Business as Unusual

By: Adam Cohen Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Government Business as Unusual

If there was a recipe to start a new municipality from scratch, someone should have let the founders of the City of Centennial know. "Iron Chefs" on the Food Network have more to work with than citizens in unincorporated Arapahoe County did in 1999 and 2000 when they set out to establish the City of Centennial.

But, on September 12, 2010, city founders and current city staff and officials celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Centennial’s incorporation – and whipped up some terrific pancakes in true "Iron Chef" fashion. Today, city founders and leaders emphasize hard work while good luck played a part in the smart decisions and actions that formed Centennial.

How they established the city in 2001 is a good, solid success story. However, it becomes a great story of exceptional accomplishment when you understand the principles the city was founded on: high citizen engagement and involvement, purposefully lean and efficient government, and collaborative partnerships.

Grassroots Support and a Few Miracles

Before a proposed annexation of commercial land by the City of Greenwood Village inspired the journey to incorporate Centennial, residents of unincorporated Arapahoe County didn’t want or expect much from government.

The city’s "founders," including Randy Pye, Brian Vogt, John Brackney, Ed Bosier, and Pete Ross mobilized support for the incorporation out on the front lines. They attended Homeowners Association (HOA) meetings, spoke at community groups and events, held over 100 "regional meetings," and even took their message to the streets, meeting and greeting local residents at area grocery stores and knocking on homeowners’ front doors.

Their message, stressing the opportunity for incorporation and self-determination, along with lean government and low taxes, instilled a sense of civic passion. Two years of public engagement, and navigating state legislature and Supreme Court hurdles resulted in a historic landslide vote: 77 percent of voters approved formation of the largest incorporated city in U.S. history, approximately 100,000 residents strong.

Cathy Noon is emblematic of the type of citizen engagement the city needed to succeed. She moved to unincorporated Arapahoe County from Aurora in 1999 and became involved in her HOA, leading to involvement in the Arapahoe County Citizens for Organized, Responsible Development (ACCORD) group, then the Centennial Council of Neighborhoods (CenCoN). Through ACCORD, Noon met Randy Pye, eventually succeeding him as chairperson. Next thing she knew, and completely outside of her comfort zone at the time, Noon found herself in front of a local King Soopers grocery story advocating for formation of the new city. She then volunteered to work on the Comprehensive Plan, Identity and Signage, Land Development Code, and Home Rule Charter committees. In 2009, Noon was elected Centennial’s second-ever mayor.

Pye was Centennial’s first mayor, serving two terms, from the city’s formation through 2009. Forming a new entity and positioning it for service requires determination and a little luck. One would expect former Mayor Pye to speak passionately about the hard work that characterized the city’s formation, but it’s his image of the "Centennial Miracle" that leaves a lasting impression.

The "Centennial Miracle" combines both determination and luck, seasoned with a heavy dose of inspirational vision. Pye reflects on the "miracles" that occurred to help the fledgling city get off the ground. "Whenever we needed something, the right people and the right resources would appear at the right time," according to Pye. Miracles come in all shapes and sizes, and Centennial’s miracles were many and varied.

Pro bono legal services helped navigate state legislative and Supreme Court hurdles. Then, a local bank donated rent-free office space to the city. Professional public relations experts stepped up to help Pye and his team communicate with the public. Contacts through the Colorado Municipal League resulted in the hiring of a part-time city manager, Mark Achen, whose vision was perfect for the job. The part-time manager brought in the first full-time city manager, John Pazour, a finance expert whose acumen helped the City stabilize funding, cut expenses, and transition smoothly from Arapahoe County services. Today’s city manager, Jacque Wedding-Scott, was hired by Pazour and was an immediate cultural fit with the organization.

Founder Brian Vogt called early citizen engagement "awe-inspiring," saying that Centennial’s citizens "represent everything America is supposed to be." Pye and his initial 2-person city staff relied on citizens as volunteers, with literally hundreds of unpaid citizens helping the city get on its feet. Along with the other founders, Mayor Pye spent hundreds of hours asking citizens, "What do you want Centennial to be?" He listened, learned, and implemented their vision of limited basic services, low taxes, and high customer service.

In 2007, Pye led a Centennial 2030: Our Voice, Our Vision visioning process to capture and consolidate citizen, business, and community expectations, needs, and dreams for the city. And, this guiding vision continues to set the path forward. As part of an annual city council strategic planning workshop, Mayor Noon reports that participants "tie their priorities back to Our Voice, Our Vision, to ensure our priorities meet what we said we are about." City Manager Wedding-Scott and her team also link their operational activities, budgetary requests, and performance measures to Our Voice, Our Vision.

Today, city leaders rely on citizen input and engagement as much as ever to understand how changing citizen demographics and service expectations affect operations. For example, a majority of citizens participating in a "Snow and Ice Plan" outreach effort decided that they preferred to travel an extra eighth of a mile to access a major plowed street rather than pay extra for additional side street clearing.

And, citizen survey results just came back in late 2010, giving the city an opportunity to do what Mayor Noon calls "assess and address" or analyze the data and take action. S.M.A.R.T. Government and Its Partners

Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Realistic. Timely. The acronym S.M.A.R.T. describes a popular template to establish business goals. However, city leaders use the template to guide performance measures and targets for their operational activities. At the same time, beyond a goal-setting device, S.M.A.R.T. is what Centennial’s Business As Unusual approach to government is all about.

Dubbed an "intentional city" by Pye, Centennial strives to keep taxes low and provide superior services. Researching municipal service models from California to Florida, talking with Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, and exploring Indianapolis’ experiences in consolidating government, Pye’s team settled on a contract services model designed to keep city staff lean, minimize bureaucracy, and optimize resources with little or no redundancies.

Operation of the contract services model is based on a simple principle: establish service level expectations and find the best, most affordable way to fulfill them. "It’s other people’s money," Noon says. "Our number one goal has to be efficiency."

In its staffing, the city intentionally eliminated elected city clerk and city attorney positions, staples of most municipalities, finding that city staff could handle regulatory compliance activities of the clerk, and a service-for-fee arrangement with an outside legal practice made more sense than in-house legal services.

City Manager Jacque Wedding-Scott describes a process by which city staff prepares in-house cost-comparative models for all services. Wedding-Scott’s team constructs apples-to-apples cost models before soliciting bids for contracted services. This discipline ensures fairness to the contractors and also enables city staff to hone in on operational needs and cost categories that make or break successful service delivery. Staff analyzes in-house and solicited estimates relative to service levels, and then makes recommendations to city council.

The city’s service contracts range from police and public safety (to public-sector Arapahoe County Sheriff), to public works (to private-sector CH2M HILL), but contracting outside the city is not a fait accompli. Balancing service level needs, cost, and contract administration challenges led the city to reject outside bids for land use and community development in favor of in-house performance. Wedding-Scott credits the "the right leader," Director Wayne Reed, for bringing experience and a collaborative style to the job.

Wedding-Scott, whose first official duty as city manager in 2006 was to field blizzard-emergency calls from citizens, knows that service contracting comes with successes as well as headaches. Contracting police services to the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s office resulted in accolades as Colorado’s safest city for the sixth straight year, and Sheriff Grayson Robinson "gets our culture of excellence," according to Wedding-Scott. Englewood-based CH2M HILL brings a unique high-performance culture and partnering expertise from more than 30 years of municipal contracting around the world.

Still, the city experiences challenges such as building service expectations and cultural values into contracts, ensuring contractors actively portray the city’s unique brand and culture in public, clarifying contract roles and responsibilities, and integrating contractor staff into city management activities without violating employer-employee legal boundaries.

Don’t bet against Centennial’s contracting model, which Wedding-Scott calls "intriguing from a government and governance perspective," as its creative staff and contract-partners tackle these issues.

Sustaining a Legacy

Starting a city from scratch and building a non-traditional culture of excellence is challenging enough, so how will the city leverage what it has learned and grow "smartly" into its adolescence and beyond?

Creating a sense of place and an identity remain challenges. Citizens prefer lean government, and the city has delivered with only 50 full-time employees, limited services, and contract partnerships. However, successes abound, such as the recent redevelopment of The Streets at Southglenn, the soon-to-open IKEA store, cost-share funding for County Line/Chester turn lane, Arapahoe/Parker Road improvements, and recognition awards from Colorado Performance Excellence and the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships.

With success comes tough choices that face the city now and into the future, like balancing commercial and residential needs, responding to a changing demographic with an average citizen age of over 40, managing precious financial and human resources, and staying focused on its unique brand of government. And, the city’s success and commitment to non-traditional government means it is under the microscope.

Former Mayor Pye believes the city must continue to challenge itself to do what makes sense for the citizens whose aspirations and expectations created Our Voice, Our Vision. He emphasizes listening to citizens and keeping them involved in problem-solving so they retain ownership in the outcomes. "Always create a coalition," Pye says, "and remember that people are drawn to a vision."

Centennial continues its legacy of strong, active neighborhoods. No Colorado city of its size had a greater response to mail-in 2010 Census returns—83 percent—placing it third nationally for like-sized cities. According to founder John Brackney, "An active and engaged citizenry is the essential element of all vibrant cities. The city was founded on the principal of self-determination and that culture remains strong. We all have a role in effective government. Involvement is not something that can be delegated or ‘hired out.’ "

Mayor Noon puts the 10-year journey into perspective. "Take time to celebrate where we have come from and who we are," she says. "Then, take a deep breath and work hard to do what we do to the best of our ability." She regards the "incredible" staff, their responsiveness and accessibility, and their tremendous commitment as the keys to sustaining a high level of service and culture of efficient, small government. Noon encourages the city to challenge itself to find better ways to operate by thinking outside the box, comparing performance to other cities, and finding public-private partners who bring fresh and innovative thinking to the table.

Leadership is a contact sport and, just like in business, an organization’s level of success rises and falls with the ebbs and tides of its leadership. Wedding-Scott believes the city’s success relies on its elected officials, management team, staff, and citizens alike to demonstrate leadership.

"It’s not the model, it’s the governance," says Wedding-Scott. "Can the vision be sustained as community leadership evolves? It depends on how they embrace the vision."

Adam Cohen, principal of Accelerant Performance Solutions, lives nearby Centennial in unincorporated Arapahoe County. He helps organizations achieve and sustain high strategic, operational, and human performance. Contact him at