Tim Honey: Global Perspective On Local Government

From the 1950s through the ’70s, Staples High had a thriving American Field Service program.

Each year our school and community welcomed students from abroad, to live with host families. In return, we sent teenagers overseas to do the same. It was often a life-changing experience.

Tim Honey was one of those “exchange students.” In 1963, he was in South Africa. It was the height of apartheid; Nelson Mandela was trial for sabotage.

Sixty years later, Honey — a Staples football, basketball and baseball star — is still in touch with his roommate. He calls his time there “a great learning experience.”

When Mandela was elected president, Honey realized, “governance really matters. Under him, South Africa got it right.”

He has spent his life thinking about governance.

In 1962, Tim Honey (striped jacket) and fellow Staples High School students met the director of the World Health Organization, and presented a check their class raised for it. “We were idealistic and proud of the United Nations,” he said in this Facebook post during the early days of the pandemic.

After Cornell University, and a 5-month honeymoon in 1971 hitchhiking from East Africa to Cape Town, Honey worked with the National League of Cities. He earned a master’s in political science at Georgetown University, then spent 9 years in Portland, Maine as assistant and head city manager.

After a stint in Rhode Island directing the mortgage housing finance agency, he was appointed city manager of Boulder, Colorado.

Where Portland had been focused on economic development, Boulder was a hotbed of political ideas. There was advocacy on all sides of every issue.

His years there cemented Honey’s belief that — at all levels — “governance matters.”

And, he believes, city manager is an excellent way to govern.

Tim Honey

The role of a city manager — a CEO or chief administrative officer, who serves in a mayor and council type of government — began in the Progressive Era of the 1890s to 1910s. Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson wanted to clean up the corruption of (usually Democratic) machine politics, by professionalizing the civil service in areas like hiring, firing and delivering services.

City managers are part of a well-run professional association, with a strong code of ethics.

“You don’t need to be a Democrat or a Republican to collect garbage correctly,” Honey notes.

Most big cities, and many medium-sized ones, had (and often still have) city managers.

Southern New England is an exception. About 30% of the municipalities here have a city manager, primarily in the central and northern part of the state.

Westport does not have a city manager. We’re run — as some New England towns still are — by a board of selectmen (or in our case now, selectwomen).

For over 100 years after our founding in 1835, Westport was governed by a traditional town meeting.

In 1949, voters approved a non-partisan Representative Town Meeting (RTM). That year, 124 Westporters ran for 26 seats. There are now 36 seats, 4 in each of 9 districts. Some elections have 5 or 6 candidates; some are uncontested.

Westport RTM members, at last year’s Memorial Day parade.

Six other towns in Connecticut still use the RTM form of government.

Most city councils have just 7 to 15 members, Honey says. That makes for a “much more manageable” legislative branch — and an effective working relationship between a city manager, mayor and council.

“Issues are so complex today, even on a local level,” Honey says.

Land use is one. Another is traffic: How do you tame it? How do you make a town or city more pedestrian-friendly? How do you comply with ADA requirements?

All of that, he says, takes professional work that a city manager is trained for.

As city manager in Boulder, he had a network of colleagues — in similar places like Palo Alto and Eugene, Oregon — that he could work with. They shared common problems, and offered each other advice.

Should Westport think about a city manager?

“My dad was on the RTM in the 1960s,” Honey says. “When he retired to Rhineback, New York, he was on the town council. He advocated for a city manager.

“He was unsuccessful. It’s a hard sell, to make a change like that. You need neighbor groups that don’t like the current system to come forward. They need to ask for more accountability, more innovation.”

Honey is no longer a city manager. After leaving Boulder in 1997, he worked for Sister Cities International as executive director.

In 2006 he and his wife sold their Washington home. They moved to Cape Town, South Africa. For 5 months they volunteered in a township soup kitchen, and on community projects. It was “one of the best things we ever did.”

They moved back to Maine, where he worked with the International City Management Association. He developed a program focusing on African cities, and the role that local government can play in impoverished communities.

He just returned from his 20th trip to the continent. It’s been 6 decades since his first visit, when as a teenage exchange student he learned about the importance of governance.

Now in his late 70s, Tim Honey is as passionate about governing as he ever was. He invites anyone who wants to learn more about the role of city managers to email him: Stephen.t.honey@gmail.com.

(Hat tips: Carl Addison Swanson and Tom Allen)

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9 responses to “Tim Honey: Global Perspective On Local Government

  1. Makes sense‼️🇺🇸

  2. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Tim Honey was the real deal as a Westport kid (he was a close friend of the family) and evidently he still is.

  3. Jennifer Johnson

    Makes great sense especially in light of the ongoing disfunction around an inexperienced volunteer transit district that the RTM continues to oversee and fund. When it comes to transit and non-car mobility Boulder is a shining star. Westport could get there someday…but not if the RTM keeps repeating the same year-in-year-out “save the transit district” multi-hour refunding show. Westport needs a city manager like what Tim Honey describes who has real transportation planning and management expertise. So lets do what Tim and Boulder have done so we can finally get on track to a better transportation future!

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

      “Keep doing it over and over and expect a different result.” Insanity? Or Westport? Is there a difference? I think not!!!

  4. Deb Holliday Kintigh

    Tim and his wife, Debra, have much to be proud of! – true citizens of the world!

  5. Westport is not a city…perhaps a Town Manager? Sure!

    dreaming of Westport becoming a city…how about moving to an already densely populated city like Norwalk, Stamford, even NYC? Oh wait, majority of people moved to Westport to (drum roll please) TO GET AWAY FROM THE CITY!

    The goal isn’t home ownership. The goal is density and this is being delivered with 1000s of apartments that are crushing the quality of life in places, enriching the politically connected developers and exacerbating our crumbling infrastructure.

    When the history is all torn down, the original settlers who built our town have passed on, what can we say or show where we came from?

  6. Deb Rosenfield

    I’d vote for a Town Manager who is capable. The RTM system doesn’t work anymore and certainly the First Selectman/Selectwoman is nothing more than a popularity contest. Most RTM votes just rubber stamp whatever the town employees push for or whichever resident is most pushy. Just wait till the town’s deb skyrockets from about $100million to $350 million by 2031 and a couple of Top 10 taxpayers move out of town.

  7. Carl Addison Swanson, Wrecker, '66.

    In my mind, all the cluster, bustle and traffic is going to push away future residents of Westport,. Plus, those leaf blowers. The major issue seems to be enforcement of the current ordinances/laws in Westport. A strong City Manager is needed before this town burst at its seams,

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