Black History Month Spotlight: Carey Neal, Assistant City Manager, Lancaster, TX.

Zencity

Zencity

This month at Zencity we’re celebrating the Black civic leaders we have the honor to work with on a daily basis.  

Celebrating his recent promotion, Assistant City Manager of Lancaster, TX, Carey Neal is humbled and excited as he discusses his unique journey into local government. After working in Human Resource Management for over seven years, Carey pivoted to the government sector, bringing his impressive skill set with him, translating well into local government. He puts it best, “I’m teaching colleagues how we can embody customer service because, after all, we are an organization serving the public.”

Although he caught the government bug early on, his career trajectory was all but traditional.
He first got a taste of public service when he interned for State Representative, Yvonne Davis, while still in high school.

“The process of just working with Yvonne really showed me what it meant to be an effective public servant in our community. She was an incredibly positive example for me, growing up in an underprivileged area and seeing someone very well respected in her field- an African American woman who embodies professionalism, power and grace. It was Yvonne who really inspired me to do something great for the community.”

While he credits Yvonne Davis for catalyzing his interest in government, Carey Neal named his educators and teachers as great inspirations, ultimately guiding his decision to pursue a degree in Education at the University of Texas. After graduation he began his career at Walmart as a Human Resource Director but soon felt a need to return to public service, this time, specifically within the local sector.

“I was working in human resources and while it was fulfilling helping people, I wanted to do something on a greater level. I realized I wanted to work in government and so I looked into the type of education individuals in that capacity have, which led me to public administration.”

While pursuing a Masters in Public Administration, Carey was exposed to the wonders of local government.

“It was there I started learning more about the local government side of public service. I learned what a city manager does and how they directly impact the community first hand, how they provide the services people don’t appreciate until they’re gone, like roadways, water, recreational services, parks. You know, the types of things that directly impact everyone’s quality of life. Once the opportunity presented itself for me to get into that line of service, I started my local government career with the City of Lancaster as the Assistant to the City Manager.”

Young, motivated and ambitious, it only took Mr. Neal two short years with the City until his well deserved promotion in January 2021. Carey’s quick rise through the ranks is a direct reflection of Carey’s enthusiasm for continuous learning and growth, and passion for helping people.

“The greatest reward is being able to interact with the people of Lancaster on a personal basis, listening to their concerns and hearing first hand what’s troubling them, and ultimately creating a plan that will fix these issues. It’s great just being able to help the community and see it grow and flourish as a result.”

He credits his love of the job to his residents and takes just as much joy in his own work as he does in seeing community members getting involved in city operations via boards, commissions, or even just by giving feedback. In his process of working with residents, Carey is also excited to share with them his own passion for local government. “Generally, people don’t know about the role of local government, so teaching people about what we do everyday, like ordinances, what they are and how they affect them is important.”

As a public servant, Carey has seen how public perception has changed towards local governments, particularly within the last year. “Now more than ever people are looking towards their local governments for assistance. They’re seeing that we’re the ones who can provide certain services for and fix things. So now all eyes are on local governments rather than federal or state level, for residents to get the help they need.” And Carey is happy to oblige.

“Even during the pandemic, it has drawn me closer to loving local government and what we do. Over the course of the pandemic we were able to offer programs for residents such as residential assistance, child care assistance, utility assistance, and support for seniors. We always found a way to innovate. Now more than ever, just being able to see how we continue operations and provide services to people has been an incredibly beneficial and very rewarding experience for myself.”

As he looks towards the future, Carey shows no signs of slowing down. “The ultimate goal is to one day be a City Manager. I have the distinct pleasure everyday to serve along Opal Mauldin-Jones, who I would say is a legend in local government. She’s absolutely awesome and to be able to sit next to her and learn from her absolutely puts my mind at ease that I know one day I’ll be sitting in the city manager’s chair. Not necessarily in her position but fulfilling the position somewhere when the opportunity presents itself.”

Black History Month Spotlight: Mike Pegues, CIO Aurora, IL.

Zencity

Zencity

This month at Zencity we’re celebrating the Black civic leaders we have the honor to work with on a daily basis.  

Mike Pegues is only heading into his fourth year in the public sector but he’s already a legend and one of the best-known CIOs in the local government space. It’s true, he has an incredibly rich career behind him – with almost two decades in the private sector and the U.S. Department of Defense – so he did come in with a certain cache. But it goes beyond that. It’s his deep and strategic vision for the City of Aurora’s IT Department which translates into Mike having a hand in solving a large chunk of the problems that come across the Mayor’s desk – even those we don’t traditionally think of as tech “problems”. “Technology is built into everything,” he explains.

Mike also puts a lot of pressure on himself: “There are a lot of uses with technology, and as a CIO in the IT field at my level, where there are probably less than 3% Black executives that fall into this role, I feel that I have a duty to do that much more to drive social impact, to drive purpose. For me it’s not just a job, it’s personal.”

And in fact, Mike’s move from the private sector to the City of Aurora was very personal. When Mayor Irvin was running for his third re-election, he asked Mike – whom he had grown up and served in the military with – if he would join his team. “He told me, ‘we have a purpose being young African Americans to be role models in our community,’” and that’s exactly what Mike Pegues, who grew up in Aurora, has been doing since he joined the Mayor’s team in 2017: serving with purpose and role modeling leadership and change.

“One of the things I’m focused on is conquering the digital divide. How can we bring high-speed, affordable internet access to disenfranchised communities? I grew up here as a young African American. I didn’t have specific opportunities handed to me, I had to go and find mine. But for some of these kids, we can provide opportunities and a pathway by addressing a multitude of different issues – social equity, social injustice, how technology is used, how minorities are disproportionately negatively impacted by the use of technology – these are some of the things I’m working on and thinking about.”

Mike is working on some of the toughest and most sensitive issues of the day – and showing us exactly how important it is not to forget the role of tech. For example? Right now he’s deeply immersed in the City’s RFP around police body-worn cameras.

“I am directly involved and looking at it from a technology perspective and asking – how can we make sure that certain requirements are met when the City is evaluating and selecting this technology. Recently, with social injustice and body cams we’ve seen a ‘this happened and the body cam just happened to be off.’ There are vendors that offer a set up so they can record after the fact – so my job is to ensure that’s a requirement in our RFP. It’s about looking to see how I can be involved with that – in a way that supports the City, the Police Department, the community, and the Mayor’s vision overall.”

Under Mike’s leadership, Aurora’s Smart City program is paving the way forward and broadening the important role a classic city IT department can play in some of the most important issues of today. Mike does this with personal drive and passion and with business savvy.

“For the City of Aurora, we have our mission to provide smart city solutions and services to our city government, to our residents, to our businesses – but how we do that is as a strategic IT business partner for the City. We look at it from the perspective that it’s not just about the technical aspect – it’s how we translate that into business outcomes for the city and fulfilling the Mayor’s vision and purpose.”

It never actually occurred to Mike to join the ranks of local government – even though he spent many years in Federal government – before Mayor Irvin reached out to him. But now that he’s here – and especially with everything that’s happened in the US over the past year – he knows it’s an excellent and maybe one of the best ways to give back and affect change. Whether you’re a citizen, a business, a university – Mike is not only certain that there’s a way to get involved in your local government, he also feels it’s “incumbent to get involved because that’s what makes a difference.”

“We just witnessed this with the elections,” he explains. “Look what happened to Georgia. It flipped because of one person who came in, made a difference locally, got out there grassroots style, said we’re gonna change this, we’re gonna make a difference.” Mike is talking about the work of Stacey Abrams – who he deeply respects and credits for impacting the outcome of the US election on a national level and in the Senate. Stacey, he says, “is a real-life example of how getting involved in local government can make a difference.” His call to action and words of advice:

“You don’t necessarily have to be on the board – but you can. You can be on committees, you can join different neighborhood groups, you can get involved in the city council meetings which are public – talking about different topics and issues. Get involved. I’m sure there’s something there for you and that every individual can find their place.”

Despite only being in the job for a short period of time, Mike has made unparalleled contributions in his role as CIO, in advancing technological innovation and leading an era of cultural transformation to the benefit of community elevation. Mike is an absolute philanthropist, who is undoubtedly sewing a timely legacy as a humanitarian and champion of change.

Black History Month Spotlight: Mayor Lori Wilson, Suisun City, CA.

Zencity

Zencity

This month at Zencity we’re celebrating the Black civic leaders we have the honor to work with on a daily basis.  

As he was leaving office, former President Barack Obama addressed the nation in his farewell speech: “If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.” In 2017, Suisun City Mayor, Lori Wilson, was actually already a couple of steps ahead. About a decade ago, inspired by a different Obama speech, Lori had already looked up who her council members were in order to start getting more involved locally.

“My life has always been about service. My family was always out in the community. We grew up with that. But when I became an adult, I became involved with my church but in another city so I started looking into getting more involved in my own city.”

Lori’s first local activity was to organize a group for women to “come and just talk about the things of life and just grow as human beings.” She started noticing that every year, women left the group as they moved, with their young families, out of Suisun City. Lori had heard Barack Obama talk about the importance of advocating to elected officials and decided, for the first time in her life, to turn to City Council. The council members she spoke with about prioritizing additional services for young families certainly listened, but they just weren’t that interested. For Lori the next step was obvious:

“I started trying to encourage my friends to run for office – especially when I realized everyone on my council was older and retired. I was trying to get younger people to run. Eventually my friends hosted an intervention and told me – you’re the person who needs to run. It took me two years, but then I decided to do it.”

In eight years, Lori went from not being sure who her council members were, to joining Council herself, which led to her running for and becoming Suisun City Mayor.

“I joined City Council to bring the younger voice to the City and make sure our policy discussions centered around families and how people can raise children and stay in Suisun City. While serving, I began to realize that there were a lot of things that the Mayor gets to control, so I said – okay it’s time to be the Mayor. I ran for Council on the platform of Fresh Voice. When I ran for Mayor, I said it’s not just about having a fresh voice it’s also about having a Fresh Vision.”

Lori became Mayor of Suisun City just about two years ago, and since then, she has tried to demystify what it means to be an elected official. Her constituents have her cell phone number, her email, and her social media accounts. Lori says that being the Mayor has been both the hardest thing she’s ever done, but also the most rewarding. Why has it been so rewarding? Because Lori has genuinely seen the quality of life for her residents change for the better, even in the face of the pandemic. One of her favorite examples of how the City of Suisun has improved quality of life while she’s been Mayor is in the way that the City has helped to facilitate informal community relationships and neighborliness, especially because Suisun City is what Lori calls a “commuter-ville.” The community relationships the City helped to forge have proven to be invaluable during the pandemic.

“A big factor for quality of life is whether your community rises up to greet you when you come home at the end of the day. Is the atmosphere great? Is it safe? Is it clean? That’s why we established the Suisun City Clean Team where we, as a community, came together and cleaned up. And the cool thing about that, aside from making our community look better, it built these key relationships. I can’t tell you how many times people have sent me notes related to families that met while they were on the Clean Team that then supported each other during the pandemic. That they knew their neighbors.”

Lori shares that during the pandemic, when there was a need – when someone had COVID, for example – there were always other community members ready to jump in and help because the City had already built an informal network around the community of people who serve together, who were then able to support one another.

That might be the silver lining of the pandemic but Lori knows many of the ramifications of COVID are yet to come. That’s why the biggest challenge she’s working on now is getting ahead of a potential homelessness crisis – something many cities in California and across the US are seeing. Suisun City is already experiencing a homeless migration to its community that it doesn’t have the resources to handle. Additionally, the longer the pandemic goes on, the higher the number of community members losing their homes. Mayor Wilson, who began her run in local government with the purpose of helping increase services that would encourage people to stay in the City and not move out, strongly states that she never wants people leaving the community for distress reasons. Following the lessons of the recession a number of years ago, Lori also knows that when the economy begins to bounce back, the recovery process may leave out many of her residents.

“What can we do for people who have run out of savings and benevolent family members? There are pockets of our community that are low income and service-industry people – and I’m worried about where they’re going to be. So making sure we have services in place for existing homeless is one thing we’re doing, but I’m also thinking about how we are setting up for the next generation of homeless that are impacted by the economy. I’m thinking of how we as a City are preparing for what’s next after the pandemic. Not just the ‘oh we might have a boom’ but for the people who might have been left behind, where’s their safety net as they regroup from the devastating impacts of the pandemic?”

One project she’s very proud of that recently broke ground and should make a difference is the creation of affordable housing on a long-standing vacant lot.

Mayor Wilson, who truly takes things into her own hands to effect change, has strong advice for those looking to make an impact in their community by getting involved in local government.

“If you’re going to engage, engage on the things you’re passionate about, and don’t apologize. Focus on the things that you care about. Your passion will be infectious. Show up like you’re meant to be there, and say what you need to. You bring a perspective and your perspective is valid. I want to hear it all, and I want to hear it even if you’re angry at me.”

Black History Month Spotlight: Austin Faison, Town Manager, Town of Winthrop, MA.

Zencity

Zencity

This month at Zencity we’re celebrating the Black civic leaders we have the honor to work with on a daily basis.  

Austin’s fate in local government was sealed in the 5th grade when he played the part of Benjamin Franklin in a class debate. Growing up in New England, Austin says there was always an “omnipresent government feel” but it wasn’t until much later in life that he actually became a public servant. After negotiating a career between professional sports and political campaigns, Austin decided to pursue his MPA. It was during grad school that it became clear to Austin that he was destined to be a city manager.

“I wanted to work in municipal government because of the intimacy of the impact. I like the idea of being able to fix things at the ground level. I like the idea of really helping people out.”

With his eye on the prize, Austin began his local government career in 2012 as an analyst in the City of Somerville, Massachusetts. In six short years, he reached his target as Winthrop, MA’s, Town Manager.

“I’ve always been good at project managing and getting things done. I set being a town manager as something I wanted to do and that was it. From there on, it was about what jobs would help me progress to get where I wanted to go.“

When Austin joined Winthrop in 2018, he had three goals in mind: professionalization of services, transparency, and fixing the budget. In under three years he can proudly say: “I’ve done those three things.” Austin is driven by processes and data. “I don’t shoot off my hip, I don’t go by my gut. I go off of the data and information. If I don’t know something, I call someone and figure it out. I research it online.” But throughout it all, what drives Austin is to improve and do better, and this is also the ethos he tries to impart on all his staff:

“If you aren’t continuously trying to learn and do things better, then what drives you to do what you’re doing in the first place?”

Today, Austin, who is in his late thirties, sits on coalitions and advisory boards with his former bosses and nationally recognized leaders like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “It still blows my mind,” he says. “I’ve had to learn how to get over my imposter syndrome.”

In the years to come, Austin remains driven and forward-thinking. In this next decade, especially after a year like 2020, he’d like to spend some time seeing some of the “longer term stuff” coming to fruition while he continues to engage in work that has a positive impact.

At Zencity, we’re also excited to work with and be inspired by an incredible and driven professional like Austin.

5 Cool City-Sponsored July Fourth Events!

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Zencity

There’s nothing more American than going all out, and the 4th of July is as American as it gets! What better excuse to eat inordinate amounts of fried food, enjoy flashing fireworks displays, or kick back and relax with friends and family. With the actual holiday falling smack middle of the week this year, there’s more to this day than America’s favorite pastime: the classic red, white, and booze. In the name of freedom, the 4th of July is the perfect excuse to let loose and celebrate the freedom the day stands for in a variety of “American” ways. So, read below to find out which cities we think know how to put together a proper Independence Day celebration!

1. San Antonio, Texas

Is there anything more quintessentially American than a Bud Light? San Antonio clearly thinks so. Adding to the already beautiful ambiance of San Antonio’s River Walk, the city annually places thousands of Bud Light decorated luminarias along the river in an event called Bud Light, Stars, Stripes, and Lights. Don’t know what a lumanaria is? Don’t worry, because neither did I! Nonetheless, seeing the countless lanterns (a luminaria) along the river radiate patriotism is a great way to celebrate your day.

2. Hialeah, Florida

The only thing that can surpass the awesomeness of a good 4th of July fireworks show is a fireworks show complemented by lasers! Yes, that’s right, every year, the city of Hialeah, Florida, puts on a fabulous light show that includes both sparklers and tech-heavy lasers. You can watch a video of last year’s celebration here and revel in delight like we did!  

3. Colorado Springs, Colorado

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Uncle Sam, Luke Skywalker, and ET competed for ruler of the galaxy. And by a galaxy far, far away, we mean at the Colorado Springs annual 4th of July celebration! On Wednesday night, sit back and marvel as the Colorado Springs Philharmonic plays a song from each of these monumental films before fireworks light the night.

4. Crestwood, Illinois

Only 30 minutes away from Chicago, the folks over in Crestwood have an annual lawnmower parade! Just like it sounds, the city gathers to watch people ride ATVs, mini-bikes, SUV leveraged speedboats, and of course, lawnmowers. Dating back to Crestwood’s agricultural roots, have no fear, town locals will not, in fact, make you mow their lawns afterward! Check out this video to see last year’s shenanigans.

5. San Diego, California

Have you really celebrated the 4th if you haven’t witnessed a pyrotechnic display illuminating the great American sky? Did you really commemorate America’s birthday if you didn’t post firework pictures on your Instagram? The answer to the second question is obviously a big fat no. Thus, what better way to simultaneously up your social media game and enjoy America’s Independence than at San Diego’s Big Bay Boom celebration! This firework display is said to be one of the largest in the country, whereby people can watch fireworks explode from four different barges throughout San Diego. The cream on the cake is who you’ll be watching the show with. With thousands of service members living in San Diego, Patriotism shatters the night sky’s darkness.