Interview: Byron Smith – City Manager – Hermiston, Oregon

The Pacific Northwest is growing, with an unforseen city set to take the lead.

What’s your favorite type of potato? Mashed, scalloped, roasted, fried, baked, au gratin?

Personally, I don’t think many things can beat a fried potato. But before we had an enormous selection of methods to cook our spuds, there was a modest city in eastern Oregon that was building its foundation on the tubers. Centered in the Pacific Northwest – within a four-hour drive to cities like Spokane, Seattle, Portland, and Boise – is Hermiston, Oregon. They’re also growing incredibly sweet watermelons up there. Their history, even earlier than the days of watermelon and the metaphorical ‘sprouting on top of the potato’, goes back to being populated by four groups of indigenous Native Americans for thousands of years. Fast forward to 1907 and we’ll stumble upon the day in which Hermiston was incorporated.

Hermiston’s modesty unknowingly shadows their tenacity and growth. Since the creation of more innovative methods for watering in the agriculture industry around the area in the 1970s, they’ve topped census estimates in population growth for the decades following. On top of the increased amount of jobs established by the spike in potato production, the City is also attracting more high-skilled laborers. The central location and strategic interstate system encouraged engineers, lawyers, physicians, managers, etc. to travel from those larger cities; sources say an 18-minute commute as opposed to a 25-minute commute. In the 1970’s they nearly doubled their population size!

The Hermiston School District is also an attraction for current and potential residents. In the last 15 years, 5 schools have been built in order to sustain the foundation that’s been established in their education systems. Not only are they the largest city in Eastern Oregon, they also host the largest school district in the same vicinity. Multiple bonds have previously been voted in by the residents, gathering about $152 million in the 15-year time frame. The community and schools are just now heating up!

Speaking of heating up – just last year, Hermiston set the record for the hottest day ever in Oregon! There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? It reached 118 degrees in June and because of the arid conditions, it was an unfamiliar feeling for a lot of the residents. Although their watermelons thrive in the environment, I’m sure they’d exchange a few degrees of sweetness for temperature. If you’re looking for a place to set up your pontoon boat and take a dip in a natural body of water to cool off, this isn’t the spot. There aren’t any natural bodies of water in Hermiston. However, the town is full of beautiful views and park locations, including Hat Rock. After diving into the attractions, history, and culture of Hermiston, I can see why it’s such a family-centric location.

I was able to talk with one of the people who’s been a contributor to the success in Hermiston, Byron Smith, the City Manager. He gave me the opportunity to ask a couple of questions about himself and the city, so of course, I dove right in. I was nearing my daily dose of caffeine with my third cup of coffee at the time so I figured I’d make the first question something a bit relatable…

An interview with Byron Smith:

Do you drink coffee or tea in the morning and if so, how much?

“I don’t drink either.”

But that wasn’t really the relatable start that I was looking for! I assumed most people have one of the two for breakfast, or maybe even a brunch tea, but Byron fuels his day unlike any of us – with pure happiness and grit. Though, it makes sense after learning a bit more about him.

Byron has an extensive background in government leadership positions. He’s previously worked in other cities such as Fort Madison, IA; Poplar Bluff, MO; and Yuma, AZ. With that diverse background of states and population sizes, I asked him what’s something common that could use improvement?

“In each state that I’ve worked in, the challenges are slightly different but the common theme is allowing cities to control more of their own future, rather than always needing to go back to the state for this or that.”

I think of it as needing to go back to your parents for something even though you’ve graduated and left the house. Or if you were micromanaged at work and the boss needed to see every single thing you’re doing. At some point there has to be a level of trust and “elbow room”, right? I thought that was a provocative point of view and I’m glad it came from someone who’s been with a couple of different states and cities.

The thing about Byron is that he not only has a diversified perspective from traveling around, he’s also an accredited City Manager through ICMA, International City/County Management Association. From speaking with other city managers, I understand they don’t just hand those out to people. To get a better idea of the challenges from his perspective, I had to ask him, what’s the hardest part about becoming an ICMA certified City Manager?

“The hardest part was just putting in the time and making that my goal. Now, the requirement for 40 hours of ongoing professional development is a challenge but is so very beneficial.”

It’s as if the hardest part of working out is getting to the gym. Once you’re able to prioritize and make a commitment, it doesn’t seem like so much of a burden; it’s a goal, like what Byron said. I’ve also heard that the ongoing development can be a bit challenging, but his perspective on continuous learning makes it more understandable.

Hermiston was able to find a great leader almost 8 years ago and the progress has shown. I like to know what the vision is for a leader in a city like Hermiston, so I asked Byron what his overall, bigger picture for the city is:

“I really want to make the community a better place to live or have a business or raise a family. I talk with the departments about that often. Each department plays a role in that and each one of them is crucial to make sure we have a great community.”

That right there defines a city manager’s role in a city. Feedback is extremely important from every part of the organization and proactively asking for it is only going to help drive the growth in businesses and population. Speaking of feedback, one of the goals that the Hermiston council has is to “improve engagement with the community on important issues and development of a vision for the city.” As someone who takes initiative in getting feedback and engagement, I asked Byron what steps he plans on taking to accomplish that:

“We’ve tested a few different tools for engagement over the past year. Some of them were better than others. The visioning process was just completed with a year of digital and in-person outreach. We did online surveys, focus groups, in-person surveys, vision labs, etc.”

I didn’t get around to it, but I’m curious which one was most impactful, and to which audience it resonated the most. I’m sure the more trial and error, A/B testing that happens with the communications department in Hermiston, the more likely that others will be “in the know” and participate.

Working with a team isn’t unfamiliar to Byron. Neither is handling a budget, planning for a city, or working on some IT-related tasks. I wanted to know what he’s taken from his previous roles and applied to this City Manager position, so I asked:

“This is hard to answer with any amount of brevity. Each of my prior positions has helped me here in one way or another. The biggest thing for me in each place has been finding contacts that can help me navigate the new items each role has had. Then I can bring my different experiences to bear.”

It’s definitely a difficult question to answer while being concise, but I wanted to see where he would go with it. Asking questions is extremely important in life and it seems like Byron is getting the hang of it. Being able to have references who’ve been around for a while is advantageous when finding answers to these questions. It seems as though he’s got a solid support system with strong principles and values. It’s almost as if he knew what the next question was going to be.

I took a look into some of Hermiston’s values and I came across Strong Work Ethics, Generosity, Inclusiveness, Integrity, Excellence, and People. I wanted to know out of those values, which one he highlights the most:

“‘People’ is the one that gets brought up the most. The people here really care about their community and it shows through.”

I’m not the city manager of Hermiston, but I can back that up! Task Forces don’t get created in communities with people who don’t care. This community is founded on the work ethic, generosity, inclusiveness, integrity, and excellence of its PEOPLE. I also asked him why he thinks they hold the slogan “Where life is sweet” and he reiterated that it’s because of the people.

I think Byron’s perspective is good for folks who want to become city managers at a newfound home. I asked him if he had any last fresh perspectives for new city managers to ponder, and he mentioned:

“As you come to a new community become invested. Make it your home and just become all in the community.”

Byron D Smith, ICMA-CM

“Where Life Is Sweet.”

As the Hermiston leaders and community continue to build areas like their downtown, parks, transportation infrastructure, etc., they’ll keep working their way into ‘fastest growing’ and ‘most livable‘ lists. As the participation increases, the residents will be able to enjoy enhancements to the amenities such as the Aquatics Center, or restaurants and retail centers. The schools will continue to thrive and jobs will continue to be created. The people here really are the backbone.

While having conversations such as this one with Byron, I’m realizing that there are plenty of amazing cities in the nation that constantly get overshadowed by bigger cities like New York, Chicago, LA, Miami, etc. Getting Hermiston’s story out there will encourage growth by shedding light on it’s deep history and unprecedented growth. How can we get more commuters to reside here? How do we keep up the infrastructure for the increased growth that we’ll see for years to come? These are questions that the leadership team is answering through their established plans.

If you’d like to learn more about the goals and ambitions that Hermiston has, check out their comprehensive plan. Join our community so we can create more robust and impactful conversations centered around what is and isn’t working in the area. To learn more about Hermiston and the livelihood that they’re continuing to bestow upon their residents, check out their homepage here.

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