Higher education takes on practical meaning when it includes interaction with and feedback from professionals who “walk the walk” in careers that students plan to pursue with their degrees.
Those exchanges happen frequently with guest speakers and lecturers representing the private sector, and at Florida Gulf Coast University they also happen with experts in the public sector, thanks to the efforts of educators such as Bob Lee, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration.
Lee has earned Credentialed Manager status with the International City/County Management Association, and serves as FGCU faculty adviser for the ICMA Student Chapter on campus. The ICMA is an organization in existence for more than a century that advances professional local government through leadership, management, innovation and ethics — the latter of which was the topic of a training session April 12 in FGCU’s Cohen Center, “Professional Management: Ethical Challenges in 2019.”
More than 40 participants — many of whom are graduate students in FGCU’s master of public administration program — were enthralled by a question-and-answer session and one-on-one networking opportunities with what was essentially an all-star roster of Southwest and Central Florida city and county managers, ranging from the governmental leader of 5,000-resident Wauchula in Hardee County, Terry Atchley; to the man who guides almost 200,000 people in Southwest Florida’s biggest city, Cape Coral City Manager John Szerlag. In between were their peers Charles Chapman of Naples, Howard Kunik of Punta Gorda, Judie Zimomra of Sanibel and Terry Stewart of Arcadia.
The main topic of discussion was the ethical responsibilities these leaders face on a daily basis, and the different types of ethical dilemmas presented by managing in both smaller rural and larger metropolitan municipalities. There were many common themes and messages delivered by the managers, such as always acting with complete honesty and easy accessibility, keeping every member of their city teams informed down to the people who mow the grass in the parks, and negotiating the entirely new, increasingly slippery and ever-growing problems created by social-media platforms.
But the most important thing that students and fellow government-management professionals got from the session was simply access to experienced and accomplished people who do what they want to do for a living and are willing to share anecdotal experiences they’ve accumulated along the way.
“These people are seasoned professionals who are willing to share lessons they’ve learned for, in the case of one of our panelists, up to 50 years. Some come from rural areas, others from urban communities, and some have the experience of working in both,” said Lee, who noted that recently hired Naples City Manager Chapman came directly from being administrator of rural Hendry County, while Arcadia’s Stewart in the farmlands of DeSoto County previously served as city manager of Cape Coral.
“Their challenges are the same, and it’s not always the big, obvious ethical issues. They encounter little problems every day that are difficult to deal with. It’s a balance between providing services and being responsive,” Lee said.
Naika Gustave, an MPA student originally from Haiti who now lives in Fort Myers, appreciated hearing about how the experts deal with issues in these “changing times.”
“Ethical challenges aren’t always obvious and out in the open,” Gustave said. “Sometimes things happen behind closed doors, and as public administrators, we have to learn to strictly follow our codes.”
Social-media insight from government managerial experts caught the attention of Katey Kubasik, who came to Fort Myers from New York and is earning her MPA at FGCU while working as VISTA program supervisor for the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council. “These are resourceful people, and they really opened my eyes about the dangers of social media,” Kubasik said. “Not accepting gifts is an obvious ethical example, but when you put something out there on social media and 10 minutes later you’re saying, ‘Man, I shouldn’t have said that,’ it’s too late — it’s already out there.”
For MPA candidate Ashlie Clopein, a Maryland native now living in Fort Myers who works in human resources for the Southwest Florida Public Defender’s Office, the gathering was “huge for networking.”
“This isn’t just hearing about ethics and learning about how to deal with ethical challenges, but it’s getting to sit down and network with, and just getting to know, our local government managers,” said Clopein, who moderated the event will fellow ICMA Student Chapter members John Meyer and Eli Lee.
The program was co-sponsored by the FGCU Department of Political Science and Public Administration, the FGCU ICMA Student Chapter and the Florida City and County Management Association, which used the gathering as an onsite training session.