Before he became mayor a year ago, Tim Swadley was on the road a lot, heading to job sites most Monday mornings and returning home Thursdays.
He was working for the industrial-supplies company Fastenal, and it was his job to visit firms, learn how they operate and then design and implement improved organizational systems. He’d overhaul processes such as storage of spare parts or how orders were filled, all with an eye to improving efficiency.
Since leaving that job to take over Stoughton’s government full time, Swadley has been trying to make the same improvements here.
He campaigned on goals of establishing a collaborative, communicative government and increasing transparency.
Though he’s had to wait on some of his priorities – a city-wide survey, a social media policy and an updated employee compensation package, Swadley has changed how the city creates its budget, has reintroduced preventive maintenance funds, revisited longstanding agreements with community organizations and believes he has increased collaboration among departments.
He summed up his first year in an interview with the Hub by saying, “we’re off to a good start.”
With more than 100 full-time city employees, Swadley said, there’s no way he can know everything going on in the city. His strategy is to “try to be somewhat knowledgeable with what they’re trying to do and provide them the support they need” to help city staff get the job done.
The first thing he did, after getting the city credit card and the key fob to City Hall, was to set up his digital calendar so city employees would not only have access to it, but also the ability to put things on his schedule.
“I gave them full authority to it,” he said of his calendar. “I want my people to be empowered; it makes them more efficient.”
After conversations with human resources director Amy Jo Gillingham, Swadley set about restructuring the clerk and finance departments.
This gave clerk Holly Licht the power to oversee her department, removed financial responsibilities from her staff and put finance director Jamin Friedl in charge of finances for both the city and Stoughton Utilities, where he had worked previously.
With the help of Friedl’s collaborative management style, Swadley said, that increased communication has particularly benefited larger projects that involve many departments, such as road construction.
Last year, Swadley found room in the budget for part of the compensation package he said he prioritized. To do that, he and Friedl tightened the city’s borrowing and based the budget on three- to five-year averages of actual expenditures rather than “taking the current year and adding 3 percent,” which is how Swadley characterized the previous philosophy.
For the remaining three years of his term, Swadley said he will strive for more transparency, improved communication with residents, including on social media, increased community engagement and better compensation for city employees.
The variety of things that come across his desk means there will be challenges to come – both seen and unforeseen. He described his philosophy as simply “dealing with the stuff we’re aware of.”
For all of the accomplishments he touts in his first year, Swadley credited the department heads and staff who worked on them.
“I can’t possibly know everything,” Swadley said. “We’re fortunate here we have 14 department heads that are all trained and experts and professional in their areas of expertise. (We) really rely on them.”
Moving toward efficiency
Perhaps the most visible symbol of change in Swadley’s first year is the move of several government offices to the McFarland State Bank building.
That’s scheduled for April 26.
“The bank is something I’m really proud of,” Swadley said. “We’ve been talking for years trying to give the Opera House more opportunity. This was our chance to do that, and I didn’t want to pass on it.”
His vision for the move – a result of a donation from the bank as it modernized its own operations – could enable the Stoughton Opera House to seek other ways to make money and lessen the amount coming from the city, which in 2020 is $170,000. He also hopes it will increase the efficiency of city services, with the front walk-up front counter and most public-facing staff on the same floor.
Planning it hinged on effective collaboration with the bank, which had initially suggested the city destroy the building and turn into a parking lot. Swadley and the council decided to use what he called an “iconic” building for city services rather than creating “6-10 parking spaces.”
Other strategies Swadley has been employing to improve efficiency and improve services include encouraging staff to be cross trained as much as possible. For example, receptionists can now set up a park shelter rental at the front desk rather than send people to the park department, Swadley said.
And nothing is too small to look at or try to fix, he said.
Restoring preventive maintenance funds is “money well invested,” Swadley said, with the dual purpose of improving the city’s walkability and bikeability, but also paying off by increasing the longevity of city infrastructure.
The city has also reworked decades-old deals with partners ranging from the Stoughton Fair Board to youth baseball leagues that the mayor said did not favor the city.
“We’re elected and we’re paid by the taxpayers to represent their interests,” Swadley said. “If we become aware of things, we need to fix them.”
Breaking down silos
Another way to be efficient, Swadley said, is encouraging communication among departments.
To do this, he is often the conduit for information, making a point to visit each department weekly.
He also encourages getting the right people “in the room.”
The city’s road projects, for example, are expensive and involve various departments from planning and public works to utilities and finance. Swadley estimated a recent meeting on upcoming projects included eight people when in the past only two or three might be involved. And it’s not just the department heads, but those “who are in the trenches” who offer valuable feedback, he said.
Public works and Stoughton Utilities both use GIS software to map their underground infrastructure, and now each has access to the other’s database, Swadley said. This will allow for faster and safer project planning, and “better use of taxpayer money.”
Swadley has also sought efficiency through reorganization.
When he took office, the finance director oversaw the city clerk’s office, and the clerk’s staff was asked to handle things outside of its training, Swadley said. Now clerk Holly Licht oversees her own department, and her staff can focus on overseeing elections, licensing and retaining records.
Friedl oversees both the city’s and SU’s finances now, leaving one person handling all of payroll when previously there had been three. At the same time, the city removed economic development from the finance director’s responsibilities and approved hiring an assistant who can take over if the finance director takes a vacation or is out sick.
“Previously we’d hire (consulting firm) Baker Tilly for $250/hour,” Swadley said. “It wasn’t a very sustainable situation for us.”