Government, News

Morgantown City Manager discusses his first year on the job

Morgantown City Manager Paul Brake surpassed the one-year milestone in his role as the city’s chief executive on Feb. 8.

The Dominion Post recently sat down with Brake to discuss his first year on the job and what he sees for Morgantown’s future.

TDP: With everything a city manager has a hand in, those first few weeks must be overwhelming. Did you receive a lot of advice, tips or warnings about what to expect when you arrived?

Brake: I had some sense of the players and what the issues were before I arrived. It certainly didn’t discourage me, obviously, or I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. My philosophy is about putting minds at ease and bringing people together. We may not reach consensus, but we’ll at least have a better understanding of where people are coming from.

I really view the key skill that I bring to the job as relationship-building, whether it’s people who have differing opinions or sitting down with stakeholders. For example, obviously WVU is an important stakeholder. So building that trust and working relationship and trying to resolve issues of common interest and really move the community forward has been important.

TDP: Looking back on the first year, what’s been better than expected?

Brake: Really, a pleasant surprise is just how dedicated this group of individuals is that I work with. [Executive Secretary] Carol [Allen], in particular, is awesome. It’s really made it easier for me to focus on the bigger picture. This is a pretty active office. The number of phone calls that [Carol] gets and takes care of is incredible. We really work well as a team in that respect.

I shouldn’t say that’s unexpected but it’s always a pleasant surprise, because when you come into a large organization — and we’ll soon be pushing 300 employees — you just don’t know about all the internal issues and whether there’s strife or people not getting along. There’s really none of that.

It really is about looking ahead. It’s important to understand how we got here, but to dwell on those things is just not healthy. You have to say at some point, that’s all well and good, now how do we move this thing forward.

TDP: More challenging than expected?

Brake: I know it’s not unique to Morgantown, but dealing with individual property rights can be a challenge. With the amount of rental properties here and the interests of different landlords, how do you balance the needs of the greater good versus individual concerns.

The other challenge and opportunity is bringing together so many different stakeholders and groups … I think bringing everyone on board, even outside of our boundaries in Monongalia County, we really have to work as a unified force if we want to encourage investment and job opportunities and things like that. We’re competing with so many communities all across the country that if we’re a disjointed little place, we’re going to be passed up on those investment opportunities.

TDP: You stepped into a complex project midstream at the Morgantown Municipal Airport, with moving parts from the local level all the way up to the federal government and the military. Do you foresee the runway extension and business park becoming a reality?

Brake: I do. Failure is not acceptable. I’ve encountered this before with other projects where it looks like insurmountable odds. Part of what I do is ask a lot of questions in order to understand what’s keeping us from reaching that goal.

So, in that regard, in order to move this thing forward it may be that I need to spend a week in Washington, D.C., and knock on some doors to push this project along. Whatever it takes or is necessary to get that project completed.

I feel pretty confident. Is it going to be easy? No. We’ve hit a milestone, albeit a minor one. The bigger one is how much of the runway project is the [Federal Aviation Administration] going to pay for? That will be the most significant step. From there, we’ll be talking construction.

TDP: The previous council was pretty divided. On the other hand, can things be too homogenous?

Brake: It can, yeah. But I think we’re starting to get into some more complex issues … I had this conversation with a councilor recently. You know, it’s OK to vote no. It doesn’t mean it’s anything bad. You can have a case where you have to say, ‘I support the overall concept but there’s elements I don’t agree with.’ That’s OK. I think having that dissension and having the discussion vets out issues. We have to do our due diligence.

It cracks me up that sometimes they’re kind of apologetic about it. I don’t take this personal. I’m glad [councilors] bring up these issues and we can discuss it. That’s part of our job. … Hopefully, I’ll be viewed as an effective facilitator [who] stayed out of the fray when it comes to politics.

But I’ll give the current group we have a lot of credit. They come prepared. I’ve worked for people, not here but elsewhere, where I can tell someone is opening their packet as they walk into the meeting.

TDP: Are you happy in Morgantown?

Brake: I am. I’m kind of sad that my wife doesn’t live here, but there’s family reasons for that. I’m on my own, but I’ve adjusted well and there are lots of friends here. Once a month it seems I’m traveling back to Michigan, but there are a lot of things to do here.

I’m not a pro by any means, but I’m a hockey player, so I’ve kind of adopted the rink as my other hangout spot. It’s humorous that I play with these guys. I’m 54. The majority of the guys on my team are in their 20s … but I do my best to hold my own.

That’s kind of at the core of who I am. That grit and determination as a hockey player kind of translates into who I am as a municipal leader.