Editor’s note: This story was produced through a partnership between the INDY and The 9th Street Journal, which is published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
After 12 years on the job, Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield is retiring. He cites a “variety of personal and professional reasons.” They include being at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 now that he is 65 and wanting to spend more time with family. The 9th Street Journal interviewed Bonfield about his career and next steps. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
9th Street Journal: What made you decide to go into municipal government work?
Tom Bonfield: Well, it was a long time ago. I kind of got into local government accidentally. I was originally planning on going to law school after undergraduate, and I got sidetracked a little bit with a fairly brief career in minor league baseball. So I delayed going to law school.
In the meantime, I began working during the off season part-time in a city manager’s office in the town I grew up in, a small town called Gulfport, Florida. And it was there that I first got exposed to the challenges and the fun of thinking about making a difference in communities and local government. So instead of going to law school, I went to grad school, and pursued degrees in business administration and public administration. And 42 years later, I have worked in local government, and certainly been completely satisfied and know that this was the thing I was supposed to do.
9th Street: Why Durham? What was it about this city that encouraged you to work for city government for 12 years?
TB: I moved to Durham in 2008. I was recruited to come to Durham to be the city manager.
Before Durham I was the city manager in Pensacola, Florida for about 10 years. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a change of career or change of jobs. And I had never been to Durham … [with] the Research Triangle, I had heard a lot about being in the government business, but I really hadn’t focused as much on Durham.
I wasn’t sure I was interested, but when I came and visited I just saw a lot of really interesting dynamics of progress and people and energy that I really loved and decided it was a good fit. And as it turned out, it’s been way — way better than I ever had envisioned.
9th Street: In what important ways do you think Durham has changed since you’ve been here, for better or worse?
TB: Back in the 2008 and around that time Durham was, you know, not necessarily that well thought of in the Triangle. And the progress that has been made as it relates to the community being incredibly desirable — in fact, maybe one of the more desirable destinations or locations for people to live and be a part of — has been fun. Obviously the last five-six months of COVID haven’t been all that fun, but I feel confident that it will return.
9th Street: Are there any moments or memories in that time that really hit home why you decided to work in city government?
TB: I don’t know that there’s any one thing that I would say that was the magic moment. Everything about the city — whether it’s the diversity, whether it’s the broad economic opportunities, or the vibrant universities — there’s so many aspects of it that I don’t think I could really say there’s any one thing that said this was the moment.
That’s just kind of what happens when you have enjoyed your job as much as I have.
TB: You know, it was the reality that my contemplated work horizon, at best, might have been a couple more years, just because of my age and things I’d like to do in life. But it was the fact that these are huge issues that are critically important, and it’s going to be really in the city’s best interest for the person who is developing these responses to also be responsible for implementing them. I just came to the conclusion that it really wasn’t fair for me to continue to be developing strategies that I was going to then turn around and pass on to somebody else to implement them.
The community is better served if the person who’s going to implement these strategies is working with the City Council to develop them.
9th Street: Are there any decisions or actions that, in hindsight, you wish you could have done differently?
TB: You know, the biggest disappointment that I have had with Durham is that we have not been able to really make a significant change in the direction of violent crime. I had worked in communities in Florida and had been exposed to some difficulties associated with crime but really nothing that I experienced like when I first came to Durham in 2008. I hadn’t really anticipated that. And it’s something that I’ve been actively involved in, with Gang Task Forces and violent crime reduction roundtables and various other initiatives associated with the root causes of crime. I just feel like we really have not been able to make the changes or turn the corner in that regard. Despite all of the huge amounts of effort in that 12-year period, that’s probably my biggest disappointment or frustration.
I think that a significant issue facing the city is that there are a lot of varying opinions about what the approaches are to solving this. I think that it has got to be a multi-faceted solution. That includes longer term root cause, social service kinds of initiatives. But it also has to, at least in the short-term, include a criminal justice system that responds to situations where people know that there are consequences for behaviors.
There’s a lot of different opinions about it and a lot of competing opinions and now … as a result of the social justice issues associated most recently with George Floyd’s killing, there’s a huge push to defund the police. And I just think it’s got to be multifaceted. It can’t just be one thing or the other, and it’s something that we just all have to be open and honest and willing to talk about.
9th Street: You haven’t necessarily seen eye to eye with certain members of the City Council in regards to policing. For example, that rebuttal to Jillian Johnson’s essay on policing. What has it been like working with a left-leaning City Council, and did that influence your decision to leave at all?
TB: The answer is no. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have worked for a lot of elected officials and several mayors, and have really been fortunate to have a great relationship with them that has been respectful and professional. There’s been many times that I haven’t agreed with them or they haven’t agreed with me, but in all cases we have respected each other’s place.
Our job as professional administrators is not to provide judgment about people’s persuasions or politics. It’s to help the collective City Council move and develop programs and initiatives for services that they put forth to respond to the community. Ultimately, they’re the ones that are responsible. I’m responsible to them.
9th Street: As someone who has worked with so many different elected officials and mayors, how do you feel about the direction Durham has taken in these spaces, like environmental action?
TB: I think it’s entirely appropriate. Part of my job has been to help bring practicality to the ideals. It’s not to challenge the ideals, but to help think about what are the administrative systems and the administrative practicalities that are associated with, with some of these ideals. It’s not our job to push back, it’s our job to just kind of temper some of the things that sometimes can be great ideas and great aspirations. But to implement them, there are certain challenges that everybody has to be willing to acknowledge.
I’m extremely proud of the work we’ve done with things like the Sustainability Road Map and that was something that the staff and everybody put together well in advance of the council, stating it as their their goals.
9th Street: What has it been like working in this crazy time, with fundamental changes from the pandemic and protests?
TB: This has been something that wasn’t in the playbook or wasn’t in any of the materials that traditionally managers learn about. But the roles of city government have continued to expand across the country. And, this situation reinforces what I’ve always believed: that the local government is where true change in people’s lives and communities can happen.
This has caused all of us to continue to learn to be willing to adapt and, as I sometimes like to say, embrace ambiguity because we don’t know all the answers but we have to be willing to learn and be willing to accept the things that don’t work and change.
I could never have predicted something like this pandemic would have happened in my 42-year career. I would have been disappointed if I didn’t at least get to experience some of it because it’s been definitely a challenge. It’s definitely something new for everybody.
9th Street: What do the next two months look like for you as you wrap up your time as city manager?
TB: So there are two primary things. As soon as the City Council names who will be the interim city manager, once I retire, I would want to work very closely with that person to be sure there’s a very smooth handoff. And then the second thing is, I’m currently talking with the City Council about what are some really important things that they would like me to spend my time on over the next couple months.
This is the third time in my career that I’ve transitioned from a job to another job with 60 or 90 day transition period, and one of the things that I have found is that it’s really not productive to go on doing your day the same, kind of just running out the clock, as I say. It’s better to try to transition and move to the things that other people are going to pick up sooner rather than later. That helps [provide] continuity.
I don’t have what I’ll be working on exactly yet because I’m still in conversation with the council, but it will certainly be something that we’ve been working a lot on: reopening city government as a result of the shutdown.
9th Street: Are there any issues or topics you see city residents needing to pay particularly close attention to in the coming months and years?
TB: I think one of the challenges that I see — and I don’t know what the answer is, but I certainly have seen it shift in the last couple of years — is just this reality of what people want Durham to be. There was a time, 12 years ago, when downtown was pretty boarded up [with] not much investment … people wanted Durham to be different. And I think that we have worked really hard across a lot of sectors to create a different Durham. But as a result of that, that has made Durham a much more attractive place, and has led to obviously a huge influx of new residents. That’s had other consequences, like driving up prices, causing housing to go up in price and people feeling like there’s been gentrification.
Now I see quite a bit of pushback from people saying, “Maybe we didn’t want all that after all, maybe it was better off when Durham was the way it was 12 years ago.” Ultimately, I think the community and residents need to grapple with the balance of economic progress that’s going to support initiatives that are important to people versus some of the realities of what happens with economic progress.
9th Street: Do you have any goals for after you retire? Travel is not really an option right now — but any other post-retirement plans?
TB: Yeah, I mean obviously, I thought a lot about that and COVID has caused some detours on some of those plans. I want to take some time this fall to just reflect and regroup and spend some time with my wife. And then, hopefully [around] the first of the year, COVID issues will become clearer to me, as will the kinds of [professional] things that I might want to dabble in here and there. We do plan on staying in Durham.
9th Street: Is there anything else you would like to touch on? Comments? Advice? Thoughts for the people of Durham?
TB: I have worked for four jurisdictions over 42 years and my time in Durham has been the most rewarding and enjoyable time, across the board. The totality of my time in Durham, primarily because of the staff that we have and the relationships in the organization that we have built, as well as as the community, has been what I know I come back to as having been the most enjoyable period of my entire career.
9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top photo: Bonfield preparing to deliver his recommended 2020-21 budget over Zoom this year in an empty City Council chambers. Photo courtesy of Tom Bonfield