Montgomery Business Journal

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January 2014

Anita L. Archie is the executive assistant to Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange. She was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky

Montgomery Business Journal: What are your job responsibilities as executive assistant to the mayor?

Archie: Essentially, I’m responsible for the administrative functions dealing with the day-to-day operations of the city.

MBJ: Please elaborate.

Archie: Any issues that pop up that come to the mayor’s office, I review it for the mayor and then forward it to him. I do have primary responsibility for the Planning Department and for Risk Management. When Jeff (Downes) was here, he had several departments that reported directly only to him. I am responsible for the city’s relations with the City Council and any HR (human resources) matters that may come across the mayor’s office.

MBJ: Why are you responsible for the Planning Department and Risk Management?

Archie: It is actually (because) of my interest and background. When I came here (July) and what everybody is grappling with right now is rising employee health benefit costs. The mayor loves to say all the time that ‘Anita loves to get into the weeds of things.’ It’s an issue with small businesses; the private sector; the state; and the federal level with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and everything that is coming in place in January. The whole piece dealing with the delivery of indigent care and with risk management, one of the responsibilities is in the employee health benefits plan arena. That’s the reason why he (Strange) has that report coming to me because that’s where you’re going to see a lot of activity. John Carnell, who is the director of Risk Management, and before that time my predecessor, Jeff Downes (former deputy mayor), had done a wonderful job of getting the city prepared for implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but there are so many moving parts to it and my work with the Business Council of Alabama, where I dealt with policy in the health care area and with insurance. People get confused when you talk about this (Affordable Care Act), you’re talking about health care and you’re talking about insurance. Insurance impacts our employees directly. Health care impacts our employees, but it’s more focused on the standpoint of making sure they are healthy. When you get those medical claims and prescription drug claims that is a cost to the city and it’s a cost to the employee so we’re trying to make sure that we try to control costs.

MBJ: Is that going to be a primary area of focusing – containing health care costs?

Archie: Absolutely. Everything has changed. The way we do benefits has totally changed. The costs keep inching up and inching up, but we want to make sure that our employees are not afraid or worry about losing any type of benefit coverage because they are hearing all these stories popping up in the newspapers. We’re taking a proactive role to make sure that our employees have insurance. We have come in and done certain things like raising deductibles and gone to a health management plan, which has higher co-pays to it.

MBJ: Please talk about your oversight of the Planning Department.

Archie: We get a lot of federal funds from Community Development Block Grants and Emergency Services funds and that deals specifically with communities, and the needs of the communities are great. The mayor has Mac McLeod handle the economic development piece of it, but he (Strange) wanted to make sure that that community piece (was handled) by me so you have that Cabinet-level focus on business and commercial development as well as community development. Clare Watson (community development coordinator) reports directly to me as well because we are dealing with those community issues you always hear about.

MBJ: What are those community issues?

Archie: At City Council meetings you hear a lot about blight besides hearing about crime. You hear about streets, curbs, gutters. You have the Public Works Department that does a fabulous job dealing with those issues, but again it costs. By having Planning under me, I can go in and identify if there are possible federal funds that could help offset funding that is coming from the general fund.

MBJ: I read where you also oversee the City Clerk.

Archie: Not really oversee; we work hand-in-hand. Brenda Blalock (city clerk) is a wealth of information to me. She’s helping me understand things that involve the City Council. The mayor may have certain items that may need City Council approval so we (Blalock) work hand-in-hand with the City Council and with the mayor. We look at the agenda together; what issues are there that may prompt some type of response or action from the mayor. We can go to work sessions and they can be more productive.

MBJ: Is another one of your responsibilities providing general project management?

Archie: I do. There may be particular projects that do not fall into the day-to-day operations of a particular department, but may involve several departments. Take for instance, Questplex. Mac McLeod is our direct contact for that because it is a development project, but it also involves other aspects – Public Works Department, Planning Department.

MBJ: You are also the liaison with the City Council so you would be involved in that respect because they will need to approve things.

Archie: Right.

MBJ: Are you more involved with the details of Questplex, which will be the new home of The Alabama Children’s Museum and Montgomery’s Juliette Hampton Morgan Memorial Library?

Archie: Yes, trying to make sure everybody is on the same page and communicating with each other. I’m sort of like the person who gathers the information and pushes it out and makes sure the ball is not being dropped on anything. If there is a particular project that crosses over various departments – you have me as the focal point making sure (everything is getting done).

MBJ: The next question is pretty obvious: How do you oversee all of these areas of the city without cloning yourself?

Archie: It’s a lot.

MBJ: It would be difficult to delegate because you need to know what’s going on to keep the mayor informed and see the big picture.

Archie: I think the BCA (Business Council of Alabama) thoroughly prepared me for different challenges. When you are responsible for government affairs for the Business Council of Alabama, you have various issues that you focus on from health care to environmental to small business. There are a lot of issues that are unique to certain industries and businesses that you have to deal with. I had a staff that I could assign to those particular issues. It’s not really that hard because you are managing all that together, so I have not found it (that difficult). BCA was a great place to start. The issues of businesses and industry are so large. It really hasn’t been that big of an adjustment. I spent the first six weeks meeting one-on-one with each Cabinet person and the majority of the department heads.

MBJ: What did you learn?

Archie: The mayor wanted me to understand how they do their work. It was important for me to go out to where they were and to see the operation and how they operate. I got a pretty good understanding of what it takes… what the Sanitation Department does on an everyday basis; what Emergency Management does on an everyday basis; what the Police Department and Fire Department are doing. Knowing how they actually operate and function helps me do that management. 

MBJ: What did you learn about the city? Were there any surprises?

Archie: I can tell you something that was very refreshing for me. You would hear about how well the city and county worked together and how it’s all about making Montgomery better. What is amazing to me is that the city and county work together for the good of Montgomery and it’s great to see that working relationship.

MBJ: You didn’t experience that city-county partnership while you were at the BCA?

Archie: I didn’t experience it, but I was sure they worked together. It is really a partnership and that’s very refreshing to see that because it’s not about ideological differences. It’s all about moving the city and county forward together. The other thing that was refreshing to me as well was you have great, great city employees, who have been around for a very long time and know how to make things happen. A lot of times when you come in as the new kid, a lot of folks don’t want to … they are standoffish – they have been very inviting and been my great instructors. I was concerned about coming in here – how would they embrace me? You can’t replace Jeff Downes. There is all that institutional knowledge and I’m not Jeff. It was refreshing that the Cabinet members and department heads have really, really welcomed me with open arms and many have made my job a heck of a lot easier.

MBJ: When your position was announced, you told the Montgomery Advertiser: “My biggest goal right now is to continue the work and the momentum that’s going on here.” Please elaborate.

Archie: Jeff and Chad (former director of development) had left at the best of times for them personally; also, it had been the best times for the City of Montgomery. We had a lot of ongoing projects and the last thing you want to do is see those go away. I want to continue with the excitement of what’s going on with Montgomery. It is kind of ironic – on my second day of the job, I sat in on a meeting about the Webber building. Back during the time (when I was executive director) of the Montgomery Riverfront Development Authority, one of our biggest issues was dealing with the Webber building. It was so nice to come back and actually see that project go forward. It was exciting to hear about what’s going on Dexter Avenue with a magnificent streetscape project. I left the Montgomery Riverfront Development Authority in 2007 – planning takes a long time. You do the plan, but you have to identify the funds and you have to get the buy-in. You finally see it happening. Walking in here and seeing all that – I see the momentum. He (Strange) wants to see things happen.

MBJ: How has your job evolved after three months?

Archie: I can tell you it has. From the day that he (Strange) and I sat down at the Waffle House (on Madison Avenue), he told me what he wanted me to do and what he thought I needed to do – it has totally morphed into where is my best fit? It’s funny you should mention this because he and I just had this conversation, where we had this initial (talk) at the Waffle House of what he wanted me to do and what has actually ended up being. At the time, everybody was concentrating on the replacement of Jeff Downes and his whole focus was – ‘I don’t want her to replace Jeff Downes. This is what Anita was hired for. Anita was hired to watch my back. Anita was not hired for running the day-to-day operations of the department. Anita’s job is to have an administrative function of the day-to-day operations of the City, but to handle those things that need problem-solving or need special attention.’ That’s what this has morphed into – more of the things that are not the day-to-day operations, where you have department heads running everything, but things that need special attention.

MBJ: It sounds like you’re a troubleshooter.

Archie: Yes. He expects me to handle things. That’s what it has morphed into; not a deputy mayor, but somebody who is the fixer.

MBJ: The person who puts out the fires.

Archie: Yes, and there are good fires as well. When there is a problem that pops up or issue that pops up, he has enough faith and confidence in me that I know a lot about a lot. He trusts me enough to know that I’m going to do what’s in the best interests of the City and not have any personal agenda. That’s what (my job) has morphed into. It’s more of that person sitting down and given counsel and advice and give a recommendation. I can look at all sides of an issue. A lot of it he doesn’t want to hear and once I sit down and explain to him the reason behind it, he says ‘I can see how you came to that conclusion.’ He is not looking for someone to be in agreement with him.

MBJ: He’s not looking for a yes person.

Archie: No, he’s not looking for a yes person and he knows that when he sat down at Waffle House, I said you know that I don’t do “yes” very well. And he said that “I know that.” Some folks would classify that as being highly opinionated and difficult. He said, “No, I see that as a different point of view looking at an issue.” That’s what made me go work for him because he didn’t want a yes person. He wanted someone who could look at an issue and give recommendations on all sides. That’s what made me say yes.

MBJ: Are you the mayor’s liaison with the City Council?

Archie: Yes.

MBJ: Would you sometimes float trial balloons to gauge the City Council’s stance on an issue?

Archie: Yes. I’ll give you a perfect example. The needs of the city are great, which means the needs in the districts are very great. The City Council may have capital improvement funds and discretionary funds they can use to help their district, but at the end of the day it may not be enough. It’s my responsibility to meet with the City Council person. They may have a particular need and for me to help them or say if the mayor can help or if we can’t help. I attended Mr. (David) Burkette’s meeting. It lets the City Council and the community that they serve know that the mayor’s representative has heard (their concerns), but not to create expectations that end up losing trust. I’m there to support the City Council person, but being realistic about what we can do.

MBJ: Managing expectations?

Archie: One of the things we’re doing right now is forming a community rapid response team. We hear the same issues in the public meeting side; the council meetings, where the public gets up and has an issue and they want to know what happened. A lot of times the City Council person may not know what has happened with that person that appeared before the council. What we want to do is have that team in place that does the follow-up with the City Council person to let them know what actually happened. That effort is being led by Chris Conway (director) of Public Works and also Clare Watson, who is a direct report to me – pulling together this rapid response system. It consists of the Police Department; it consists of the Planning Department; whoever is there that can address common issues that come up.

MBJ: Please talk about how your background at BCA, Alabama Development Office, which is now part of the Department of Commerce; Montgomery Housing Authority; and the Montgomery Riverfront Development Authority helped to prepare you for your current position?

Archie: I know a lot about a lot, so I can pull from all of my various experiences and all the people that I know. The mayor and I worked together a long time ago when he came on as ADO (Alabama Development Office) director. I always tell him that he created this person, which is Anita Archie. He really did, as well as Neal Wade, who came in after Strange. They created me. They recognized that I have the unique ability to sit there and listen to both sides and give recommendations. It may not be something they want to hear.

With economic development, you have to deal with everybody. The Hyundai (project) was great because I was in charge of all the supplier locations in Montgomery. That meant dealing directly with the community and they felt like they were going to get a Hyundai supplier and they weren’t ready. I had to tell them they were not ready; identify potential funding sources; deal with local officials; deal with the state officials; the County Commission; the City Council; and the mayor. All of that experience that I had and dealing with the Legislature because there might be a need for legislation to make it happen or dealing with the fact that the needs are so great for public housing. All of that helps me in performing this job.

I have been so blessed that someone has come to me and wanted to hire me for all those positions. If I can’t get something done, I don’t make excuses. What I try to do is leverage people and resources. That’s what he (Strange) realized. When he (Strange) put me in the position of deputy director of the Alabama Development Office and when Neal Wade kept me on as deputy director and when Gov. (Bob) Riley sent me out as a female and African-American to go out and negotiate and have the ability to understand the business issues; the government issues; and just the human side of it benefits me and enables me to do this job. I’m sort of like a triple-threat.

 

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