DECATUR — By anyone’s standards, the past five years have not been easy for Ryan McCrady.
The 43-year-old Divernon native began his position as Decatur’s city manager Oct. 20, 2008. In that role, he makes recommendations to the Decatur City Council and acts on their decisions, coordinating more than 500 employees and a $130 million budget.
In the ensuing five years, the city faced recession, declining property values, rising pension contributions and a drought that threatened to further hamper the region’s economy.
Despite the obstacles, the council and McCrady’s administration worked in harmony to achieve major initiatives, including an overhaul of garbage and recycling systems, a multipronged approach to increasing the city’s water supply, new space for the long-cramped Decatur Police Department, the downtown makeover and the beginning of the Nelson Park lakefront development.
McCrady credits the council, his staff and the community for the progress, and he points out that some projects were under way long before he arrived. He compares himself to an orchestra conductor.
“I don’t play the instruments. You won’t see me at a homicide or a fire, or fixing a water main, or driving a city bus or plowing snow,” he said. “My job really is to take this organization and make it work well together; just like at an orchestra, you want it to sound good. And then sometimes, you know, the violins are louder than the cellos or the percussion section, but everyone has their time.
“If you bring it together right, then it sounds good, but you can’t have everybody out just playing their own thing.”
The city council showed its approval in December with a new five-year contract and raise for McCrady.
Mayor Mike McElroy said McCrady helps the council make decisions by providing complete information, responding quickly to questions and reacting thoughtfully to potential problems.
“Ryan’s ability to organize and get everybody in the right place at the right time has been very, very good,” he said.
Other community leaders praised McCrady’s ability to bring people together for the city’s gain.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of city administrators in my career — I’m not saying just here, but across the state — and Ryan is one of the true good guys in the business,” said Craig Coil, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County. “I think his honesty, his integrity, his willingness to work toward a solution that benefits the goals of the city and the goals of the client — they stand above the rest.”
There is nothing about McCrady that suggests political intrigue.
His Facebook and Twitter postings are primarily devoted to highlighting the victories of his wife and three children, his city and the St. Louis Cardinals. He coaches Little League and attends Cub Scout meetings. He wears brightly colored shirts and ties.
On city officials’ neighborhood walks, McCrady approaches residents with a firm handshake and easy countenance to ask how they think the local government is performing. He takes notes.
Frequently, he is told that he resembles an adult version of the cherubic Ralphie from the movie “A Christmas Story,” and photos of McCrady as a child reveal an uncanny likeness. A bobblehead of the movie character grins cheerfully in his office on the third floor of the Decatur Civic Center.
Other decorations in the office include artwork created by his children, including small Lego sculptures that his youngest sometimes hides around the room; a bonsai tree, recently acquired at Sam’s Club, which he hopes not to kill; a 1929 $10 bill from the Millikin National Bank of Decatur, given to him by a local business owner; an inspirational quote from Mother Teresa; a fish-shaped planter that belonged to his grandmother.
McCrady is often diplomatic but always plainspoken, peppering his explanations of city policy with metaphors and colloquialisms. Declining property values, he once said, are like an alligator’s tail, striking victims who survive the “teeth” of recession.
Not long after he arrived in Decatur, he likened his budget philosophy for the city to a weight-loss program: “You can’t just cut down on what you’re eating. You have to exercise to bring up your metabolism.”
The straightforward communication style seems to work. Of more than a dozen people interviewed about McCrady, almost all used words such as “accessible” and “people person” to describe him.
When the city faced budget problems in 2009 and 2010 that eventually led to staff reductions, McCrady opened up about the situation, recalled Vasudha Pinnamaraju, the city’s former environmental planner.
“He held a lot of staff meetings in the city council chambers, inviting every staff member,” she said. “After he came on board, that was the start of when staff started to get the financial information of how the city was doing. Anything that would go to the council, he would actually send to the staff — the annual financial reports and things like that.
“It was very obvious that he was extremely approachable, right off the bat.”
Pinnamaraju left the city earlier this year to become executive director of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission. In her new position, Pinnamaraju hopes to emulate McCrady’s inclusiveness of his employees. She appreciated, for example, that she was always copied on emails and included in meetings about projects that would eventually become her responsibility.
Public Works Director Rick Marley was one of several people interviewed who drew contrasts between the styles of McCrady and former City Manager Steve Garman. Marley said communication between the manager’s office and department heads has improved greatly.
“Ryan is much more approachable,” Marley said. “I work in the same building, and I just walk down the hall. I knock on his door and say, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you.’ Oftentimes, we are able to take care of stuff within minutes.”
City Clerk Linda Swartz worked as McCrady’s assistant for four years before she was appointed to her current position in 2012. In a written statement, she said she could not list the plethora of issues her former boss would tackle in a given day.
Despite that, she said, “He was always well-prepared for meetings, and I can’t say he is reluctant or avoids talking to anyone about anything. You ask, and he’ll talk. His door is always open, and there were less than a handful of days during the four years I was his secretary that he did not end the day in a cheerful manner despite the issues and concerns he had to address on any particular day.”
The transparency has carried forward outside of the civic center offices.
On the Friday before each city council meeting, visitors to the city’s website, decaturil.gov, can download the “packet” of informational memos that city staff have prepared for council members. McCrady meets individually with local reporters to give an overview of each agenda item and answer questions. The city emails news releases summarizing the council meetings to anyone who has signed up to receive them.
McCrady is frequently seen at community events, often with his family. Sue Lawson, president of the Coalition of Neighborhood Organizations, said she knows residents appreciate seeing him outside of the civic center.
“He’s willing to meet with anyone, which is awesome,” Lawson said. “... As I hear from all the neighborhood people, they like it that he’s not up there on the pedestal. He’s willing to come out into the community.”
Assistant City Manager Billy Tyus said McCrady has a saying: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” It reflects the city manager’s desire that his staff be proactive in communicating with residents, making sure people know when changes are coming and why.
“He’s very open. He wants his city government to be very open,” said Tyus, who has worked for the city for 13 years. “There are obviously things that we can’t talk about, and we shouldn’t. But the amount of things that we don’t talk about is much less now than what it has been, and I will say that a lot of that comes from the manager.”
That’s not to say that all of McCrady’s actions have been popular.
After a public outcry in September 2010 over an initial attempt to overhaul the city’s garbage and recycling systems, he brought a new proposal to the council several months later. The changes eliminated twice-weekly trash pickup and implemented single-stream recycling, a method in which materials do not have to be sorted before pickup.
“I have yet to see as many people show up for a meeting as they did for that stuff, and it got nasty. I mean, it was unbelievable,” McCrady said.
But the new system caught on. More than half of Decatur households have signed up for the single-stream recycling program, far above the city’s initial goal of a 30 percent buy-in by 2020.
Another poorly received decision involved limiting the size of vehicles that could park in angled spaces on southbound Main Street downtown. The restrictions prohibited trucks, SUVs and vans from parking in the spots, but they confused some drivers who did not know how their vehicles were classified.
After two months, McCrady lifted the limits in January.
“That clearly didn’t go well,” he said. “That was a situation of the government getting too technical. It created a lot of problems. I wouldn’t ever do that again.”
Some city advancements have come at a cost. The city council approved in April a series of increases that will more than double residents’ water rates over three years. The increases will pay for massive improvements to the city’s water supply, which include long-term, large-scale dredging of Lake Decatur.
Officials acknowledged the hike was painful for a community already struggling with high unemployment, but they said it was necessary for a region tied to industry that depends on water.
“I think someday we’re going to look back on this, and people are going to realize that this is a huge step forward that we took,” McCrady said. “It’s going to be the biggest investment in our water system since the lake was built.”
Of all the challenges he’s faced, McCrady said the biggest has been changing city government to handle what he calls “the new normal” of rising expenses, stagnant or declining revenues and constant budget adjustments.
“That term, ‘new normal,’ gets used a lot, and probably overused. But the reality is that, you know, businesses aren’t the same after the recession, and neither is the city,” he said. “We’re constantly having to be adjusting every single budget, adjusting things and tweaking things. The days of cruise control, if they were ever here, are over.”
Even as the city continues to pursue the water solution, renovation of the police space and the lakefront development, new priorities arise. The city’s pavements are aging and in need of repairs. There are a variety of problems plaguing some neighborhoods, from criminal activity to property issues, which McCrady said the city must work to address.
“This job is a little bit like being the plate spinner at the circus. You know? And that’s really what it is,” he said. “You’ve got to keep everything going. There’s nothing that just really runs on its own. And you have to, if you have a job like this, you can’t let that frustrate you or get you down.
“That’s the job.”