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IAMMA SPOTLIGHT: Scott Niehaus, the Village Manager of Lombard, Ill.

Graphic with a portrait photo of Scott Niehaus

Journey into the Profession:

 I like to say that my first foray into public service was during my summer job experience while in college.  For three (3) years from 1990 through 1992 I came home from Augustana College and worked Public Works for the City of Elmhurst.  During this time I did a number of jobs in the Street Department and certainly had a crash course in policy, unions, workplace safety, risk management and interaction with the public.  Alas, I never worked enough hours to qualify for IMRF.

In a more classical sense, while at Augustana I double majored in Political Science and Public Administration.  While there, I had a supportive professor who encouraged me to consider a career in local government.  He introduced me to the NIU MPA program.  I took the GRE and applied to the program in the winter of 1993 and was accepted shortly thereafter.  By June, I started working as an intern in the Village of Elk Grove and started the graduate program in the fall of 1993.

While in Elk Grove from 1993 to 1999 I was introduced to brand new things such as the internet and email.  My biggest takeaway from this experience is how quickly it changed the expectations of residents.   By policy, we were required to respond to any letter from a resident with a hard copy USPS letter within 7 days.  Little did I know that the time frame for response (in the resident’s mind) would be reduced to 7 minutes a mere 30 years later.

In addition, I would note that my titles in Elk Grove moved through some form of pre-historic period and may not be recognizable today.  Intern became Administrative Assistant.  Administrative Assistant became Assistant to the Village Manager.  I certainly think the term Management Analyst is a vast upgrade over those terms and appropriately communicates to the public and other staff the role of the position.

It was during this time that I was introduced to IAMMA by one of my early mentors, Ray Rummel.  He was the Assistant Village Manager in Elk Grove at the time.  During my 2nd day on the job he grabbed me and said we were going to an IAMMA BBQ.  That included people of a similar background and interest, good food and believe it or not free beer.  The organization seemed pretty good to me.  Little did I know that I was being drawn into at 10 year commitment of progressive committee and officer responsibilities resulting in becoming IAMMA president in 2001/2002.  I still have the plaque with the gavel to prove it.

In 1999, I determined that it was time for me to spread my wings and make the next step.  I assumed the position of Assistant Village Manager in Tinley Park.  A municipal vehicle and change of address accompanied the move as they required residency at the time.  For the record, I never became a Sox fan though.  After 4 years as the AVM, I was promoted to the Village Manager position in 2003.   At the time, I was 31 years old.  I was blessed to have a very stable Village Board with a long time mayor.  This afforded me the opportunity develop my management style and grow as a leader.  I certainly stubbed my toes more than once but that is where having a good group of elected officials came in handy.  As I look back at it now, it was a great time in my life.  While I was young and single, it was easier for me to make up for my inexperience because I had the time to work longer hours and be everywhere at all times.  That period of one’s life does not last forever though.

While in Tinley Park, I also had the chance to work on very meaningful and substantial bricks and mortar projects including two (2) separate train stations and a new library.  On the commercial side there were a number of big box projects that gave me an intro into developer and incentive negotiations.  Residentially, time were booming.  During my time in Tinley Park from 1999 through 2014, Tinley Park grew from 45,000 people to 65,000.  It felt like we did a special census every year.

For my last and most recent move, I applied for and was offered the job as Village Manager in Lombard in January of 2014.  The foundation of this move was heavily based on family.  Having grown up in Elmhurst, my parents had moved to Lombard.  Working three blocks from their house afforded me the opportunity to be close to them and take care of them as the challenges of age became an issue.   To this day, my mother still lives there and has been a great resource on many levels including a nice home cooked dinner before a board meeting or child care for my young daughter when COVID protocols became an issue.

Lombard has been a great place to work for the past 8 plus years.  Once again I have been blessed to have a politically stable board and a good staff team to work with.  Beyond geography, I would have to say the biggest difference from my past experience has been age.  Both mine and my boards.  When I became a manager in 2003, my entire board was 20 to 25 years older than me.  Now, I am older than 5 of my 8 elected officials and very close to being parental age for some.  On the positive side, it has shown me that I can adapt and be flexible which is truly one of the skill sets that we must have in order to be successful in our profession.

How did you become involved with IAMMA, and overall what did you get out of your experience with the organization?

I alluded to my introduction briefly above.  Simply put, it was explained to me that I was expected to be involved and do my part to volunteer and assist the organization.  By doing so, I made connections with colleagues that have now become close friends and mentors.  Over the past 29 years, these relationships have probably saved me thousands of hours of work because I was able to grab a memo, ordinance, letter, agreement or document that I could adapt for my own organization.  It is true what they say, “plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery”.  In addition, I continue to get day in, day out support of my colleagues and friends on any given day of the week.  Many times when I am having a really tough day due to a major event in town, I can count on getting a call or text from someone just dong a well being check.  That is a truly great feeling.

What committees were you involved with?

 Early on I can remember being involved with community service.  I was involved with both Salvation Army and the Special Olympics.  We really wanted to have one or two groups that we worked with so that we had a connection with them long term.  I am glad that the Salvation Army Angel Tree program has been around for over 20 years now and I always look forward to the December luncheon.  In fact, I think IAMMA was successful in getting Metro Managers to tag onto it and now it is a combined philanthropic event.

Why choose a local government career path?

 I have thought about this one a lot over the year.  Personally, I cannot imagine working at the State or Federal level.  To me, those organizations are monoliths that move too slow and are disconnected from helping people out in their day to day lives.  It always amazes me how eager people are to talk about presidential and federal politics but they have little respect for how much of their life is really impacted at the local level.  In the end, I enjoy being in a position where I can make a difference for someone in terms of policies and programs directed at drainage, tree planting, bike/ped access, municipal buildings and retail projects that fill a defined need in the community.  I also like being able to touch and feel those projects on a regular basis.

Fun fact about yourself?

 I have to admit.  This is a tough one to answer.  As village managers, we are trained to be in the background and talk about the organization as opposed to ourselves.  So I guess one way to answer is to mention what I have found to be one of the best parts of my job in Lombard.   The mayor is an owner of a local pizza shop.  Not a restaurant.  Not a delivery place.  An old school, you call and you drive to pick it up place.  What I have realized is that citizens who buy a pie on Friday nights think that they get the right to bend the mayors ear when they pick up their food.  In response, I typically swing by the pizza shop around 3:00 pm on Fridays just to download “hot button” items for my mayor so he can address them as they come in.  Sometimes I will even write up prepared summaries that he hands out to his customers.  His pizza shop is Facebook before Facebook existed.  Just like the salon or barbershop.  In addition, I love it when he comes in on Monday morning with his notes that are all written on greasy pizza slips and hands them over to me for follow up.   In addition, he makes a pretty good pie too so I have been known to grab one from time to time… fully paid for of course.

If you could give one piece of advice to future local government leaders it would be…..

 I cannot stop at just one so I will just share a few nuggets that I have written down and keep in my office for reminders:

  1. Trust = Efficiency – If you take the time to develop trust with your elected officials, staff and citizens, it will make your life so much easier because they will take what you have to say at face value and move on without second guessing it.
  2. ABC – Always Be Communicating – Admittedly this is a spin off on the Alex Baldwin speech from “Glengary Glen Ross.”
  3. Measure twice. Cut once.  Better to be right than fast.  Slow it down.  – These all mean the same thing.   Do not be fooled into thinking that every problem needs to be fixed and responded to right away.  Take a beat.  Step back.  Gather more information.  By doing so you will find that your judgement and decisions will ultimately be a lot better in the long run.

 

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