City Clerks and the Importance of Municipal Bureaucracy

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    • 00:01

      [MUSIC PLAYING]

    • 00:22

      JIM OWCZARSKI: My name is Jim Owczarski.I'm the city clerk for the city of Milwaukee.I've been in this role since April of 2012.And before that, I was deputy city clerk for five years.I've been with the city since May of 1999.And before that, I was a reporterfor both the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee JournalSentinel.

    • 00:46

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: You're sitting here in the middleof kind of this horseshoe, with 15 common councilmembers arranged by seniority.And they expect this office to managetheir legislation, their bill drafting,but also the pipeline, really, from cradle to grave, the wholeI'm just a bill thing.We're also on Schoolhouse Rock.We do that.I'm responsible for the legislative operations.The council regards that as my primary task-- bill drafting,

    • 01:08

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: legislation, the legislative process, research,things like that.In addition, I'm responsible for licensing.We have a license division.And I'm kind of a bar bet.If you go to any liquor establishment or any restaurantin the of Milwaukee, there's goingto be a little piece of paper on the wall thathas my signature on it.And that's their license.We do that.We also operate the City Channel, our public access

    • 01:29

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: channel.We are responsible for the public information division,which manages the public relationsand the common council in a lot of the city.We are responsible for historic preservation and that staffin this office.We have a lobbyist that works here, respondsto the common council, but is tasked and staffed here.And we also have a library.The Municipal Reference Library is down at the basement.

    • 01:50

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: So we do that, too.The municipal bureaucracy is the thingI think that differentiates well-functioning societiesfrom corrupt ones.Politicians are, by definition, in a democracy going to cycle.

    • 02:13

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: Yes, some get 20-year terms.But some are gone after one.And so you don't have that permanence of memory.That's the function of bureaucracy,to make sure that at this level below that,there's this continuation, there's continuity,there's memory.We do that.We bring that.It's creating a cadre of trained, capable, and frankly,

    • 02:34

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: honest, and regulated-- because we can't entirelybe trusted on our own-- individuals whoknow how the process works.Look, in democracy, everybody serves a term-- four years,six years, two years, whatever.And as a consequence, there's a constant churnto the elected officials.And we have tremendous respect for them.But we know that they will be coming and going

    • 02:56

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: over the course of our careers.There are individuals below them whoare responsible for the day-to-day operationsof the city.And they have to be the ones thathave the corporate collective memory.I just brought on a new council member a couple months ago.And it was my responsibility to show him how everything works,and how the amendment process works, how the budget works,how he can find his office, how he

    • 03:17

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: can get in and out of the door.That's what we do.And if that office is not well-trained, and alsoif it's not honest-- and that matters--if it doesn't work for its pay, but for graft,that's going to break the whole system.And people won't know where to go and who to trust.And they're the ones that have to make certainthat the next generation knows what it does.And hopefully, we're learning from that experience.

    • 03:40

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: So to me, it's that central pieceof really helping a democracy to thrive at this level.It's the heart of, if indeed, the policymakers, the elected,or the mind are kind of the heart and hands.

    • 04:00

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: I was a municipal government reporter before I worked here.And in fact, I got my first job in journalism in high school.I was working for a local paper.I thought I was going to be a historian.But all along the way, I paid the bills doing journalism.I was working at the Journal Sentinel.And at about 10:00 in the evening,my wife installed our 2400 baud modem on the computer

    • 04:21

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: in our office.I'd never been on the internet.I got on the internet and I saw what this internet was.And when I came to bed at 2:00 in the morning,she said to me, where have you been.And I said, realizing I need to find another job,because I realized there would be no wayfor them to monetize that.I've covered every government in Milwaukee County, all 19,both their municipalities and their school boards

    • 04:42

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: over the course of my career.So I knew them all.And I liked it.I loved government.I was interested in it.I was fascinated by it.My editors would tell you, too fascinated.So as a consequence, when this jobopened up at the city for an analyst,I jumped at the chance.And I was hired six months later.

    • 05:04

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: The city clerk directly is accountableto the common council.I'm elected every four years by the council.I'm not elected at large.But I'd like to think I'm accountable to my staff--the individuals that work here-- that I give themthe support they need and the directionthat they need to get their jobs doneand give them the resources they need to be successful.And I hope it's not naive or cliche to sayI think I'm responsible to the citizens.

    • 05:24

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: They're the individuals that pay the taxes.They're the ones that will have saidthey wanted these services.And so, it's always my hope that when they see usand when they contact me, and when they'rein touch with either me or any other member of this staff,that they have a positive experience and feelthey're getting good value for the dollar.

    • 05:46

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: My job changes from day-to-day.And I think it's honestly one of the reasons I show upevery morning.It is something different.It is something unique.We had just yesterday, I woke up at 7 o'clockbecause a common council member was calling me.And we needed to get a special eventlicense for an event related to the MilwaukeeFestival of Running.And somebody had neglected to take out their permit.

    • 06:08

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: Yeah, absolutely.We have a ton of people who can do it for you tomorrow.We wanted to make sure they could get that permit.And so we spent probably an hour on the phone back and forthand over email trying to get that solved.It's that, it's something else, and it's different every day.Tomorrow, we'll have a budget adoption meeting.Have one every year.And as a consequence, who knows what will come up.

    • 06:28

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: The only thing that is predictableis change and the uncertainty.And that's exciting and it's rewarding and, as I say,it's part of the reason I come in the morning.The city of Milwaukee has a January-to-January budget.

    • 06:49

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: We're at a billion and a half dollars.And one of the staff at this officeis the Legislative Reference Bureau fiscal section.These are individuals whose job itis to take the mayor's proposed budget,analyze it, and help the common council amend it in waysthat it would choose.And we don't set policy.We let the common council and the mayor do that.But we do help them understand.

    • 07:10

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: Here's what the mayor says, here's what the budget says,here's how you can affect it, here's how you can change it,and here's what you can't change.As a matter of fact, just today, Ihad to tell a council member you can't do that this way.But you could perhaps do it this way.Then, throughout the course of the year,we will monitor the implementation of the budget.Did they do what they said they weregoing to do when they asked for those resources?Is the plan working?

    • 07:31

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: Is it not working?Is it being changed?Is it being dropped?And so we try to keep an eye on all those different thingsthat agencies say they're going to doand that they want to use that money for.So it really is part of what we do right herein this very intense budget seasonand throughout the course of the whole year.

    • 07:52

      SPEAKER: For Stamper.

    • 07:54

      JIM OWCZARSKI: OK.Didn't fill out the paperwork?

    • 07:56

      SPEAKER: Yeah.I got a sheet right here.Only thing I didn't know was the date filed.

    • 08:01

      JIM OWCZARSKI: Well, he did do the day he signed it, right.

    • 08:03

      SPEAKER: Yeah.

    • 08:04

      JIM OWCZARSKI: I will approve that.The greatest challenges I face in my job-- probablythe number one is building consensus.It's not my job to make policy.It never is.And you always want to because you have an idea.You're intelligent.I mean, anybody that's in this jobis going to have to have certain native intelligence.And so you want to talk about your views.But you have to realize, you haveto step back and realize it's ultimately about them, the 15

    • 08:24

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: council members, the mayor, the other officials thatneed to really be the policy drivers.And then when you work with them as closely as I do,you start to like them and you start to associate with them.And I was elected unanimously.And I think that that says something,I hope, for the staff as much as anything.But also that relationship I've built with them.And you hate it when they fight.But politics is about that.

    • 08:45

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: And it's trying to help them feelthat they were well treated, that the information was fairlyshared, that they were each treated equally.But at the same time, there's going to be winners and losers.That's the nature of it.I mean, every election we have somebody goes home sad.And it's the same thing with every vote.Whenever there's a divided vote, somebody is unhappy.And so dealing with that and how it

    • 09:07

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: affects the political process, howit affects the dynamics of this office,that is sometimes our greatest challenge.The important issues in governinga city the size of Milwaukee-- number oneis making sure you're listening to everybody.

    • 09:29

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: There's 600,000 people in this city, give or take.And we have 15 council districts,divided up 44,000 people each.And there's one council member and one aidto help those people.Now, we have other employees, but making surethat that level of contact is thereand that you're listening to as many little pocketsof the community is that there are.And in some ways, social media has made that worse.

    • 09:51

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: I mean, it's been great.But we've tended to drive into these little cul-de-sacsof politics.We have people that are passionate about flowerplantings on boulevards.We have people who are passionate about preservingwar memorials.And they each will agitate in their own way.And we're trying to coalesce and build and yet at the same timelisten because we do want to hear them.

    • 10:11

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: We really do.If you're not into listening to people,you are in the wrong line of work.But that's a lighter challenge.I mean, we suffer from all the thingsand we're challenged by all the thingsthat affect large urban areas.We have one of the highest concentrationsof poverty in the country in the city of Milwaukee.We have an incredible disparity between achievement,occupationally and educationally,

    • 10:32

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: between whites and other minorities.And it's a scandal.And the council knows that and the councilstruggles with that.And it's working to become part of the solution to that.And doing it as the clerk's office,we're a little bit limited in that.But even there, as we look through the budget,and we look at programs, and we look at bill drafting,we're called on to be a resource to say, can we do something.

    • 10:53

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: There's absolutely no doubt that we wantto be part of that solution.One very simple thing-- we issue licenses here.And we're now becoming very aggressive in makingsure all our stuff, be it staff or be itpapers that we hand out to the publicare comprehensible to people in other languages.And so those sorts of outreach and those sortsof team building and community building

    • 11:15

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: is very, very challenging and isn't getting easier.It's getting a bit more complicated.My deputy has often called this the office of figure it out.How do we do this?

    • 11:35

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: I don't know?Figure it out.Or, we're the office of people who do things that otherscan't or won't.And that's why a lot of things have been assigned hereover time is because we do want to helpthem get what they want.If you're going to support the men and women whoserve the city of Milwaukee-- I'm talking there

    • 11:56

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: about the common council members--the key thing you have to do is be their first resourceto say I want to do something.And they will tell you what that thing is.But they won't have the first idea how to get there.Because nobody's born knowing this.And my own educational experience will tell you that.You pick it up over time.And there are things I learn every day whenI'm doing this job.

    • 12:17

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: Say, oh, OK, we can't do it that way.Well, how about we do it this way.And then someone says, I don't know.And so you then walk that path.Being that person that's willing to walk that for them,bring them the resources.Some of the questions are easy.But even when it's hard, you'd bewilling to move the ball forward and try to say, well, howabout this, how about this.We don't make up the policies.We are very uncomfortable doing that.

    • 12:38

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: I think any bureaucrat should-- before yougo into the bureaucracy, you should think about,are you willing to be directed by othersas to what the right idea is.But then your job is to take that idea and make it real.That's where the reward is and that's where the support comes.

    • 12:59

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: Any student looking for a career in local governmentneeds to have something that Mr. Chipping gave to his studentsin the famous book, Goodbye, Mr. Chips.Have a sense of proportion and a sense of humor.And expect the unexpected.There's no training for the job I've got.I have degrees in history, journalism, theology,philosophy, divinity, and history twice again.And then I did theater.

    • 13:19

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: There's nothing too logical about any of thatthat leads to government.And yet this make sense.And I love what I do.You have to be willing to learn new things.I think a natural curiosity is critical.I think an interest in public policy is critical.Don't do something that bores you.Because this will bore you to death if it does at the outset.Once you've got that interest and once you've

    • 13:40

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: got that passion, then follow it up with that, as I say,a sense of humor and a sense of proportion.Because there are important thingsthat happen in this office every day.But trying to keep them balanced and realizingthat you're working with a lot of peoplethat have the same set of good intentions.And so if you can keep those things in balanceand combine them with knowledge and passion, you'll do well.

    • 14:02

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: I think we can get over much into credentialing, into, well,I should get this degree or I should get that degree.And I would never denigrate those programs,if that's what you want to do.But the great successes I've seen in this officehave been people that often didn't start out therebut drifted there and found out, hey, this makes sense for me.

    • 14:26

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: The most rewarding aspect of my jobis when you do get things over the finish line.It will feel very, very good tomorrow at about 6 o'clockafter we put the budget away.It's not a process that started September the 23rd.It has been going on pretty much nonstop since.It's been a little crazy here, whichis why you've seen the people running in and out.And when you move that across the line,even if it's not you that's doing it,

    • 14:47

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: but you see that they did it, and you cheer and you're happy.When I started out here, I was an analyst.And I wrote laws as a bill drafter.And I wrote a law at the direction of some policymakersabout chronic nuisances.This was a bill that had gone through 100 drafts,probably, and been through many, many different handsand been seen at meetings and all this.And finally we got together.

    • 15:08

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: And when it was all done after a year and a half,we had a press conference at whichthey were 17 council sponsors.They all sponsored it.And I just had a big stack of them in my arms,and I was passing them out.And they were up in the front.And they were having the photographsand taking the questions.Well, the lead staff person who really had the ideacame up to me and said, thanks, Jim, I know.And I said, I appreciate that.

    • 15:30

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: And the world doesn't have to know.When you do what we do, when you're here,it's not about the cameras.It's not about being seen or being credited.It's about they succeeded.And therefore, you did your job.Not only is that job security, which is nice,but it's also the process of getting that done.And I will also say that this particular law did

    • 15:51

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: a great deal of good for a lot of little neighborhoodsacross the city.And that's immensely satisfying.This is the most important level of government.I'll defend that for a lot of reasons.But one of them is probably principally the grocery store

    • 16:13

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: situation.Every one of my bosses, the common council members,will tell you that somebody sees at them at the grocerystore every week and wants to talk potholes.I have great respect for Senator Johnson.I have great respect for Senator Baldwin.The fact is, most people wouldn't know them if theybumped into them on the street.And if they did, they would probably be intimidated.Oh, that's a senator.I think it's the same thing as we pass onthrough the other branches.It isn't that way with municipal government.

    • 16:35

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: These are the people that you expect--and they'll all tell you the story--that if I've got a bar that's too loud at 3 o'clockin the morning, I'm calling my alderman or womanand expecting him or her to be here and listen to the bar.They've all done it.If there's a sex offender being placed in the community,they don't call anybody else but them.If there's a street that's torn up,they don't call the governor.

    • 16:57

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: They call their council member.If there is a concern about a dog at large,that's who they contact.The basic services that bind us together as people-- streetsweeping, street plowing during snowstorms,garbage collection, the water utility, the police,the fire-- they're all here.And so your ability to touch people where they live

    • 17:18

      JIM OWCZARSKI [continued]: and to make their lives better is profound here.Yes, the resources are greater at the county, state,and federal level.But in terms of being able to reach out and touchpeople and let people know, yes, we're hearing this,we're listening, nothing beats it.[MUSIC PLAYING]

City Clerks and the Importance of Municipal Bureaucracy

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Abstract

Milwaukee City Clerk Jim Owczarski discusses his work in municipal government, particularly the differences between elected representatives and bureaucrats. He was a journalist until the rise of the internet, and he explains that some of the best workers aren't ones that sought a particular credential.

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City Clerks and the Importance of Municipal Bureaucracy

Milwaukee City Clerk Jim Owczarski discusses his work in municipal government, particularly the differences between elected representatives and bureaucrats. He was a journalist until the rise of the internet, and he explains that some of the best workers aren't ones that sought a particular credential.

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