Anyone listening to Yelm Mayor J.W. Foster’s annual State of the City address may have noticed a trend. Within a 27-minute span, Foster managed to thank over two dozen groups and individuals for the way they support the city and its citizens.
That’s not an accident, according to City Administrator Michael Grayum. “Since J.W. was appointed, we’ve had deep cultural shifts,” Grayum shares. “We are creating a new culture at City Hall that’s not about ‘Here’s what I did,’ but ‘Look at what we did together.’ It’s part of bringing people together to get things done.”
When Foster took office in 2016, a deep divide existed within the Yelm City Council. Nearly every vote would go 4-3, often based on emotion rather than facts, he notes. After bringing in a facilitator to lead the group through a series of exercises, he looked for ways to develop greater trust and efficiency.
One result: a request for the Council to get more involved with understanding the projects and issues being presented by City Hall staff. Together, they created subcommittees so that council members could be directly involved with issues like community development or finance, then serve in an advisory capacity to the rest of the council.
The approach created a greater sense of ownership and meant that council members had to rely on each other for accurate information. “One person is diving deeply into public safety, while another is working on finance. It helped them to trust each other and work better together as the legislative body and policy makers of the city,” says Grayum.
Foster also asked the council to take on more external responsibilities, joining regional boards such as Intercity Transit and the Community Investment Partnership. “We’re having a real influence on these regional issues,” he says. “It’s incredibly powerful to have a Yelm voice on regional panels.”
In the last two years, Foster has made it a priority to invest in personnel at City Hall, which was running on limited staff and resources, especially in the finance department. The department ran with a skeleton crew of just two people on any given day – and one of them was the director. “I don’t know how they did it,” says Foster. “We have four people in that department now and all of them still have a full plate every single day.”
One of the first significant improvements by the mayor, city administrator and departments heads was transforming the city’s budget from an excel spreadsheet to a 126-page document that includes a mission, vision, and values along with clear goals and objectives. “We’ve expanded our horizons so that not only are we going to do great things, but we now have a plan for the challenges and opportunities we’re going to face in the future,” says Grayum. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) awarded their efforts with the designation of Distinguished Budget.
Among the rest of the nearly 60 city staff members, cross-training has become the norm to ensure that no one is siloed in their job responsibilities. “We’re providing employees with training and support,” says Foster. “We want to provide a good, professional work environment where all departments are aligned and integrated.”
Within other city departments, Foster has looked for ways to identify and fulfill needs. Having run on a platform of “A Leader Who Listens,” he engaged in conversations with the staff at both Public Works and the Yelm Police Department to establish priorities. “I sat down with the team at Public Works and said, ‘based on your knowledge and expertise, what is it that you really need?’” says Foster. “The topic of aging equipment and infrastructure came up and the team proposed that the council establish a policy to create an equipment replacement and repair fund to plan and save for future needs, instead of scrambling every time a police car or another piece of equipment needs to be replaced.”
At the Police Department, officers had repeatedly requested a fence around their parking lot to protect their equipment. “It’s not that expensive, it just hadn’t been prioritized,” says Foster. Through a grant from the Nisqually Tribe, the fence was built, providing a new level of security. The department has also gained three new officers since Foster took over.
The biggest change, according to Grayum, has been in developing a culture of support and collaboration. Since Foster was appointed and then elected, the city has hosted an annual Thanksmas event for city staff. People are excited to participate and volunteer to both shop and cook. “It’s not because the mayor said, ‘You will come together and do this,’” he says. “They’re all over themselves saying, ‘Can I prepare this meal?’ It’s difficult to quantify but the culture of empowering and bringing people together is so significant.”
That’s not to say everything is perfect, Grayum says. Disagreements naturally occur, however, “The bottom line is that inside and outside of City Hall, people are coming together and bringing different perspectives for the greater good. That’s what we are doing and that is what is most important.”