s budget include a maintenance manager for public works, a second department secretary for the police department, an administrative assistant for the fire department, an airport maintenance technician, and the part-time position of assistant human services director. The budget also added two positions, police officer and deputy director of public works.

In the 2012 city budget, the first crafted under Lewis’ watch, four full-time positions were left unfunded, including a maintenance superintendent, a police officer, a firefighter and an associate planner.

George Lovell, head of the union that negotiates contracts on behalf of the Public Works Department, described Lewis’ negotiating style as “hard-ball bargaining.” Lovell said that style led to an impasse after the most recent public works contract expired in December 2011, with negotiations stretching several months after that and requiring mediation to settle.

As for the Public Works Department itself, Lovell said, there was “no question about it, there is no fat left to be trimmed.”

“There just simply is no room,” he said. “They are stretched as far as that workforce could be stretched.”

Being the Model

Lewis landed in Vietnam on the first day of 1970, an infantryman in the 1st Air Calvary. He entered the jungle along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border and would eventually spend time in both countries. Before he saw any combat, however, Lewis received an unexpected promotion, when the captain of the company told him he would be a squad leader solely on the basis of his political science degree.

As he and his squad lugged artillery and M60 machine guns through the dense triple-canopy jungle, Lewis said, he would take turns carrying the heavy firearms and the ammunition that went along with it in an effort to lead by example. Four men in his platoon were killed while Lewis was in Vietnam.

“I think from all that experience, you had to be the model,” said Lewis. “To be a good coach, you can expect no more of the people that you coach than you can expect of yourself,” he said. “If we call for survival and sacrifice, I will go and do that.”

To that end, Lewis has not taken a raise since his hiring more than two years ago. He still receives the same base salary of $125,000, which he described as “fair,” as well as a $600 a month car allowance.

City Councilor Nicole Cormen said the city has someone in the manager’s office “who knows how to get things done,” citing how Lewis has organized roles and functions in the city’s departments.

“He’s an administrator in the good sense of the word,” she said.

Cormen also noted Lewis’ commitment to Lebanon. She said she feels Lewis is “here to stay.”

When he looks back at the places he’s lived across the country and the positions he’s held in local and state government, Lewis talks more in terms of stages of his family’s development: Colorado is where he met his wife, Ruth, to whom he has been married for 33 years; Minnesota is where they raised their three children.

Today all three of Lewis’ children are out of the house and living independently, and Lewis and his wife are still renting the same home near Seminary Hill they have occupied since he took the job more than two years ago. They have three dogs, and recently got a Maine coon cat named Henrietta.

Given the number of animals running around, Lewis joked, “We’re not ideal renters, but the people who rent to us have been very kind and understanding.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.