Communicate & Collaborate: The Complexities of City Leadership During COVID-19

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Marian Orr was sworn in as Cheyenne’s first female Mayor on January 3, 2017. Wyoming-raised with deep Cheyenne roots, Mayor Orr has dedicated her time and service to making the community a better place to live, work, and play. In this webinar, she shared some of the unique initiatives and approaches she has spearheaded to lead her community through the complex challenges of the COVID-19 Crisis.

Key Takeaways

Main challenges

  • Acting rapidly to provide the community with solutions - When the pandemic started, many people didn’t understand the severity of the situation that was at their doorstep in a matter of days, this required a rapid and concise response.

  • Providing economical solutions and support systems - Wyoming’s economy is heavily based on coal and oil and the whole state was hit severely. When COVID-19 hit, right away the city needed to set a financial support system for the community. Mayor Orr established a local relief fund in cooperation with local banks and financial institutions. Creating a strong personal connection with community and business leaders was key for providing rapid support.

  • Balancing different opinions in the community and proving unity - Wyoming is one of only 4 states nationwide that didn’t issue a shelter in place order. Mayor Orr was in favor of having a total shut down for two weeks, but this decision is part of the Governor’s jurisdiction. Moreover, there was a push back against this idea from the Governor and members of the community. Mayor Orr decided that a unified voice in times of crisis is a top priority and she aligned with the Governor’s decision not to issue a shelter in place order.

Decision-making processes in a time of crisis

  • Provide clear and transparent data-based decision-making processes - When the implications of COVID-19 hit hard it was evident that the city is facing a drastic drop in income. Mayor Orr assembled all the managers in order to initiate a 10% budget cut and a reduction in force (RIF) process. The RIF process included a deep analysis of positions and their level of necessity and evaluation of employee skills and qualifications through a predefined set of criteria (performance metrics, defined skills and qualifications, and length of employment). After a swift and focused process, each director drafted a written analysis of each proposed position and employee that was reviewed by the Mayor and a review committee consisting of the City Treasurer, the Chief of Staff, and the City Attorney. This process resulted in a reduction of 17 positions.

Crafting effective and frequent communication

  • Communication needs to be concise and frequent - At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Mayor Orr held daily updates through Facebook Live. These sessions included Q&A to address resident’s concerns in real-time. After a few weeks, the live updates were reduced to 3 times a week and now they are held once a week.

  • Be aware of political implications - Mayor Orr wanted to conduct town hall meetings via telecommunication, but she got pushback from her council due to concerns from council members about the promotion of political agendas in an election year.

Managing dilemmas about city lead events

  • All planned events at the city-owned Civic center were canceled and the city is currently looking at canceling all events for the next 6 months due to the high costs of the venue. A team of three council members, the mayor, and the city attorney meet once a week to discuss city events and the city’s ongoing policy on this matter.

Leading through empathy

  • During times of crisis, the community needs to stay physically distant but socially connected, and the virtual environment has a huge role.

  • In times of crisis listening to the community and understanding the challenges and hardships that people are going through is more important than ever.

  • In diverse communities, listening to a wide variety of voices and communities is critical, and doing so through empathy and compassion is paramount.

  • City Youth engagement - The Mayor's Youth Council provides local youth with an opportunity to learn about government at the level closest to the people and to weigh in on policies affecting young people in the community. High School youth between the ages of 14 and 18 are selected to serve on the council for one school calendar year. During the COVID-19 crisis, Mayor Orr decided to keep this initiative going through virtual platforms to maintain engagement with the future generation of the community.

  • The city is leading a unique initiative called “take 2” where the youth will submit 2-minute videos about social distancing as a means of sharing their experiences from this historic time and to give the younger population of Cheyenne a platform to share their feelings and combat isolation. This initiative will culminate in a documentary about kids and youth dealing with COVID-19 around the state of Wyoming.

Leveraging good advice

  • In times of crisis, communicating with fellow Mayors, especially from cities of similar size and characteristics has been a great source of knowledge, advice, and mutual support.

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