Sylvester Murray, director of the Public Management Institute at Cleveland State University, became prominent in the early 1980s as chief executive officer of one of the best-run cities in America. As the first Black city manager of Cincinnati, Ohio and before leaving to become city manager of San Diego, California, Murray was elected president of the American Society for Public Administration and the International City Management Association.
Today, at 55, he devotes much of his time to training others to be city managers. He is particularly interested in preparing African-American students for careers in government.
The market for African Americans in government and public administration is expanding, according to Mitchell F. Rice, a professor at Texas A & M University and a member of the national board of the Conference of Minority Public Administrators (COMPA). As cities become increasingly Black, the administration of those cities becomes increasingly Black, Rice says.
Based on research on the subject, Rice says public employment has historically been one of the best areas for African Americans in gaining employment and in dealing with discrimination. It is a strong area for Blacks, he says, because of the government’s responsibility to be fair in its employment decisions. For example, Rice points out that according to federal employment cumulative data Blacks make up about 10 percent of federal workers. However, the percentage drops significantly for higher rank positions beyond Government Service grades 12 and 13.
A career in government and public administration is possible for people with backgrounds in public management, like Murray, or others with backgrounds in law, engineering, medicine and teaching. But a master’s degree in public administration and/or policy stands out above all others as the recognized standard for entry-level jobs in governmental management. For those already working in government it is the best means to job promotion.
Be specific about goals
Professor Audrey Mathews of California State University-San Bernadino and a past COMPA president is not as optimistic as Rice. Mathews says that nationally the growing conservatism in the American political landscape has made careers in government and public administration tougher for minorities to enter. She says this is especially true for Blacks. However, she says some of the difficulty can be overcome if students concentrate on the high demand areas of public finance and human resource management.
The days of the generalists are over. You really have to be specific about your interest and gain experience in that area to be a manager these days, she advises. She suggests, for instance, that public finance should be narrowed down to a more specific area of interest such as transportation finance, local government finance or defense department finance.
Murray, who studied American history at Lincoln University in Philadelphia, acquired a Master of Government Administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967. His first job out of graduate school was that of administrative assistant to the city manager of Daytona Beach, Florida. After a year he was promoted to director of city planning and building inspections. After three years he left Daytona Beach to take the job of assistant city manager in Richland, Washington where he remained for two years.
He first realized his dream of being a city manager in 1972 when he assumed that position with the City of Inkster, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Three years later he held the same position with the City of Ann Arbor. In 1981, Murray became city manager of Cincinnati, a position which helped catapult him to one of the most prominent figures in American public administration.
He says that when he started his career, a private sector alternative was not an option because there were limited opportunities for Blacks. Therefore, he says he cannot compare the benefits of corporate management to those of a public sector career.
Murray has had two major challenges in his career. The first, he says, was understanding the content of the work because colleges and graduate schools mostly teach the process. Second, he says, is the supervision of people. It’s important, he explains, to motivate one’s employees not by threat or intimidation but by the respect your management style allows them to have for you.
He believes that racial demographics did influence his decision to enter and stay in government. I believe I was hired in Daytona and Richland, he says, because of the racial unrest in the country in the 1960s. Government was implementing affirmative action. I was a qualified Black. But still, I was a Black in upper level administration. Murray says he was in a position to communicate with minorities in those cities and to translate that communication to the White city council in a way that made both sides comfortable.
When he left San Diego he left the largest city in America with a council-manager form of government. I had thus been to the top of my career, he says. That proved to me that I was a competent city manager and it allowed me to decide to train future city managers rather than be one.”
Murray gives students interested in careers in government three pieces of advice: First, he emphasizes the high level of responsibility it entails because of the regulatory impact government has on the lives of citizens. Second, he believes there is an even greater obligation to be fair and equitable and to avoid prejudice because one cannot have a good career in government and exercise unethical behavior.
Last, he says students should concentrate on finance and personnel administration because government operates through taxation and other means of collecting and using money. It is a service entity, and it employs people to provide its services.”
Public service vs. private sector
Another of those service providers is Willie Ray Horton, director of environmental services for Florida’s Broward County. As director, he is the county’s chief engineer, supervising 540 employees of whom 25 percent are Black.
Horton, 42, has a civil engineering degree from Prairie View A&M University and a six figure income. He agrees that the potential for making a lot of money is greater in the private sector. Yet, he believes the trade-off is more than offset by the amount of exposure one receives as he or she moves up the ranks. He also sees the higher level of job stability in government as a plus. On a personal level, Horton admits that for him, being able to improve his community is his greatest satisfaction.
Horton has a lot to say about the size of streets and other decisions pertinent to his professional expertise. He listens to various segments of the community and compares what they have to say. ”It has been a reward for me to be able to affect the livelihood of communities and to bring the Black community up to the level with other communities, he adds.
His government career began in 1983 when he joined the City of San Antonio, Texas as an operations engineer. He remained with the city for ten years rising to the level of assistant director of wastewater management. He became director of environmental services for Broward County in 1993.
Horton is not sure what persuaded him to pursue a career in government. However, he speculates that it might have all started after he had completed four years of active duty with the U.S. Corps of Engineers. He was working for a private engineering and consulting firm that had landed a contract with the City of San Antonio.
While providing those contractual services for the city, which involved designing major infrastructure, Horton says he had to meet with various community groups and city agencies. That got him excited. As a result, when the opportunity arose to join the city workforce as an operations engineer, he says he accepted the challenge.
There have been pleasant challenges and unpleasant ones,” says Horton. However, personnel issues, particularly those having to do with race, stand out to him. As a department head, he says he recently demoted a White female employee who is now suing him for reverse discrimination. To keep up morale while successfully dealing with those types of issues is challenging,” says Horton, who also emphasizes that We have to be fair as we go about the business of taking care of business.
Unlike some of his counterparts, Horton does not feel that racial demographics played a role in either his entering or remaining in government. Even so, he describes the racial demographics of Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, as very diverse with a lot of Caribbean influence. The population, which he says has 184 different nationalities, is 20 percent Black.
Yet, according to Horton, although 25 percent of his staff is Black, only five percent of them are in managerial and/or professional jobs. Most are in the lower echelon which he says is not uncommon. For this reason, Horton encourages college students to seriously consider government as a career option. It can offer a lot of benefit that goes beyond monetary rewards, he says.
How to prepare
Troy A. Carter, 33, in his first term as a New Orleans city councilman, says he’s wanted a life in government probably for as long as he can remember. That was evident in Carter’s tough decision at age 22 to quit Carnegie Mellon University’s graduate program in public policy to become an executive aide to then-New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.
It was also an opportunity for the New Orleans native and former Xavier University student body president to be in the central arena of government in his hometown. It was a tough judgement call and I knew that I could either sink or swim, says the political science and business administration major. Carter did not sink. Instead, he spent five and a half years in the Barthelemy administration before being elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1991.
Although Carter was in the state legislature, he wanted his efforts to have a more immediate and direct impact on public policy. So, in 1994, he campaigned for and was elected to the New Orleans city council as the first African American to represent District C, which includes the French Quarter. On the city council he is one of seven members, whereas in the State House he was one of 144.
Although Carter is an elected politician, he says his true love for government is not the rigors of politics but the making of public policy. Public policy,” he contends, is one of the most exciting careers one can choose because nothing escapes it.”
Among his greatest challenges is reaching a public consensus.” Other than that, it is convincing his constituents that government must operate within financial constraints.
Yet, for Carter, consensus and coalition-building are not foreign. Although the City of New Orleans is 65 percent African American, both Carter’s former state house district and his current city council district have slightly White majorities. Thus he credits his electoral success to his ability to build strong coalitions amongst diverse philosophical interests.
His staff reflects the diversity of his district. It’s not always an easy thing to do, he says, adding, We don’t choose our staff based on those things. We choose them based on qualifications. It just so happens that we were able to attract a good cross-section of people who happened to be from those backgrounds.”
Carter advises students interested in politics to get active, get involved, and participate. Getting involved in local campaigns, whether they’re political or nonpolitical, is important, he contends, because the theory of government without practice is not nearly as useful. All the glitter is not gold, he adds, It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of commitment. It’s 24 hours a day. It’s 365 days a year. But, there is nothing more rewarding.
Opportunities in suburbia
Big cities with large minority populations are not the only avenues of success for graduates seeking careers in government. Spencer Isom, 32, is the sole procurement specialist for Dublin, Ohio, a mostly White and affluent suburb of Columbus. He acquired the job in 1996 while pursuing his master’s degree in public administration at the University of Cincinnati.
His previous experience as a contract compliance officer for the State of Ohio Department of Administrative Services, in addition to other positions he has held, more than qualifies him for the job. While with the State of Ohio, he monitored equal employment opportunity on all State construction projects to ensure that women and minority owned businesses were fairly represented.
He learned about the job with the Ohio state agency while working for a minority contractor. There, his administrative duties included ensuring that his employer met the agency’s Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certification guidelines. It was his first job after graduating in 1987 with a degree in Community Health and Human Resources from Ohio University. Now, he manages the purchase of all goods and services for a community with an estimated 1997 operating budget of $30 million.
Financially, Isom has no regrets about pursuing a government career. In the beginning, he says, the entry-level pay was perhaps better in the private sector. However, he believes things have taken a turn for the better in the past nine years.
One of the biggest challenges he faces is dealing with interpersonal communication conflicts. As a result, he concludes, mastering how one operates in the organizational setting is key to a successful and satisfying career.
Concerning race, Isom believes it is very difficult to say whether or not racial demographics played a role in his entering and remaining in government. That’s a very difficult question, he muses. However, he admits that Indirectly, if demographics didn’t make a difference, the position with the State of Ohio (contract compliance officer) wouldn’t have been created.” And that job was his entrance into government.
Isom’s general advice is that if one goes into government with the idea that one operates on behalf of citizens, it can be both fulfilling and rewarding. Because he entered government with that very perspective, he says his career has been just that.
Entertainment goes public
Rayford Harper, 39, is superintendent of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. It is the second such position he has held in his 20 years with the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service.
Before coming to New Orleans, Harper served as superintendent of the then newly created Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Site in Topeka, Kansas. There, he was given the challenge of spearheading interpretive commemorations of the landmark Supreme Court decision’s attempt to end racial segregation in public schools, and the integral role it played in the American civil rights movement. In addition, he was responsible for the management and administration of the facility.
In his current position, he has the lead role in developing a planning document for the development of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. He is leading the effort in identifying the proper historical sights and facilities that will preserve and interpret Jazz music as it evolved in New Orleans.
Harper began his career in government with the National Park Service’s cooperative education program while a history student at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida. After college, he remained with the National Park Service and accepted his first job in 1978 as a park ranger at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida. Since then, he has worked his way up through the ranks.
Nothing in particular led Harper to pursue a career in government. Rather, it was by coincidence. He was looking for a summer job in the late 1970s and was offered one by park service. To his benefit, the park service later began recruiting students for its cooperative education program, making a special effort to bring minorities on board. That’s how I originally got started with the park service,” says Harper. It was with the co-op program.”
In his duties as a park ranger he was primarily responsible for interacting with park site visitors. This included everything from greeting guests to providing interpretive talks and special events such as musket and cannon firing demonstrations.
Next, Harper moved up to the position of site manager for the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historical Sites in Hyde Park, New York and later for Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey. He was now responsible for publications and exhibits in addition to living history demonstrations, guided tours and organizing special events.
On the issue of racial demographics, Harper says, I think the National Park Service takes into consideration the demographics of park areas as far as how it can best meet the needs of each individual park. This, he says, plays a role in what we consider the best qualified candidate. Harper’s appointment as superintendent of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park is a case in point. New Orleans is majority Black and Jazz music’s culture is imbedded within the African-American community.
His advice to today’s college student thinking about pursuing a government career is to definitely give government as much consideration as any other option available. More importantly, he says, Realize that to a large degree, one is limited only by oneself and one’s own degree of aspiration.
The Conference of Minority Public Administrators publishes a newsletter with information on internships and job opportunities. For more information about COMPA, contact its immediate past president, Harvey L. White, School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260.
Other sources of information include the National Forum of Black Public Administrators in Washington, DC (202) 408-9300 and Blacks in Government, also in Washington (202) 667-3280.
Dr. James D. Ward is a professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of New Mexico. He is a former journalist.