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WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT.

OPAL MAULDIN-JONES: "PAYING IT FORWARD"

Opal Mauldin-Jones has been city manager of Lancaster, Texas, a community in the Dallas/Fort Worth region, since Februaty 14, 2011.


She has been with Lancaster city government since 2003, having gotten her start as community relations coordinator. She is a life-long learner, devoted to faith and family, a seminary student, and an enthusiastic mentor to other aspiring women, both on her staff and through the Texas City Management Association (TCMA) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). Under her leadership, the city population has grown by more than 25% and its bond rating has dramatically improved to an AA rating from Standard & Poor's. Lancaster was recognized as an All-America City by the National Civic League in 2019.


The next two honorees will be profiled on the following two Thursdays of this month. The first profile of Aviva Tevah, which was featured in this spot from March 7 to March 13. is available here.


Q. What are you reading right now? And is there a book that you've read in the past that was particularly meaningful to you?


I'm usually reading two books. I try to read something that is helping me grow professionally and then something that is fun. So, "Canoeing the Mountains" by Tod Bolsinger is my professional read, full of good tools and very helpful. And the book that I'm reading for fun is "Feeding the Soul" by Tabitha Brown. It's a hilarious, fun book that I'm enjoying.


The Bible would have to be the book that has truly changed my life in just so many ways. In times of difficulty, there's always something that is there for comfort. My values are rooted and grounded in the Bible, faith and family. I grew up in the home of a Baptist minister — my grandfather — and now I'm a student in seminary, working on a degree in theology.


My faith is very much connected to my family and my family really is my foundation: My parents, my six siblings, my husband, my three children, and I'm a grandma for the first time. My grandson just turned a year old.


Q. Tell us a little about your community and your role?


I've been with the city of Lancaster for 21 years. I started out as the Community Relations Coordinator and Public Information Officer and worked my way up. I became the first woman city manager for Lancaster on Valentine's Day of 2011.


We're in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, a first-ring suburb of Dallas, with world class amenities literally 20 minutes away, but with the great feel of a suburban community. Lancaster is a full-service city, with police, fire, water, wastewater, streets and parks. The city has 300 employees; 42,000 in population; 33 square miles and is only 50% developed. I love this community and even more so because I get to do redevelopment and new construction in the area that's not developed.


We are predominantly a minority community. When I started in the city of Lancaster back in 2003, that was not the case. We've had migration out of the community and then migration into the community. As a result, it went from over 80% white to 65% African American and 15% Hispanic. The rest is white.


Q. What was the path that led you to public service?


My grandparents instilled in me the importance of public service. My grandmother was a nurse and a natural giver and caretaker.


When I was 19 and in college, I had to do a paper for a political science class, And I wanted to write about someone who looked like me. But no one did. I talked to the professor and said I wanted to write about a Black woman. He said, “You're in luck. Eddie Bernice Johnson was just elected to Congress in November”. She was an African American female and the first woman to represent the 13th Congressional District of Texas. I wrote to her and met her in her office and I ended up working for her for free as a summer intern.


At the end of the summer, the congresswoman offered me a job, but there were conditions. She sat me down in her office and she said, “You have to finish your degree.” And she said, “I have to see your grades and you must make a 3.00 or you can't work here.”


That woman contributed significantly to my professional career. She always talked about deferred gratification. She'd say, "Put in the work now to enjoy and reap the benefits later." She was in Congress for 30 years, from 1993 to the beginning of 2023. She just passed away at the end of December, a tragic loss.


Another person who inspired and helped me is Jim Landon, the city manager who hired me in Lancaster. I told him that someday I wanted his job. He said “I'll help you. I'll get you prepared to do it.” He let me sit in on meetings, gave me projects and assignments and he made me assistant to the city manager.


Q. What are you most proud of professionally?


The financial success of our community. I say that because we were able to get our bond rating increased under my leadership as city manager.


Now, we're AA rated -- up two notches. Improving the fiscal sustainability of this community is a feather in my cap. With our increased bond rating, our power to borrow and do bond projects is top notch. I'm super proud of that.


Q. The theme of UN International Women's Day this year is Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress. Can you describe the kinds of personal investments you're now making in others?


I feel that I have a duty and an obligation to pay it forward. I have folders and folders of people who reach out to me via ICMA's CoachConnect, and some directly.


Something I'm very proud of professionally is this: four of my top employees are now all city managers in another city: my former Deputy City Managers Rona Stringfellow and Fabrice Kabona; Susan Cluse who was my assistant finance director, and Aretha Adams who was my first assistant city manager.


I tell my council, “I know you guys don’t like that my staff turns over a lot, but I hire young professionals that have a desire to do this. They may work with us for a while and then go on to do more things at a higher level in other organizations. They say, “Do you have to keep training everybody?” And I say, “We can't keep all the great talent to ourselves.” I remind them, “Someone gave me this opportunity.” I believe with every fiber of my being that I owe it to those who helped me to pay that forward to other people.


Q. What kinds of other more formal investments do you see as needed for women in local government?


Of the things that we do here in Texas that I would love to see replicated is the Texas Women's Leadership Institute. It's a program that's just for women. And it's for women who want to progress but aren't really sure where to go. It takes 25 women for each class, and they go through this training program that provides all the things that you wish you could learn.


It's taught by practitioners. They talk about moms as managers. They talk about interviewing. They talk about attire. I wish that could be replicated everywhere because it creates that opportunity for women to create a network with people who truly understand. It's just great camaraderie.


Q. Where do you go now when you want support, education, or mentorship, whether that's formal or informal?


My professional development is the International City/County Management Association and the Texas City Management Association, where I'm super excited to be president this year, the first African American woman to have that role.


I also have colleagues. When something crazy goes on at work and you need help, there are a number of colleagues that I can call and say, "How do you do this?" To be able to pick up the phone and share with somebody who gets it, is great. Having that city management network is just phenomenal.


And where I go for my comfort and sense of peace and calm is home with my family - to the farm where I grew up. It's only about one hour and 45 minutes from here and I go home every weekend. My parents, although divorced, both still live in East Texas and so to go home to the family farm, see my parents attend church and just kind of sit and look out at the pine trees gives me energy for another week.


Q. Are you seeing obstacles to women moving ahead in local government?


Eddie Bernice Johnson told me, "As a woman, you're going to have obstacles, no matter where you go." And she talked about the importance of how you carry yourself; how you conduct yourself. She gave me all these lessons about how "It's not right. It's not fair, but it's the world we live in. And if you're going to be good at it, these are the things you have to do." And then she said, "Opal, you're a double minority. You happen to be a Black woman and that adds even another layer of challenge and obstacle to it."


I'd love to say that there's a difference from when I was first appointed. But people still appear to be amazed at the fact that I'm a woman and in this position.


Residents will come in and say, “I want to speak to the manager.” And I say, “1 am the manager.” And they'll say, “No. I want to speak to your boss. Where is he?” That's in 2023 and 2024. It amazes me that some people still think that there has to be a man in charge. But it still happens.


When Jim Landon made me assistant to the city manager, he put me over construction projects, and we were doing a bond election for a new fire station. And the fire chief, at the time, said directly to me, “I'm not working with you.  You're a kid. You don't know what you're doing.” He didn't just come out and say "You're a woman" in so many words, but the message was "What do you know about fires?" It was just very blunt. He told the city manager and the city manager said, "Well if you're not going to work with her, I don't know how you're going to get the project because she's going to stay."


When this happened, I thought "I'm done. Who needs this?" But the city manager said to me "When have you ever quit?" He challenged me. He said, "Are you going to let one person drive you to walk away?"


Jim said, "You can do this, and you will," He was very inspirational. He didn't let me give up. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. You know, a lot of people say, "Oh, maybe your mentors were all women or only Black," but no. Jim Landon is a white male, and he didn't just give me a job, but he gave me responsibilities and opportunities to prove myself.


Q. Are there women who you know in public service who deserve a shout-out? Celebrate them here.


I want to mention Rona Stringfellow, the city manager of Wilmer, Texas, again. She's amazing and Paulette Hartman who is the incoming city manager in North Richland Hills, and absolutely a rock star. Jeaneyse Mosby is the city manager in San Augustine, Texas and she is also rocking it.

IW ARCHIVES

2024 INSPIRATIONAL WOMEN IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT.
 

LORI THOMAS: HELPING OTHERS ACHIEVE THEIR GOALS

OPAL MAULDIN-JONES: "PAYING IT FORWARD"

AVIVA TEVAH: A FOCUS ON EQUITY AND TRANSFORMATION

HAZEL WETHERFORD: “I WANT TO GIVE BACK”

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