Sandra Tripp-Jones: Cambridge’s new City Manager

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CAMBRIDGE — Sandra Tripp-Jones didn’t have to relocate after she was selected to be Cambridge’s first City Manager. Like many newcomers, she and her husband had already found reasons to settle in Dorchester County: a reasonable cost of living and the beauty of the numerous inlets, creeks and shoals that are fed by the tides of the best-in-show, the stately Choptank. So Ms. Tripp-Jones was comfortably in place as the process of city manager selection was underway in Cambridge.

For the last two months, she’s been getting to know us, developing relationships with community groups and department heads, an initial charge given by the City Council and suiting her very well. “I have a collaborative style,” she says. “I’ve experienced quite a good-sized number of people here with an ongoing civic-mindedness and commitment to the community,” says Ms. Tripp-Jones. “I don’t mean to say that everyone I meet is like that, but it’s been one of the nice surprises to me here. There is a quality and depth (to the commitment) here.”

The Banner has decided now that she’s more knowledgeable about us, we all should get to know her better. What can she do about the issues that Cambridge presents? Tourism, along with economic vitality and development like Sailwinds and the entrance to Cambridge from US Rt. 50, are urgent challenges. But how difficult can it be for a woman who has faced management challenges in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan where the infrastructure had been destroyed, but divisiveness flourished?

Working for ICMA, an international association of/for city managers, she spent years in Asia and also the Americas. In Haiti, she established a national fire service and set up training facilities and programs. In Pakistan, she introduced a village to a modern sanitary system, and then, using carts, donkeys and boys, she set up a workable plan for trash removal. She smiles as she recalls one morning, very early, when she took time to enjoy the boys’ fun. “There was a group of about five boys with little two wheeled carts and donkeys, having races. It was so precious,” she recalls. “They were boys — they were being youngsters! We were hollering and screaming, standing on the side.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, she improved living conditions by establishing municipal councils and building initiatives, amid the scars of war. That impressive international resume must have stood her in good stead in the application process in Cambridge. It would have been a winner anywhere, without even mentioning her 24 successful years in seaside Santa Barbara, Calif. She worked in several capacities there, but especially relevant are her years as City Manager. “I’m not a firefighter, I’m not a certified sanitation engineer, but you have to have a working technical understanding of all of these things,” she tells us.

Sandra Tripp-Jones is a native Californian. In a state with so many new arrivals, “born-in-California” is a rare breed. Ms. Tripp-Jones says she appreciates that born-in-Cambridge quality in many people here whose roots go deep, and whose depth of feeling translates into civic-mindedness and community commitment. But she believes that newcomers also contribute ideas and enliven the life of the city. “There are a lot of people who have come here from other places who have brought a lot of ideas from other places, that enlivens the discussion,” she says.

Ms. Tripp-Jones did not set out to be a city manager. Her route has been a zig-zag course of education and experience. In college, she majored in Cultural Anthropology and learned about human diversity, learning to appreciate different perspectives. Early in her career, she worked with government programs that dealt with employment and youth. She also earned a Master’s Degree and learned about city management with a mentor. She became a city manager and has extensive experience in budgets and management of departments.

Cambridge’s new city manager has broad powers. She can suspend and fire and she can also hire. The only way the Council can veto her decisions is to fire her. That’s in her contract. But Ms. Tripp-Jones has won hearty approval in every corner and she’s hard at work to get all kinds of matters on track. Sailwinds, for example. She has plowed through a decade of plans and minutes of meetings. She has helped propel the council into a series of steps with deadlines to move forward. Decision: one master developer instead of multiple developers. Decision: don’t let the hospital’s lack of a definitive plan of action delay your progress at preparing plans for developers.
Suggestion: go look at other cities’ developed waterfronts and see what works and learn from their mistakes. Examine their scale, the walks, the contracts, and return with a broader view. And do it next month! Also, listen to the public’s views to inform council decision. Then prepare the vision as a plan, an RFD, to begin dealing with developers.

“The people who live in a place are always more averse to it,” she tells us. “They are always more aware of the problems that are there. When I come to Cambridge, I don’t see it as a terrible place. I don’t see it as an ‘everything’s wrong’ kind of place. Part of a city manager’s outlook is there are always things that have to be addressed. Some of them are lingering, ongoing ‘can’t seem to get anywhere’ projects and problems, some of them are brand new. But I see Cambridge as a pretty nice place. And I understand that some of what I see as nice has happened in recent years. And I know people who have lived here a long time, and remember the town as a more economically vibrant place, with department stores downtown, visitations by presidents, that sort of thing. Things are different now, but I don’t see Cambridge as a bad place, I see it as a place with potential. And with a pretty good base.”

Ms. Tripp-Jones says she arrived in Cambridge at a very opportune time. She joins a new Police Chief, Dan Dvorak, who is making change. A new financial director, Ginger Heatwole, who has expertise in the city’s financial background, A city planner, Pat Esher, and yes, an old hand Odie Wheeler, who the city manager says “has a deep and thorough knowledge of the Public Works area.”

The city manager says she has a collaborative style and believes that working together with the county can result both in more efficient delivery of some services and in cost savings too. The impact of her style has already been observed in City Council meetings, efficiently streamlined, deftly prioritized.

Ms. Tripp-Jones has set many goals for Cambridge in the coming months. But what about personal goals? She answers, “My personal goal is to enjoy what I do, and I’m loving it.”

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