“Diversity is the core of successful communities.” — Lee Feldman, 2017 ICMA President
By LWG Editor
Recently, League of Women in Government President, Pamela Antil, ICMA-CM, talked with the 2017 International City/County Management Association (ICMA) President Lee Feldman. Mr. Feldman, ICMA-CM is the City Manager of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Pam and Lee talked and shared thoughts on how we might increase the number of senior executive positions in local government and how ICMA serves as a forum for this very important discussion. Here is the interview:
Pam: Why do you think there aren’t more women in the CAO seats in cities and counties?
Lee: My non-scientific answer is that it has something to do with the makeup of elected bodies across the country. Many elected bodies have not gotten rid of the gender stereotypes. When you look at the bulk of city/county organizations across the country, I think they are mostly people over the age fifty – maybe even over 60 years old. This group seems to be typically holding on to gender stereotypes which work the governing bodies against women. When younger people are elected to fill those seats, I am confident this will change.
Pam: Interestingly enough, recruiters tell us anecdotally that even with more women on elected bodies, it doesn’t necessarily work in women’s favors when a city or county manager is selected.
Lee: That’s true. I think it is more of a generational thing. There are still a majority of people in their late fifty’s and beyond that see the top spot as one traditionally held by a male. It is hard for some people to get over that stereotype.
Pam: So, what do you think needs to change for cities/counties to advance women?
Lee: I think it’s a timing thing. We need to ride out this generational issue. And we are pretty close to the end of that. In the meantime, we need to make sure that anyone in a CAO position right now gives women opportunities to come up through the ranks, to be equal, and not serve in stereotypical “women’s roles” such as serving as City Clerk, human resources director, etc. We have to prepare women for some of the non-traditional female roles such as police chief, utilities director, etc. We have got to make sure that we are giving everyone an equal chance to compete regardless of their gender and/or ethnicity. We need to figure out ways to accelerate this – we don’t have time to slowly wait for the current 15.6 percent of women in CAO spots to increase to 50 percent on its own. For the number to grow faster, increasing the number of opportunities in traditional male roles is the key.
Pam: Tell me about a woman that you’ve worked with who made a positive impact on your career.
Lee: When I was the City Manager in North Miami, we had a Director of Administration who was probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever come across in my career. Her name was Carol and she was literally a magician when it came to budget, understanding the process and the numbers. She concentrated on what was really important in the budget process. I learned a lot from her and her impact stays with me to this day.
Pam: How can we increase the number of women in the early career pipeline for local government?
Lee: We have to create role models and opportunities. We all have a responsibility to create opportunities. And as I talked about earlier, we need to create opportunities for women in roles that are not typically held by women – police and fire chiefs, public works directors and so forth.
Pam: How is ICMA helping to increase the number of women in senior executive positions?
Lee: ICMA is becoming the forum for the discussion. ICMA is bringing people to the table. We need to address this and be proactive. Not by coming to the table necessarily with solutions, rather, by providing the safe space where we can all work together to come up with solutions.
Pam: How does a more diverse leadership team impact a community?
Lee: Diversity is the core of successful communities. A diverse leadership team makes sure that all ideas will be put on the table and will be heard. It allows for multiple points of view. It really enhances the whole local government experience. If you have an organization run by all people of the same background, then you will have decisions in a vacuum and from one vantage point. This further divides a community rather than building it together.
Pam: What can we do as public administrators in our own organizations to eliminate bias in our organizations?
Lee: We can do what it is that we need to do – address it! You can’t hide from it. You can’t run from it. You have to actively seek out bias and destroy it.
Pam: You chose to highlight diversity and inclusiveness at the ICMA regional summits, tell me about how chose the topic and why it is important to you.
Lee: Our country is becoming more polarized. It is clear to me that this polarization demonstrates that the country is becoming less inclusive. Less tolerant. I go back to the reason why I got into this profession in the first place – to serve at the local level. Because the local level is really what builds this country. So if we are to battle this polarization and exclusiveness, then we must simply be more inclusive and support diversity in our communities. If we can’t do it at the local level, then we really can’t expect it to happen at the national level.
Pam: Thank you Lee for your time today. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Lee: I’m really excited that there are so many people in our profession today that have a passion for this topic. Because it will never change if people don’t. I applaud those who are taking the initiative and pushing back against the mainstream to make sure that there’s a voice that’s heard on this topic. So, I thank you!
Lee R. Feldman, ICMA-CM, City Manager for the City of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is the 2017 ICMA President. Prior to his work with Fort Lauderdale, Lee served the cities of Palm Bay and North Miami, Florida. Mr. Feldman is a graduate of Washington and Lee University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts. He earned a Master’s Degree in Governmental Administration from the Fels Center of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, he is a graduate of the Senior Executive in State and Local Government program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.