Clayton Chandler wanted the Mansfield
city manager job so much that he broke into a house to make the phone call that sealed the deal. Fortunately, it was his own house.
It was 1984, and Chandler, then city manager in Waterville, Ohio, had turned the job down twice. He thought Mansfield had possibilities, but it was awfully small – about 9,000.
Then, at a meeting of area city managers, he heard a friend talking with an acquaintance across the table who’d been job hunting. His friend asked the man if he’d landed that job in Texas. “No,” the man said. “And I want that job in the worst way. That Dallas-Fort Worth area is really good.”
Chandler’s friend agreed. He cited weather, housing, business climate and then asked to be reminded what city the man had applied to. “Mansfield,” was the answer, “and it’s going to be a great city someday.”
Chandler promptly left the meeting to call to see if the offer was still on the table. Cell phones, however, were still a rarity, and public phones were … well … too public. He went home only to realize on arrival that he didn’t have his house key.
After what police normally call forcible entry,
he called Mayor Walt Wilshire and said, “Look, do you still want me?” Now, almost 32 years later, Chandler oversees the operation of a city with more than 62,000 residents, 500-plus employees and an annual budget approaching $50 million. Not too long ago, a friend asked if he’d ever envisioned anything as large. “My answer was ‘Yes,'” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I came. I saw the opportunity here.”
Guiding such growth has taken all the skills and attributes Chandler said he’d look for if he were a mayor hiring a city manager – people skills, heart, financial background and experience. In Chandler’s case, says Deputy City Manager Shelly Lanners, add vision to the list.
“He’s such a great visionary. It’s remarkable to have come here when Mansfield had 8,000 to 10,000 residents and been able to visualize what it would become. And not only did he see the potential and possibilities, but he also was able to project that vision and communicate it to city councils.”
Chandler’s communication skill is no accident. As an undergrad at the University of Georgia he majored in journalism with a concentration in public relations. He was headed to law school there, but applied too late and entered the public administration program, intending to transfer some of the courses into law school. Instead, he found his calling in public administration, finishing the master’s program while working in the private sector to help support his family after his father’s death.
Degree in hand,
he began in the finance department of Greenville, S.C., moved across the state to North Myrtle Beach, then landed his first top city job in Waterville. It was an eye opener. Many of the functions he assumed had directors turned out to be his responsibility. “It was challenging,” he says, “but I learned a lot and developed a lot of respect for what everybody else has to do.”
There were no such surprises in Mansfield. Wilshire and the city council had started building an administrative team including Chris Burkett and Felix Wong, still on board as assistant city manager and planning director, respectively. Indeed, Chandler sees his greatest accomplishment as having built and retained a cadre of key administrators averaging more than 23 years’ service. Such longevity is especially rare for city managers, whose average tenure is about seven years. Lanners attributes it to Chandler’s knack for turning visions into reality – talking the talk then walking the walk.
Mayor David Cook, a Mansfield native, has another take:
“He has the financial knowledge of a CEO and the leadership skills of a CEO. It’s very difficult to find one who has the expertise in both areas like Mr. Chandler has.”
Cook also lists Chandler’s ability to navigate the city’s political waters over the decades. “City councils obviously have come and gone over the 30-plus years he’s been here,” he says, “and he has the ability to read the politics that have been here in Mansfield during his tenure.”
That’s called political astuteness,
a term Chandler much prefers to politician. “The last thing I’d consider myself is a politician,” he says. “I’ve told every council since I’ve been here that my job is not to tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.”
Burkett, who’s been at Chandler’s right hand the entire time, sums up his boss’s tenure more succinctly: “He loves what he’s doing, and that’s why he has endured.”
It’s not like he couldn’t have moved on to bigger, better-paying jobs. Cities like Hilton Head, S.C, and Springfield, Ohio, came calling, but none could match Chandler’s love for and dedication to Mansfield. “This is not a job to me,” he said. “It’s basically my life.”
And the city has reciprocated that loyalty, naming Clayton W. Chandler Park in 2004 to mark his 20th anniversary and, last December, when Methodist Mansfield Health Center put his name on the Emergency Department at the new patient tower. “I was greatly humbled,” Chandler says, “but also greatly surprised. Those are things I didn’t do by myself. I only put some of the building blocks in place.”
Mansfield’s list of accomplishments
during Chandler’s tenure is impressive. Taxable value has reached $5 million. Companies like Klein Tools and Mouser Electronics have put down roots and are expanding. Residents and visitors enjoy entertainment centers such as Big League Dreams and Hawaiian Falls. The park system has been named the best in Texas. “In two size categories,” he says proudly.
The city enjoyed one of its greatest victories last October when ground was broken for the on-again, off-again expansion of Texas 360 from Green Oaks Boulevard in south Arlington through Mansfield to U.S. 287. It had been a long, long time coming.
“It was the topic of the very first meeting I went to with Wayne Wilshire. I’ve fought through several lifetimes of the project, and it’s hard to put into words what the groundbreaking meant.”
In retrospect, it was a bittersweet event because it was one of the last times he saw the late State Sen. Chris Harris, who had stood shoulder to shoulder with him during that and many another struggle.
For all these and other accomplishments, Mansfield repeatedly pops up on Money Magazine’s list of best places in the country to live, reaching as high as No. 17 in 2014.
That’s all very well with Chandler,
but it’s not a be-all and end-all. “It’s not the award I’m proud of,” he says. “It’s what the award represents – that everything we’re providing for our community is considered nationally as being something special.”
Has he thought more about retirement as the years go by? “Only because people ask me about it,” he says.
But if anyone thinks he’s slowing down, they need only to check with his staff. “He’s a great ball of energy,” Lanners says. “He’s always five, six, seven steps ahead of us. He’s the Energizer bunny.”
One day, of course, Mansfield will have to replace Chandler. “It will be very difficult,” Mayor Cook says, “but I think that, because of his leadership, it will be a smooth transition. But I am NOT looking forward to that day. Make sure you put that in the story.”