Even before his first official day as City Manager, George Proakis began to familiarize himself with the community by browsing through the booths at the Watertown Arts Market with his family. While he is new to Watertown, he knows a few things about this City’s government, and a lot about how municipal governments work.
In May, the City Council chose Proakis to be Watertown’s first new manager in nearly three decades. His first day was Aug. 15, and just a week into his new job he spoke with Watertown News. Sitting in the office occupied by Michael Driscoll for 29 years, Proakis talked about what drew him to Watertown, what ideas he has brought with him from Somerville and other places he has worked, and some things he would like to work on in his first year as Manager. This is the first of two pieces from that interview.
Prior to Watertown, Proakis worked in Somerville for about a dozen years — 3.5 years as Executive Director of the Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development, and before that as the Director of Planning and Zoning for nearly 9 years. He also worked in Lowell’s planning department for 8 years.
Making a jump to a new job in a new city with a new set of responsibilities did not appear to be in the cards for Proakis earlier this year. In November 2021, Somerville elected its first new mayor in 18 years, and Proakis wondered how the change from Joseph Curtatone to Katjana Ballantyne would go, but he said he was generally satisfied there.
“I was pretty happy where I was. Somerville had gone through a transition in mayor, but that had worked out very well,” Proakis said. “I had enjoyed working with the former mayor and I had enjoyed working with the new mayor. Things were going well. Any concerns I had had with that transition had settled down.”
When Watertown’s City Manager position opened up with Driscoll’s retirement in January, it caught his eye.
“I had noticed it on my own and I said, as manager jobs go, Watertown is a great community, really well positioned in terms of opportunity and fiscal stability,” Proakis said.
Then he was contacted by Bernie Lynch, who was leading the City Manager Search for Watertown’s City Council. He had done so previously during other manager searches but had Proakis stayed put.
“When he reached out this time and asked if I was interested, I said, ‘Actually, I just might be,'” Proakis recalled. “I got to know a bit more about where things are here and what the Council is looking for, and it seemed like a great opportunity.”
Proakis had some understanding of what was going on in Watertown from his interactions with City officials while he was in Somerville. He sees some major similarities between the two communities.
“Comparing notes on what’s going on, Somerville and Watertown are both struggling with how to maintain the opportunity for growth while at the same time maintaining the character of the community,” he said. “This whole thing is an interesting challenge. Communities will change — that is almost inevitable. How much do you want to change? Where do you want it to change?”
Somerville, like Watertown, has a comprehensive plan, which guides a lot of the new development in that city. Currently, Watertown is in the midst of updating the Comprehensive Plan, which was first adopted in 2015.
One of the projects that came out of Somerville’s plan, known as SomerVision, was the creation of Assembly Square. The dense development has both retail and apartments, and Proakis said it was good for Somerville because it both added to the tax base and also meant that residential neighborhoods would not be where new developments would be going.
The key to the success of Somerville’s planning, Proakis said, was to get the support of the vision from residents before the projects came forward.
“A well done plan with consensus behind it, I think what it does for city government is it raises the level of debate on everything else you do,” Proakis said. “We are no longer debating issues on a case by case basis.”
The plan set out Somerville’s values, he said, so rather than debating whether or not people like a particular project, the debate can be about which of the plan’s priorities should be the focus of a project — for instance, meeting the open space goal or the housing goal.
Another idea that he liked in Somerville was having people on the city staff that could do statistical analysis. The SomerStat office started before Proakis arrived, but he said it helped with decision making.
“It was very valuable for being able to do analysis of, for example, the growth of my department,” Proakis said. “You can have a situation where every department comes in and says ‘My department needs more people.’ What the statistics office was able to do was really dig deep into that: What is the operations of the department? How is it being managed? How does it compare to other communities around us?”
Perhaps the thing that contributed most to giving Somerville a reputation for being an innovative government, Proakis said, was the creation of a 311 system.
“Basically, you can have anything from a pothole to a streetlight out to a rodent complaint — any of those things you can call the number, and internally it builds a work ticket for somebody that then sends someone out to address that particular issue,” Proakis said. “It is a great customer service system.”
The idea has come up in Watertown, including during the Charter Review. Proakis said it is not a simple thing to create, but it was popular.
“It is not easy to do. There are multiple elements to it. It’s a technology system. It’s a staffing system. It is a customer service program,” he said. “It has to work to do all of those things. It was very helpful the way we were running the government to be that responsive.”
One adjustment Proakis will have to make is serving as the chief executive. Somerville has a strong mayor, who is both the political and administrative leader. In Watertown, however, the City Councilors are the elected political leaders, while the City Manager oversees the administration of the City government.
“You have the elected City Council that really serves as the respondents to the community, the people who are out there and setting policy and addressing the political and policy needs of the city,” he said. “And having somebody who is a manager, working to implement policy, bringing good ideas forward. I can discover the best practices for government and bring it to the Council and say ‘Is this a good fit for Watertown? Is this something we want to implement?'”
Being able to think about adding new programs to Watertown is possible because of the work of his predecessor, Proakis said.
“I can’t understate how important Mr. Driscoll’s work was to get this community to this point,” Proakis said.
When he begins working on his first budget this fall, Proakis said he won’t have to worry about whether the City’s revenues will be able to just maintain what services the City currently offers.
“I have been in that place in local government. I’ve been through two significant recessionary periods where it’s like, we have to cut something to get into next year and there are services that are going to be lacking that were available this year,” Proakis said. “We are in a very good position here. Where our new growth numbers are, and we are well ahead of just about any other community in terms of funding pension and those sorts of things. And those are all Mike’s many years as manager that got us to this point.”
Tomorrow in Part Two: The new City Manager looks at the job ahead, and some initiatives he may work on first.