Editor’s Note: Vola T. Lawson passed away on December 10, 2013, at age 79. In 2000, Ms. Lawson received the prestigious National Public Service Award, which was presented jointly by the National Academy for Public Administration and the American Society for Public Administration. Ms Lawson was recently inducted into the Virginia Women’s Hall of Fame in the State Capital, and the Alexandria, Virginia, city hall historic lobby was renamed in her honor.
As told By Vola Therrell Lawson
I was appointed acting city manager in Alexandria, Virginia, in February 1985 by a popular, long-time incumbent Democratic mayor who four months later was defeated by an even more popular Independent in a very bitter contest. The council had just begun a professional national search for a new city manager. I had heard the old saying “New mayor, new manager,” so I had not decided whether I would apply as I already had a job as assistant city manager for housing, which I really enjoyed.
I was counseled by the [previous] mayor, who I suspect felt somewhat concerned about the situation I was in. He still encouraged me to apply, but his advice was very practical: “If you’re going to be acting city manager then ACT. The last acting city manager was indecisive, showed little initiative, and the city all but came to a halt. Don’t do that. Be a city manager. If you are a finalist, you will certainly be the only woman. You will need to show them that you are a decisive, strong manager with proven financial and budget skills. Those are the reasons you were selected to be the acting manager, as well as your proven ability to work effectively with all the various neighborhoods in the city, and your strong ties to low-income and minority communities. Show them your commitment to that.”
On his advice, from day one I acted as if I were the city manager. I presented the city budget to council, scheduled seven budget work sessions, and went out to neighborhood associations at their invitation to talk about the budget and other city issues. I reviewed and edited all staff memos that were going to be on the council docket, acted on all personnel matters, handled numerous briefings with council about police and regional issues, minority community concerns, planning, and zoning issues—basically anything they might call me about. . . .
It took the national search group almost six months to bring 10 applicants, including me, to be interviewed by council. There had been 68 applicants—67 men and 1 woman. I was the last applicant to be interviewed by the mayor and council. My interview lasted three hours, longer than any of the others I was later told. The new mayor called me the next day and told me the good news—I had been unanimously selected to be the new city manager.
I will always deeply appreciate the mayor and the city council’s confidence in me when they appointed me city manager in 1995. That was  years ago, and I was the third woman in America to be appointed city manager in cities over 100,000; the first woman manager in the D.C. metro area; and the first woman in a Virginia city. . . .
I loved my 15 years as Alexandria’s city manager, from 1985 until I retired in 2000. I was the longest serving city manager in the city’s history and still the only woman. When I retired, the mayor and city council renamed the city hall’s historic Cameron Street Lobby to the Vola Lawson Lobby. . . .
I was of a generation that believed a woman had to work twice as hard to succeed, and you should always do your best because you need to set an example and make it easier for the young women who should someday follow you. I hope I did that.
This is an excerpt from Mike Conduff and Melissa Byrne Vossmer’s book Democracy at the Doorstep, Too. Learn more about this book here.
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