In the 72 years that the City of Roseburg has employed a city manager, all 13 have been male.
But that’s about to change, as Nikki Messenger will soon take the most consequential government position in Douglas County’s largest city. As city manager, Messenger will oversee all city departments and 170 city employees, taking direction from the City Council.
She said she’s ready for the job, and that she’s the right person for it.
“I’ve got a lot of experience with the organization,” Messenger said.
She has been the public works director since 2008, making her the most senior department head. But she first worked for the city in 1995 as an engineering technician. She rose through the ranks of the Public Works Department early in her career. She spent a couple of years away from the city working for Roseburg-based MAP Engineering Inc. and for Douglas County Public Works before returning in 2006.
“I’ve always been just a little bit nosy since the day I started. So kind of just listening to what’s happening in other departments, asking questions. I have a broad high-level, not down in the weeds, understanding of what the other departments are working on. It’s just part of that natural curiosity of always asking questions.”
As an engineer, Messenger said she plans to move the city forward during a transitional moment by relying on evidence-based policy. Officials look to finalize plans for an allied and mental health college, capitalize on a new urban renewal district and make progress on issues such as housing and homelessness.
She’s also ready for the challenge, she said, adding she still has a lot to learn about how to be Roseburg’s top official.
She didn’t expect to become the city manager when former City Manager Lance Colley announced his retirement last September, she said.
The city advertised the position twice. The first time, city officials weren’t interested in any of the candidates. The second time, the City Council conducted lengthy, multi-stage examinations of several candidates. Councilors made their pick in April, but days later, the final candidate withdrew from the hiring process.
Messenger said her choice not to apply for the job during either of the city’s recruitments was about timing more than anything else.
“My husband just retired, supposedly last August, but really at the beginning of the year. I was reluctant to take on more responsibility at a time when he was retiring so we could go do more stuff,” she said. “But here we are another eight months down the road from when this first started.”
She would have wanted to be the city manager eventually, she said, adding she initially hoped the city would find someone who could teach her more about running the city. But when that didn’t happen, the opportunity presented itself.
“I’ve had an opportunity basically dropped in my lap, how do I not pursue that,” Messenger said.
People at all levels of the city and several people on the City Council reached out to say she should pursue the job, she said. The encouragement played a role in her decision to do so when the City Council offered her the position.
“It’s been very humbling having so many people encourage me,” she said. “I’m one of those people who can’t take a compliment to save my life. I’m better with criticism probably.”
And scrutiny will come sooner or later. “You can’t make everyone happy,” Messenger said.
If scrutiny doesn’t come from citizens directly, it might come from city councilors, who, as elected officials, will suffer at the ballot box if citizens are unhappy with the city.
Messenger said the decision-making method she’s always had is the best way to create effective policy and justify choices.
“I’m data-driven,” she said. “I like for decisions to be defendable, and data helps to do that. Listening to the experts to help reach the right decision.”
But the responsibilities of a city manager are broader and more social than the often formulaic tasks of being an engineer.
“Not everything we do around here has data as much as it did in my public works world so that will be a challenge,” Messenger said.
As the top city official, city managers have to serve as the face of the government, meeting residents and making connections. And as a self-described introvert, Messenger said there will be a learning curve for her.
“It’s not a handicap,” she said, adding it allows her to be a diligent listener and observer. “It’s just realizing, OK, I’m an introvert, so I need to manage how I spend my energy. I need to make sure I get a certain amount of alone time during the day, which usually means for me being a the gym.”
She will continue to improve her public speaking skills, she said, but meanwhile, she already has ideas to improve the city.
One thing that’s high on her list is increasing the city’s emergency preparedness.
“After Snowmageddon, that was pretty obvious, there were some things that we need to work on,” Messenger said. She’s going to bring more measures to bolster the city’s preparedness to the City Council, she said.
She’s thankful Colley, the former city manager, was able to bring in smart, capable, hard-working people to the city, and that she has communicative working relationships with them. She’s going to lean on them substantially early on, she said. Additionally, when she becomes the city manager after the City Council finalizes her contract, she will have to hire her replacement as public works director.
Before she takes the position, she wants residents to be confident in her commitment to public service.
“Customer service is our business. Yes, we have product in that we deliver water and other things, but our product is really customer service. That doesn’t mean that everybody is going to like the answer they get, but that everybody gets an answer to their question, and that they’re informed. It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of that.”