Managing the City of Frankenmuth with Bridget Smith, City Manager
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Interview Part 1
Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:05] Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Call of Leadership podcast, where we interview people from our Michigan community who answered the call of leadership. We’ll hear their powerful stories and get their advice so we can be better leaders for ourselves, our family and our community. I am your host Cliff DuVernois. Today’s guest has been involved in both the public and private sector, always coming from a place of service.
She’s also a member of the Frankenmuth noon rotary club, as well as the local chamber of commerce. Please welcome to the show, the city manager of Frankenmuth, Bridget Smith, Bridget, how are you?
Bridget Smith: [00:00:39] Great. Thank you so much for having me.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:41] Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule before we delve into your backstory, would you please tell us a little bit about what a city manager does and what your position is responsible for?
Bridget Smith: [00:00:53] Sure. , um, essentially there’s two forms of management for, for cities in some bigger cities. Um, the mayor is the, the hands on administrator and they’re . Um, Run everything necessary for city operations, but in a number of communities, they bring on a professional manager. And so that city manager, city administrator is responsible for, um, all those necessary city operations.
So they cities, uh, supervise city departments maintain the budget, um, represent the city in a number of different settings. Um, and in general, just kind of steer the ship. Um, I like to think about it. In terms of football. So I’m the head football coach. And then I have a team of department heads who act like your offensive coordinator, um, that sort of thing.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:01:41] thank you for taking the time to explain that
if you would please tell us a little bit about where you’re from and where you grew up.
Bridget Smith: [00:01:47] Sure. So I grew up in the city of Saginaw and, uh, moved to the city of Frankenmuth when I was a sophomore in high school. So really, you know, the ideal time to start a new school in a new city at that wonderful, not awkward at all age of 15.
Then I finished high school, um, and Frankenmuth and it was, um, it was a great experience, a lot different than, than where I had grown up, but, um, just a, a really interesting community to experience, a childhood
Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:19] Where did you wind up going to college then?
Bridget Smith: [00:02:23] I was, uh, at, at. Central Michigan university. I started off pursuing journalism and then ended up transferring into sociology.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:33] Why did you study journalism?
Bridget Smith: [00:02:36] Uh, I actually, uh, won, uh, an essay contest in high school. And Paul Chafee, who was the editor of the Saginaw News at the time, invited me down to lunch and was really impressed with the essay I wrote and talked to me a lot about journalism and the potential for, for kind of making an impact through storytelling.
And, uh, I just, I was really intrigued with it and ended up attending CMU and writing for CM Life, the student newspaper.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:03:08] While you were at CM Life, you really did have a chance to, to impact some people there was with some of your work. Could you, could you tell us a little bit more about that?
Bridget Smith: [00:03:19] Sure. uh, while I was at Central Michigan University, there was a, uh, an incident on campus that involved, uh, the men’s basketball coach using, um, a racial slur and. In what he explained was an effort to motivate his players. And I was able to cover that story in part, because as a reporter, I was going to these student meetings, um, of the black student caucus.
I had kind of established this rapport and sense of trust. And so when the story broke, they were willing to talk to me, uh, as opposed to, to other news media. So it was really a great life lesson about the importance of relationships and trust building.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:07] I think that people are very concerned with making sure that if you’re going to help them get their story out there, that you’re going to portray it in the best possible light.
Bridget Smith: [00:04:17] Right. We talk about in terms of. City management and community. If you want people to listen and trust you during an emergency, they’re really going to have to trust you any given day, which means you’re, you’re going to have to have some uncomfortable conversations or, or tell them answers.
They’d rather not hear, um, which has never any fun.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:41] no, it’s really easy to deliver. Good news. Not so much bad news.
Bridget Smith: [00:04:44] Right?
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:45] You were in college, you were studying journalism at the time. And then you said you switched over to sociology. What, what made you decide to change majors?
Bridget Smith: [00:04:56] While I really enjoyed journalism, I’ve found myself, um, more and more, um, drawn to courses, um, that, that dealt with sociology. And so, um, Okay. A real simple way of talking about sociology is of psychology is the study of Mmm. one person and how they make decisions and how they interact.
Sociology is looking at a group of people and how they do those same things. Mmm. After the, the whole issue with, um, Keith Dan brought in and said the men’s basketball coach and some of the other things that were happening on campus, I really came to appreciate that maybe. Um, there was, uh, a segment of the student population that, that really wasn’t represented.
Um, and I don’t necessarily mean just in terms of, of ethnic or racial minorities. I just think that the student voice in general even was not well represented at a campus level. And so I decided to run for student Congress or, um, student body president.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:05:55] That was your first foray into politics. .
Bridget Smith: [00:05:58] Yes. Um,
I had actually had the opportunity when I was, um, working on the Saginaw News to watch Bill Clinton, um, at a, at a rally, which was really kind of cool. Um, but yeah, so that was my first foray into, into, um, personal politics.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:06:14] That would be a, an actually a great person. I’ve never seen. Uh, any one of Bill Clinton’s speeches live, but every book, every article that I’ve read, always people always talk about how charismatic he is and how he’s able to connect with people. Even if he’s talking to thousands of people at once, he seems to be able to connect with everybody in the audience.
You were student body president and then. Uh, during this time, uh, you know, college graduation is drawing to a close, you managed to get a job with the Spicer Group out of Saginaw. Tell us a little bit about that.
Bridget Smith: [00:06:51] Sure. So, um, Spicer group is a. Professional engineers, surveyors architects. And at the time I went to work for them, they were just, uh, getting started with, uh, planning and community development. So I was hired early on to help with marketing and some technical writing. And, um, it was a, it was just a great experience in terms of, of learning so many different facets.
Um, Oftentimes, um, I would, I would help kind of translate some of the, um, more technical aspects, uh, from, from the engineer’s perspective. Um, but it was, it was a really great opportunity. And then I was able to, um, grow into the role of a, of a community planner and urban planner.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:07:37] And how long did you work for the Spicer group?
Bridget Smith: [00:07:40] About 10 years.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:07:43] During this time back in college, you, you met and married your husband, and that’s also at this time, you’re, you’re raising a couple of kids. How did the, the demands of your job at the Spicer Group, uh, how did that impact your family?
Bridget Smith: [00:07:58] So I I’ll say right off the bat, I have an incredibly supportive husband and cheerleader, uh, to this day. He’s, um, He’s just been a, a great, um, supporter and with, without a doubt, um, kind of backs me a hundred percent so Spicer. I was a consultant and so I was working longer hours. Um, Grace, who now is 20, um, was a toddler for, for much of my time there.
Todd took on. My husband took on, um, a lot of the, the after preschool, daytime roles. Uh, So I would have night meetings and, um, I would, I would come home from the night meetings sometime, 10 o’clock at night, and there would still be the dinner that I prepared the night before for them to eat.
Because by the time they were done with. Um, soccer or whatever activity. Um, nobody wanted to eat, you know, chicken and broccoli instead. They had, you know, macaroni and cheese and Duncan, Hines frosting, in a can, some grand crackers. And, um, it just kind of, um, became very difficult. Um, and I was very much aware that there were some things I was missing out on.
Uh, and then I had my daughter, Ella. Who is 16 now, and Ella was not, um, as easygoing as grace, I would say. And so, um, when I wasn’t around in the evening, uh, Ella would find a way to make time for me in the middle of the night. And so, um, It became very stressful. Um, and I knew that I needed to find a new way to balance things out because, um, I wasn’t able to spend the time that, that I needed with my kids nor my husband.
And, um, I was, it was just very stressful. And, um, and I actually, uh, ended up, um, having this situation where my head would go now, um, like tingling. You know, like how your foot may fall asleep.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:10:04] right.
Bridget Smith: [00:10:05] I had called my physician and said, you know, what, what do you think this is? And they’re like, Oh, it’s probably just stress.
Or it could be a brain tumor. And so I decided I would big range there. Um, so I had decided I’m I’m clearly going go, um, get it checked out. Um, but if it’s, if it’s not a brain tumor, I, my body is clearly sending me some signals that I might need to do something differently. So not to spoil the story, but it wasn’t a brain tumor.
I started reaching out to see what other sorts of, um, jobs I may be able to find locally.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:10:46] And that is when a person recommended that you take a look at working for the government. What was your thoughts about switching between going from the private sector into the public sector?
Bridget Smith: [00:11:02] Um, that I would be, um, taking a substantial, um, cut in pay, um, that I wouldn’t necessarily have as much room for advancement, um, that the projects wouldn’t be as, um, exciting, you know, when you, when you think about government, um, my impression was always that, um, I would end up like a paper pusher and never be able to, um, do the creative things that I really enjoyed about consulting.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:11:30] You did decide, uh, in the end to start working for Saginaw township, tell us about your experiences there.
Bridget Smith: [00:11:37] um, I really enjoyed my time with, um, with Saginaw township. I was, I think I was very blessed to have, um, worked with. Some, some people have some innate leadership skills and, um, and just really good management. And, um, they allowed me to do some, some creative things that I really didn’t think I was going to have the opportunity to do, uh, everything from, from starting a community garden to, um, having some, some neighborhood type, um, Meetings and doing some neighborhood organizing.
And it was, it was just a great way to, um, figure out how to be interactive with the community in which I worked and give them more of a voice in decision making.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:12:25] What specifically did you do for a Saginaw township?
Bridget Smith: [00:12:27] So I was the assistant director of community development. So that handled planning and zoning, um, assisted with code enforcement, economic development, um, and, and, um, helped out in terms of coordination with, um, like building inspection.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:12:43] okay. And obviously your experience with the Spicer group came in very handy when you were working in that role with the Saginaw township.
Bridget Smith: [00:12:51] Exactly. Um, I I’d like to think that every career decision I’ve made has, um, just given me a, a stronger foundation. So my time with Spicer gave me, um, exposure to the technical details, looking at things from an engineering perspective. Um, A lot of times planners, uh, of which I am one get a bad reputation for being very fuzzy, um, and conceptual.
And creating these great plans that are never grounded in reality. learning how to be a planner, surrounded by engineers. Mmm well frustrating at times, really helped me, um, make sure that, that my plans were achievable. That even if they were audacious, Um, or aggressive that they were, they were still very much doable.
And I think that’s, that’s really important. When you’re working with a community, you don’t want to, um, give them unbelievable expectations. Um, I think it’s important yeah, that whatever you’re putting out there that it’s, it’s achievable and doable. Um, and that’s where Spicer was really helpful.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:59] I agree with that sentiment because one of the toughest things that I had to learn throughout my career was having the ability to, uh, manage expectations. Cause sometimes. What people want to do, or what they think is just completely unrealistic. But when you come back to them and say, Hey, this is how it is.
This is, the timeline of what we’re going to do then, you know, once you can manage those expectations, I think everybody from the people who implement the project to the people who are ultimately going to receive the benefit from that, they’re all on the same page.
Bridget Smith: [00:14:32] Absolutely.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:14:33] You worked for the Saginaw township for a number of years, and then an opportunity popped up in Frankenmuth. Tell us a little bit about that.
Bridget Smith: [00:14:44] um, I have, uh, a friend from high school who works in our public works department and whenever I would run into him in town, I would always tell him if, um, if you hear that the city manager in Frankenmuth is going to retire, you let me know. And sure enough, um, he, he shot me a text message and said he heard that, um, Charlie Graham was going to retire and asked if I was interested.
Um, But at that time I, um, by my township manager, um, And I were, are, are still very close. Um, and my, one of my coworkers had been diagnosed with a tumor and was not doing well. And it was just, it was not a good time to make a switch like that. I felt like, um, like there was too much going on in, in my work environment that it, it wouldn’t be the right time to leave.
So I didn’t, um, I didn’t pursue it. And then, gosh, I want to say it was. Eight months later, maybe. And they were, they had gone through a search process and they were getting close to starting interviews. And, um, I had heard from a couple people, uh, locally and Frankenmuth and then a friend of mine, uh, at Saginaw township that they hadn’t found a good candidate yet.
And they were still entertaining a call for additional candidates. And, um, and, uh, so I. Thought long and hard about it. And, um, the very last minute I submitted my resume. Um, and, uh, I should probably back up a little bit and kind of explain, I had never really wanted to be, um, the boss, like it’s way more enjoyable to be the second person in charge, um, than it is to be the, the last call.
Um, and I really enjoyed planning as well. And, um, But the only really big planning jobs in Michigan are going to be in bigger cities like Grand Rapids or Detroit, or I would have to kind of move out of state. And so I didn’t want to move. And so I decided I would, um, I would have to focus more on, on management and, um, and my goal, um, all along was that whenever my boss, um, Rob Gross, whenever he retired, I would apply for, I would, I would try to.
Angle for that position. That that would be my goal.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:17:01] You said before that, that you contacted a friend of yours and said, you know, a Frankenmuth’s, current city manager, Charlie Graham, if he ever gets ready to retire, let me know. What was it about Frankenmuth that you thought that you would want to go there in work?
Bridget Smith: [00:17:18] Um, so Frankenmuth is. Like Lake Wobegon, you know, all the, the women are strong. The husband are, men are good looking and the children are above average. I mean, Frankenmuth is, is just that sort of unique, um, small town that really doesn’t exist anymore. And so if ever you were going to do something audacious, if ever you were going to, um, accomplish great things, you would need to do it in a community where everybody rows the boat in the same direction and Frankenmuth is, that community.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:18:03] You applied for the. Position and you received it. Now, you were talking before about Charlie Graham and how he had set the retire. If memory serves, he was actually the longest serving city manager in Frankenmuths history. Is that correct?
Bridget Smith: [00:18:23] Yes. In fact, I would, I would argue that he’s probably one of the longest serving city managers in Michigan. Um, He served for 37 years, which is just unheard of.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:18:35] yeah, that is unheard of. And for somebody who served for 37 years and obviously all of the different departments that are in Frankenmuth, uh, you know, they, they get used to, they get used to him, they get used to his leadership style and then you come in. And, if memory serves, you’re the youngest city manager to ever serve in Frankenmuth..
So what was that transition like going between, between Charlie’s leadership style and your leadership style?
Bridget Smith: [00:19:03] Well, I would say just by default, Charlie and I are very different. And so all, uh, all I would have to do is show up and we’re already two dramatically different people. Um, The staff here have been wonderful. Um, they were very, uh, open to the new ideas, but they were also, and this is one of the great, um, things I find in Frankenmuth.
They were also very honest. I had, um, one department head who said, I really like your ideas, Bridget. And I want to, I’ve want to do those things and I’m going to try, but you have to keep in mind that some of us are really old and our clay has already set. And I thought that was a very gracious, uh, explanation in terms of, of talking about how routines and, um, things have, have been so well established for so long that it’s going to take some time.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:19:57] What would you say are some of your toughest challenges?
Bridget Smith: [00:20:00] Um, I would say internally there was, um, there has been a struggle to get. other coworkers to communicate, um, as openly, as, as I would hope they would. There’s been a big improvement. Um, but, but it used to be, we would have a staff meeting and I would offer an idea and no one would tell me it was a stupid idea.
Um, until two or three weeks later, um, We’re we’re getting to the point now where they’re telling me during the meeting, that it’s a bad idea. Um, so it’s, um, I truly believe that, as city manager, right as that, that head football coach, I, I don’t know. Exactly what the best plan for my offense is. I look to the offensive coordinator.
So same thing here. As a city manager, I am going to look to my director of public works to tell me exactly what streets need to be repaved and why and why they should be a priority. Um, you, you surround yourself with people who have better and stronger areas of expertise than yourselves. Um, them. Than I do.
And so, um, it’s just a different kind of, um, communication style. And so that that’s taken some time and effort, but I really think, um, it’s, it’s paying off.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:19] And I, and I go back to something that you said earlier about the importance of relationships and building relationships, and that is relationships are something that you invest in. You may not see their fruit of it today, but you have to constantly make that investment in it before it’ll actually pay off.
Bridget Smith: [00:21:37] Right. And I see that, um, especially now in the midst of this COVID-19, um, I have gotten some, some calls from residents that I wasn’t prepared for in the sense that, um, they’re not asking about what to do with their yard waste or what to do with their water bill .They’re, they’re looking for local leaders to tell them what our plans are and that we’re, we’re gonna get through this. Okay. And I really was surprised to see that emotional need, um, coming, coming at us from, from local people.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:17] And speaking of local people, and this is something that we talked about in a prior conversation, you were actually one of the creators of the Frankenmuth living magazine. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?
Bridget Smith: [00:22:31] Sure. Uh, so, so you, you know, Adele Martin, the superintendent of Bregman schools, and then Jamie Furbush, who is the CEO of the Frankenmuth chamber of commerce and convention and visitor’s Bureau, the three of us started meeting, um, Gosh, three years ago now to talk, um, about how we could work together. I was new in my position.
Adele Martin was new in her position and we all talked about, um, this idea of being resilient. And so making sure that Frankenmuth, um, was resilient. And what did that look like? And one of the key pieces that each of us saw is this need for communication and how best can we tell our story and share it with our residents.
And, um, and it kind of established that, that level of trust that, you know, the, I truly believe the best form of government is local government. And how do we get our local people to know that they can reach out to us? Um, For, for those resources for facts for direction. And, um, the beauty of working with someone who isn’t government like Jamie at the chamber of commerce is she has the ability to make good ideas happen almost immediately.
And so I think it was maybe a month after that conversation that we started kicking things off.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:24:00] What would you say is the primary goal of the Frankenmuth living magazine?
Bridget Smith: [00:24:06] I would say that, um, you know, as a, as a group, Jamie, Adele, and I talked about the need to really find a good way to communicate with our residents and to really establish almost a sense of, of trust, um, between government and business and the schools. And how do you do that when you don’t have a venue to tell your story?
And, um, Frankenmuth living was kind of born out of that. Um, getting, getting something that’s that’s truthful and accurate into everybody’s hands,
Cliff Duvernois: [00:24:40] and then this magazine it’s available to every Frankenmuth resident.
Bridget Smith: [00:24:44] correct. It actually is mailed to every address within the Frankenmuth school district.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:24:49] what impact do you think your, your background in journalism had on creating the Frankenmuth living magazine?
Bridget Smith: [00:24:56] Well, I think, um, You know, journalists are storytellers. And I really believe that journalism at its best is taking the, you know, complex and confusing situations and boiling them down to something that we can all understand it. I think that’s one of the aspects that we try to do with Frankenmuth living is take something, um, kind of unwieldily and.
Make it make sense? So whether it’s taxes or, um, how do you choose your classes for next year or understanding, um, what it means to support and shop local? I think Frankenmuth living does a, uh, a great job of doing those things.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:25:42] , I absolutely bet because that, that communication sometimes between the government and the general public can get really, really complicated. Uh, did you, do you ever find yourself in a position where you just really struggle with, uh, with a piece of content for the magazine that you just, you just seems that it seems like you just wrestle with it for weeks or maybe even months before you finally get it to a spot where you feel it’s good enough to communicate.
Bridget Smith: [00:26:07] Yeah, I think so. I think one of our bigger struggles though is, um, social media. You’re, we’re, we’re all very active. The city, the chamber in the school district, um, on social media and I actually, man, the city’s social media and it’s a, it’s a blessing and a curse to have such rapid communication with residents directly.
But the struggle is, um, no matter how fast you are and how responsive you are, um, you know, it’s, you’re never fast enough. Um, so, so I, I love the idea of social media, but sometimes I struggle more with the two sentence response than I do with a two page article. Um, cause it’s so much easier to tell a story with detail than to explain why you have to walk your dog with a leash.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:26:59] In two sentences. Okay. I can get that. And also too, I think one of the bigger challenges is when you’re communicating with that many people out there. And, uh, I, I, unfortunately I can’t remember the stats off the top of my head, but I do know like the Frankenmuth page on, um, Facebook has got a lot of followers and I do know that there’s like millions of searches every single month for.
For Frankenmuth, Michigan. So making sure that you’re, you’re getting your message out there in a very clear and concise manner, trying to prevent people from, you know, reading it one way, but interpreted it. Another is, is quite a skill.
So if our audience wants to connect with you or the follow you, what’s, what’s the best way for them to do that.
Bridget Smith: [00:27:48] Um, well, I’m almost always at city hall, so anytime they’re in town, they should feel free to, um, to stop in. They can call me at six five two nine nine zero one. Um, they can follow the city’s, um, Facebook page. I also have a blog that’s based off the city’s website, which is Frankenmuth city.com and my email addresses there as well.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:28:19] And for our audience, we’ll have all the links in the show notes down below Bridget. It’s been so fun having you on the podcast. Thank you.
Bridget Smith: [00:28:26] Thank you so much. It was great.
About The Host
About The Host
Cliff is the host of “The Call of Leadership” podcast. He has published over 500 short stories over Facebook, Medium and LinkedIn. He is a passionate lifelong learner, marketer and philanthropist. He currently lives in Reese, Michigan with his fiancé Sherry and her two children.