Matthew Watkins describes his job as the township administrator of Bloomfield as the chief operating officer of the town. Bloomfield has a population of 50,000, and it’s one of thousands of cities in America that have mayors and councils to make decisions, but also someone to manage the running of the cities.
“Our job is to execute what the mayor and council deem as important. So they set the agenda, they set what we want to accomplish,” Watkins said.
Watkins reports to the mayor and council what he’s accomplished, and offers them some options and recommendations on issues and concerns. He presents them at twice a month council meetings.
Voters elect the part-time mayor and the part-time council. Typically in New Jersey, those elected office holders reject or approve the town administrator. In Bloomfield’s case, the administrator manages the town’s 400 employees.
At a meeting in late January, Watkins and administrative assistant Andrea Schneider review plans to put the township’s health department in one building. Watkins runs meetings with department heads — like the tax assessor and library director — eliciting updates on various initiatives. Karen Lore, Bloomfield’s Director of Health and Human Services, says it all depends on the administrator.
“For us, we’re very lucky to have the administrator that we do have. He’s a visionary. He’s very supportive,” she said.
Part of Watkins’ job as town administrator is asking individual departments about their budgets.
“It’s not what I’ve been used to in the past with nonprofessional administrators, where it would be here’s our budget. Now, we get questions,” said Samuel DeMaio, Bloomfield public safety director.
Watkins and the mayor communicate almost every day, more if needed.
“You know, when stuff is serious and when there might be public backlash or a major decision needs to be made, that’s when he keeps me in the loop on most stuff,” said Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia.
Watkins has managed city governments in three states, and has been working helping towns since 1979. A typical day used to start early at a typewriter responding to citizens’ letters. Nowadays, it’s emails. With staff, Watkins prefers face-to-face meetings instead of exchanging emails.
“Ultimately what happens is you find out something that you wouldn’t know from an email response,” he said.
Watkins has plenty of typical days of coming in, reviewing the day’s schedule, setting another schedule and plenty of ones that stand out. The most challenging ones vary, he says, and usually involve tragedy or when so much planning and effort fail.
His best day? The one when all the pieces came together to turn a polluted, 18-acre brownfield into a green space, to restore the wetlands and to build a recreation area.
“Those are great days, when you feel like this is something that the community will never know, will never understand, but will have this forever,” Watkins said.
His most satisfying day as a municipal manager? Several years ago a snowstorm knocked out power. A mother called. Her child’s medicine required refrigeration. Within 24 hours, Watkins lead the public-private sector team that delivered a generator to the family.
“After that was all done and you get a call thanking us, you sit back and say ‘Now that’s why I’m doing this,'” he said.
Watkins says serving the public is honorable, and he takes issue with those who spent the last decade or so, especially recently, using words to denigrate the work and workers of public service.
“Public service has been vilified the last 10 years, certainly in New Jersey,” he said.
Watkins bemoans the lack of civility in government today and calls it frightening. It’s a message he delivered to the New Jersey Municipal Management Association as its new president.
“People who think it’s OK to call a person that they don’t even know, without any information, a crook or a scoundrel or some name and think that that’s OK. It’s not OK,” Watkins said. “We, as municipal managers in the state of New Jersey, we’re community leaders, whether we want to recognize that at all or not, we are community leaders. We need to speak up about that, and we need to say, ‘that’s enough of this.'”
It’s the role of a municipal manager in the 21st century.