Running Jackson: New CAO Robert Blaine Shares His Vision | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Running Jackson: New CAO Robert Blaine Shares His Vision

Jackson’s new chief administrative officer, Robert Blaine, plans to tackle the basic organizational habits of the capital city.

Jackson’s new chief administrative officer, Robert Blaine, plans to tackle the basic organizational habits of the capital city. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

After a vibrant career as a traveling trombonist and conductor, Robert Blaine put down roots in Jackson, where he hopes to direct a comeback story.

The College Park, Md., native left his job at the University of Louisiana in Monroe to become the orchestra conductor at Jackson State University, where he stayed for 12 years. Blaine was an associate professor, a full-time professor, an associate dean and finally a special assistant to the provost while at JSU. From there, he transitioned to Tougaloo College as the associate provost.

Blaine attended Indiana University, where he received a bachelor's degree in music. While traveling after his undergraduate studies for approximately three years, Blaine discovered his passion for teaching and conducting and decided to attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C., to earn his master's in music. Then, Blaine got his doctorate of musical arts at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

As a musician, soloist and conductor, he led ensembles in performances in Central America, the Caribbean and China, in addition to North America and Europe, including in Paris for the Bastel Opera.

"I did that for a summer and then I played principal trombone of the National Symphony of the Dominican Republic for two years," Blaine said in an interview in his office in the Hood Building.

These days, Blaine is known as much for his belief in strong organizational systems, which he is bringing to a city that many believe is in dire need of some creative rearranging.

"That's my story, and I'm sticking to it," Blaine said on day eight of his his latest gift helping run the City of Jackson.

What are your responsibilities as the CAO of Jackson?

My job is to run the government side. All of the various divisions of the government report to the CAO, with the exception of the chief of police, who has a direct line to the mayor. So my job is to do everything that has to deal with government running efficiently.

All the various divisions report to the CAO. The chief of staff is in charge of the mayor's office, and so she makes sure that the mayor has everything that he needs and that his staff is in place. So, communications and constituent relations. Those pieces are all a part of the mayor's office, so it's kind of a bifurcated system. There's a system for doing the political part of government, which is all through the mayor's office, and then there's the kind of administrative governmental functions that kind of comes through the CAO.

So, basically, you have the hard part, it seems like.

Well, yeah. I get the big bite of the elephant. But the mayor has a harder job than mine because he has to craft the vision of how all this stuff works. He has to actually whip the big picture together, and he has to sell that to the constituents and to the city council. So, once they decide on what to do, it's my job to actually make it happen. They do the big visual piece. What we're going to do. How we're going to do it. All of that. Mine is the when, the where and those pieces.

Do you communicate with the council as well, or is it more so of communicating with the mayor after he speaks with the council?

It's more of the latter. The only time that I deal directly with the council is if the council has a question about an administrative issue. The mayor deals directly with the city council, and then from there, my job is to implement what the mayor and the city council put forward.

Are you involved in hiring and firing as well?

(Nods head saying "Yes") Of course, before I make any decisions on personnel, you always discuss that with the mayor. And we have a team of people. The one thing that you don't want to do in this business is make unilateral decisions. You want to be consultative. You want to bring in a lot of people into the process. You want to bring in the legal department. You want to really make sure that you're making an informed decision, so you can't just fire off and tell somebody they're fired. That's not how it is. It's really about trying to construct.

My background is an orchestra conductor. In real life I make a living by waving a stick. That's really what I do. Leonard Bernstein used to say, "The conductor is the least powerful person in the room," right? So, if you think about an orchestra, the conductor has a stick, and it doesn't make any sound. But all the people in front of him have all the power. So it's my job as the conductor to try and get all of these people to conform to the vision that I have, and basically use their power in service of this bigger mission.

The way that (I) get people to do that is to give them ... the space, the resources, everything that they need in order to do their absolute best work. And to make sure that you have the right people in the right places to do that best work. ... My job is to really try and find the way to get all of these people to conform to one big vision, but then give them each room to be able to do their special thing, their special piece of it. And that's my job to make sure that, number one, we have the right people in place to do that job, that they have the right equipment and skillsets. And that we have the process of procedures that allow them to do that best work. So, I don't think of it as a job where it's my job to hire and fire. It's my job to inspire and give people the space and what they need in order to do their best work.

Councilmen (Charles) Tillman and (Melvin) Priester said there are a lot of vacancies that need to be filled.

Part of that 100 days is an assessment of where we are. The other part of it is the construction of a set of conversations with key constituents around the city to look at new initiatives and ways we want to move forward. And then the last stage of the process is actually something that we call democratic visioning. Which is actually bringing the entire city together to be able to give vision to issues that are happening throughout the City. And also to bring the collective intelligence of the entire city together.

The goal is that, as the administration, we don't want to be on an island separated from the people. What we want is to be working with the people and for, you know, Mayor Lumumba said that, "When I become mayor, we all become mayor," and he was really serious about that. And so, this process of democratic visioning is really a process to bring the entire city together. To look at various issues throughout the city. To bring in all of the expertise that we have and then to bring expertise from the outside in order to be able to inform the mayor's larger strategic plan of how we begin to tackle some of the authority issues that we have. How do we start to look at an ancient infrastructure and really look at what we need to do in order to leverage the funds that we have in order to be able to have large infrastructure projects that will affect the entire city? How do we look at issues, socioeconomic issues?

One of the things that we did in the transition group—we had put together a transition committee—was that we looked at a cohort of cities that are similar to Jackson in size and scope. So, there were five cities: Savannah, Tallahassee, Little Rock, Birmingham and Shreveport. All of those cities are between 170,000 and 250,000 residents. They're both college towns and state capitals. (Some of them are) majority-minority cities, and they range with demographics that share with Jackson. The idea was that we wanted to look at the number of issues across the city and look at key indicators so that we're looking at the real data and see how Jackson ranks among this group of peer cities. But then also to see if there are outliers. Are there cities that look way better than us in certain areas? If so, what are they doing right? ... And to be able to learn from cities that have some of the same issues that we have. They are about the same size that we are. They are the same region that we are, so it's never a process of us just kind of burying our heads in a room together and saying, "This is what we're going to do," but rather using the collective intelligence of the community and the region and the world in order to be able to make informed decisions.

In a pragmatic way, what will democratic visioning look like?

The goal is that it looks like a conference, where you take a set of what I like to call analytical exercises—big questions about the world—that become a lens through which we as an administration can look at these topics. So, for example, if you take an issue like infrastructure, there are roads, there are waterways underneath the roads. You have sewer systems and rainwater systems, then you have freshwater systems. That's all part of one big infrastructure.

We just see the road that you drive over the top off. Well, we have universities with incredible civil-engineering programs. We have people with advanced degrees in these areas. We have National Science Foundation grantees. There's a collective intelligence in the city that hasn't always been tapped when we're starting to look at some of these larger issues.

And we have national and international cities that deal with some of the same problems that we have. So, in Jackson, one of the big problems is expansive soil types. So, we call it "Yazoo clay," but it's really soil that expands and contracts. What that means is that when it expands, you get a big ole hole. There are cities that have found incredible ways of beginning to deal with some of these difficulties, just with the soil type that we have. But if you look at some of the solutions that we've historically used, it's been kind of just doing the same thing over and over again.

So, how do we learn from people that have experience, and that have experimented and done things? And how do we learn from the intelligence that we have here and bring all of those people together so that they can begin to inform the decisions that we make here? The goal is that we use a 21st-century term: crowd-sourced intelligence. If you don't do that, then you're simply repeating the same mistakes that you've done before.

What is crowd-sourced intelligence?

To crowd-source means that you use a lot of people to try and solve a problem. You don't just ask one or two people, but you ask a whole bunch of people. A friend of mine built a video game (where) you fold paper like origami, and they actually crowd-sourced the ways that, if you look at DNA and diseases, they fold in specific ways, and you can look at all kinds of diseases. And if you understand how they fold, you can create all kinds of antibodies and solutions. You can create drugs that will solve whatever the problem is.

So, they crowd-sourced how a gene sequence would fold for a specific disease. And they had scientists that had been working on this for years, and in a matter of weeks, through this game, they found (that) some kids that could actually find out the way that the germ folded. And they were actually able to create new drugs because of a video game that kids played on folding origami. That's crowd-sourcing intelligence. You get thousands and thousands of people who work on an idea rather than two or three specialists.

Would the public demonstration of filling potholes be a result of that?

It would be a piece of the process, right? So, you would have someone that would give a presentation on what that is, right? And then, you'll have people talk about it. You'll have them give their merits. What are the pros and cons of that? How is expensive is it? How would we use it here?

There are some ideas that you can use that technology to actually build the road beds, which would mean the road that would then be able to move and flex, and then you can put a traditional asphalt on top of that, which would then allow for, hopefully, the road to last for a much longer time than the ways our roads historically have. But, again, this is new technology, so you test it. We need to be able to see other places that it's been used. We have to do our homework, in other words. But that's a perfect example.

What positions, exactly, need to be filled that you know of?

So, that's a little bit of a loaded question 'cause we really need to figure out what the size and shape of government needs to be first. So, the way that our government is organized right now is that it's a very flat and horizontal organization. We have these various divisions, and the structure hasn't changed very much over the years, but we have new systems that we've put in place.

For example, we have what's called an Internet of Things water-billing system. So, it used to be when you got your water bill that there was a person that came to your house and read the water meter and marked it down, and they came and sent you a bill according to what they marked down. Well, now we have this new system where on every meter, there's a radio transmitter that actually goes up to a network. It goes to a repeater that's up on a telephone pole that goes to a network that actually sends the bill here.

It's a very high-tech solution, but in order for that to really work well, you have to have technology people, you have to have water-billing people, you have to have people from Public Works all working together. Because every one of those has a piece of that solution. But the way we have things organized right now is that they're all very separate, and they're silo-ed. So, they don't talk to each other. It means that sometimes you get errors in the way that we send out water bills.

So, a part of looking at positions that we have open and that kind of thing is really looking at how does government need to be organized first in order for us to be more efficient. Once we know the correct organizational structure, then we go and start to look at specific positions. We'll say, "Oh, oh. We need this many of these people in order to be able to make that work," right? So, the thing that we're doing now is we're really looking at how do we need to organize ourselves so that we're efficient in what we're doing. Efficient and effective.

How do you figure that out?

Good question. So, what we have to do is first look at a functional organization. How do you organize the organization according to functions? And so, part of that work is to look at how those functions come together, and what are the various pieces that need to talk to each other? And then, once we understand what those various pieces are in order for the functions to work, then it's, how do you align those pieces together, and then how do you understand what staffing you need in order to make that efficient?

One example is that we have 56 public parks in Jackson. We need to know how many square acres of park space we have. How much space one city worker can mow per day. And then, how many mowers and all of those things do they need in order to be able to beautify that amount of square acres of city parks? That's like one factor, right? But what we've done historically is we say, "Oh, well, we need this many people in Parks and Rec," you know? Or, the budget says we can have this many people in Parks and Rec. Instead, what we need to do is say, "What do we need in order to get the job done right?" And then, how many people and machines does it mean that we need to do that? And so, we need to kind of backwards engineer some things.

... We'll probably bring in a third party to help us with that. With the thinking through of that process because we really want to make sure that organizational functions are aligned so that we can deliver citizens the best government that we can.

As y'all have been looking at the similar cities, have you seen stuff come up like that?

Absolutely. (I've) seen some amazing organizational structures. Of course, everyone is unique to the place, and we would want to create that here so that we have a structure that's unique to Jackson, that really makes sense to Jackson. Because Jackson is different than those other five cities. One thing that was really interesting is that we have incredible, incredible resources that we haven't necessarily leveraged. So, we were an outlier of those six cities, when you include Jackson because we have eight institutions of higher learning and four major hospitals inside the city of Jackson. If you think about it, Jackson is an intellectual capital, but we don't really talk about ourselves that way.

And part of what the mayor has talked about is that two of our greatest exports are money and talent. You see money and talent leaving the city. Coming into the city in the morning and leaving in the evening. And so he's been talking up a lot about, how do we make Jackson local? ... How do we keep money and talent inside the city? And that's when you have a vibrant, growing, thriving economy. And a lot of his priorities are around trying to be able to create that within the city of Jackson.

What resources were you referring to exactly?

As far as universities, colleges, community colleges and hospitals, those are intellectual resources that we have; no other city in that cohort could even come close to Jackson. Not even close. Tallahassee has three universities. We have eight. We're, by far, an outlier. So, there are things that we can leverage in order to really make Jackson a really special place. We need to find ways to be creative in order to make that happen, and really bring the whole community together around a set of ideas.

Would the third party that you mentioned be someone out of the state?

No, no. There's lots of people in the state that can do that kind of work. It could even be somebody within the city. It just needs to be someone who's very familiar with organizational structure and can help us to think through exactly how things need to be organized in order for us to be able to deliver key services to constituents in the absolute best way possible.

You've taken an interesting route to this position. What insight does that give you, and what challenges do you see because of it?

I think coming from the academic world is an advantage in a lot of ways because ... the world of the academy forces you to think in both a very expansive way and a very theoretical kind of expansive way, but also in a very kind of practical-execution way. So it's one thing to have really broad theoretical constructs of how you do things, but you have to be able to get something done.

Part of my administrative background as an educator is both thinking about the large broad constructs but also thinking about the practical how do you get it done piece, which I think is an asset. I think the learning curve is to be able to translate that to municipal government, right? So, I hope that's not a huge learning curve, but it is a learning curve ... just the processes of how that works. The procedures, the whole idea of city government and politics is a different piece. Although, in the university world, there's plenty politics, so it's not like that's foreign in any way.

To me the biggest thing is that I have to be really cognizant (of is) that my skillset as an academic administrator is transferable to municipal government. But I have to understand where the nuances are. And I think that that's the biggest piece, and as long as you keep that in the front of your mind, you can navigate. But you just can't take things for granted. You have to be able to say, "Oh, this looks like something I've seen before but not exactly the same."

Have you come across any specific nuances so far?

Not yet. No. So far, they've been very similar issues. Scale is the biggest determinant. So I go from budgets in tens of millions of dollars to budgets in hundreds of millions of dollars. It's a much larger scale, but the issues are by and large the same. Same infrastructure problems you have on a university campus as you do in a city. It's just a lot bigger. The same governance that you have in dealing with deans and faculty members is the same governance issues that you have with department chairs and staff. Directors, department chairs and deputy directors are just like deans and associate deans and faculty members. It feels very similar to me.

Do you meet with the directors of the departments regularly?

Every day I'll meet with the mayor. We have a staff meeting that's our strategic meeting that happens every Monday morning. I have a directors' meeting that will happen every Thursday, ... so I put together a set of metrics that look at issues in various sectors and part of what I do is work to give the directors the tools that they need and the personnel that they need in order to be able to meet those metrics. And then, I evaluate the directors, the deputies and the like by those metrics.

The directors' meetings, we haven't started them yet because today is day eight, but once they will start, we'll be mostly (reporting) on these targets that we set. If we're going to talk about an infrastructure project, and we want a mile of roadway paved every week, if we're not meeting that goal, then I need to be able to sit down with that deputy or that director and say, "OK. What's going wrong? What do we need? Is it just the weather, or is it that you don't have the right tools in place? Or is there something that's really hindering us from getting there?" It's my job to make sure that we stay on target, that we set goals, that we measure goals, ... and then also that we communicate those goals to the constituents.

What director level positions do you need to fill?

No director-level positions are open right now. There are some deputy-director positions. We have a lot of "acting" people in positions. So, you know, we have to evaluate the team. Really that's what it comes down to. And there are a lot of positions that we haven't filled because we've been focusing on being able to meet our budget. We have a mandate to meet our budget, so there are positions that we haven't filled, but they're intentional* to make sure we can meet our budget.

One of (the) biggest priorities for our administration is to eliminate the furlough in the next budget cycle. ... I got the entire city government budget right here, and we are going through it to the nail to make sure that for fiscal-year 2017-18, that we eliminate the furloughs, and we bring back all the salaries back to 100 percent. So, that may mean that we don't fill some positions in order to do that, but we're making sure that we don't lose anyone. We're not trying to eliminate any positions, and we're trying to make sure that everyone is whole as far as their full salary.

Are you all trying to have all of those positions filled before or after the budget is final?

We can't do it before the budget. We have to make sure the budget's in place. So we propose a budget. The mayor and the administration will propose a budget. It will be voted on and approved by city council. We are in the fourth quarter of this fiscal year right now, so we have to make sure to close out this fiscal year, and then moving into the new fiscal year, we look at how we're going to move forward. But our priority for the new fiscal year is to ... so the furlough means that in every pay period, an employee loses one day, so you lose one day of salary every two weeks. This Friday is a furlough day for us, so there's a whole swath of city government that will not work on Friday, and they won't get paid for that day. What that means is that you are losing salary because of that furlough. So, we are eliminating that furlough moving forward.

We also have positions that have been frozen at 90 percent of salary, 92 percent of salary, etc. All of those positions will go back to 100-percent salary. So, we want to make sure people are working their full work-week, and they're working at 100 percent of their salary. Those decisions were made in previous administrations to try and meet the budget. They had to lean and cut positions, cut the number hours that people were working, (and) cut the people's salaries in order to make the budget. What we're doing is creating a new budget where we're not cutting salaries, we're not cutting time, we're not cutting any of those things. We're trying to realign government so we're able to do the right things and also focus on capturing the revenue that we're supposed to.

Are there going to be milestones that the public can see at the 100-day point?

Absolutely. So, at the end of the first 100 days, we haven't exactly put the timetable together, but the goal is that we create this people's assembly. It's a democratic-visioning process, which will be a big convention that we'll invite the entire city to. The mayor will give his "State of the City" address. We're going to lay out many of the initiatives and his larger strategic plan, and the goal in this first 100 days is for us to be able to put all of the pieces in place so that the citizens of Jackson can have a real voice in their government. That's our goal ... that we give the power to the constituents.

That's Oct. 14.

Yeah. So, in October. I'm not going say it's going to be the 14th but, yeah, exactly. The goal is hopefully by the end of October, beginning of November, we're able to put together this Democratic visioning process.

What are the biggest challenges, and have any surprised you?

Well, no. Nothing surprised me. We knew that there are serious infrastructure issues in the city that we're going to have to deal with. We have known about the budget and the furlough and the like. And we are actively working to eliminate those in the new fiscal budget. We understand that we have to grow Jackson. The city has to become larger. We need more people in the city in order to have a viable tax base in order to expanse in services, right? These are all economic development issues. There are Public Works kinds of infrastructure issues. There are issues of city governance.

We came into this with our eyes open. The big picture is, how are we being strategic in order to create solutions that are going to last longer than us? One of my colleagues once said that, "Our goal is to plant trees under which the shade we will not enjoy." So, that's our thing. It's that, how do we really think long term? How do we plant the trees now? Nurture them and then hopefully after we're gone, everyone will enjoy that shade.

Talk about the mayor's need to appoint multiple school-board members.

School-board appointees are incredibly important. We have three appointments that we'll make before the school year starts. Part of what we're doing is vetting appointees for the school board to make sure that they have certain skillsets. We need school-board members that are extremely facile with K-12 education, that understand the issues of K-12 education, that understand the funding of K-12 education, that understand the governance of K-12 education, and that understand curriculum and development and curriculum development for K-12. We have to have all of those skillsets represented in the appointees that we make, so we're being very deliberate in those appointments to make sure that we're giving the public-school system every opportunity to be (as) successful (as) we possibly can.

And we're reaching out to the public-school system to try and create some really intentional partnerships where we can. We realize that you can't have a great city without a great public-school system, and the public-school system is there to make sure that every single kid in the city has an excellent educational opportunity. We have to be about that 100 percent. And I guess that as an educator, I'm a little harder on that than other folks.

But I really believe that education is the backbone of our society, and (we must) make sure that every single kid has an opportunity for a top-notch education, no matter where you live, no matter who your parents are, no matter what your background is. Every kid deserves ( a good education)—that it is their right. It is not a privilege. It is their right for them to have an absolute top-notch education. And we want to help the school system in order to be able to deliver that.

What kind of partnerships are you all looking into?

Well, what we're doing right now is structuring a set of conversations. So, we're sitting down with the superintendent. We're setting up a few meetings to talk about ways that we can strategically engage. How can the city begin to help the school district? Are there ways that we can create partnerships between our universities and colleges to partner with our public-school district in order to be able to create synergies around curriculum and K-16 (and) K-20 kinds of structures, where we can create an environment for a student to go from middle school to high school to college to graduate school to a career. What does that look like? And how do we advantage eight institutions of higher learning to a public school system?

We have the talent. We have all the resources. We're the outlier as far as education is concerned. But sometimes you'd be challenged to see it in the differing results that we've gotten out of our public-school system. So, we have tremendous assets there (that) we need to be able to leverage for the entire community—not just one segment.

You said before the school year starts? Do you have a specific date that you're trying to have those appointments in place?

We haven't set a drop-dead date, but of course we're going do it before the first school board meeting. We've been getting recommendations from the community. We've been asking around. We've been talking to various people. Our goal right now is to vet everything that's coming to us, and to try and make the absolute best pick possible. Based on those skill sets that we were talking about before, and the financial skillsets. Skill sets around curriculum development, governance, all of those pieces are really, really important. So we're trying to make sure that with these three appointments, that we cover all of those skill sets. We're thinking of this group of people as a set almost. Because they're going to be on the school board for a while.

Is Mayor Lumumba still looking into appointing youth to be a part of the school board?

There are ways that we can have young people that are advisers to the school board. I don't think that according to the statute, you can appoint youth onto the school board. But, what we really think is important is to have youth voices heard. And in order to do that, you have to create opportunities for youth voices to be heard. So, part of what the mayor is talking about is, how do we create those opportunities so youth voices are heard clearly and that youth feel like they're an important part of the process?

If we're telling folks what this new administration is looking like, who you are and who the mayor is, what might they expect from the two of you (and) your approach?

The mayor is trying to bring people into this administration that have very specific skills that he's looking for. He's not interested in (the) same cast of characters, but instead to bring in people that can play specific roles in order to be able to transform opportunities for the city and its citizens. So, this is a different kind of administration, hopefully to move Jackson in a different direction.

Read more about the new Lumumba administration at jfp.ms/lumumba.

Robert Blaine, 48

Education: Indiana University, bachelor's degree in music; Catholic University of America, master's degree in music; Eastman School of Music, Doctorate of Musical Arts

Job: Chief administrative officer, City of Jackson

Family: Married to Angela Blaine with two sons Robert Blaine IV, 17, and Christopher Williams, 14; Jim Hill High School students in IB Program.

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