Betsy Fretwell

Behind the great and powerful Oscar, the city manager quietly keeps the town running

We’ve learned a lot about the job of mayor lately. But what about city manager, the job that political pundits say is more powerful, just less well known? While the mayor gives the speeches and gets the photo ops, the city manager is the driving force behind the scenes, from managing a $1.5 billion budget to guiding the city’s 2,600 full-time employees. Most interesting at the moment, given the transition of power this month, is the city manager’s implementation of the vision of the mayor and the City Council.

That task is charged to Elizabeth “Betsy” Fretwell, who was appointed by the City Council and took office in January 2009. She isn’t exactly what you’d expect in a city boss for this unabashedly Western town. Her office showcases University of Georgia memorabilia (she earned a master’s degree in public administration there), and she has a slight Southern drawl from having grown up in South Carolina. And in keeping with the difference between the two jobs, she’s pretty much the antithesis of our boisterous outgoing mayor, Oscar Goodman.

Fretwell, 44, seems to have been a good fit. She took the reins during a budget crisis and has helped reel the city back toward the black. She also has been instrumental in implementing Oscar Goodman’s downtown revitalization. We talked to her about the changing of the guard, among other things, just before the June 6 mayoral election.

How do you explain to people what your job is?

The best way to describe it would probably be a chief administrative officer. I’m responsible for all of the operations of the city, everything from A to Z—animal control to zoning and everything in between. I’m trained professionally to manage a city, and that’s what I do. I take direction from the mayor and council, and implement their policies through all of those employees and through the departments that we have to make sure that what they want to have happen gets done in the most efficient way.

Why did you want to become a city manager?

I had seeds of governmental exposure when I was in high school. One of the stories I told when I got appointed was I participated in “Government for a Day” in South Carolina at Greenville High School, and I drew the position out of the hat and I was the city manager for the day. It’s kind of funny that nearly 25 years later I’m playing that role in one of the top 25 cities in size in the country. I guess I got the bug early.

So, is it true you have one of the most powerful positions in Vegas?

I don’t know. I don’t like to look at it that way. I suppose because I have responsibility for putting together the budget and making the day-to-day operational decisions that put me in a position of influence. I just try to make sure that I listen to all of those folks around me. I have a great team and I feel very fortunate about that. Who can question being at the helm of the city of Las Vegas? What a cool job to have. But it’s a real partnership with the elected officials because they’re the ones the folks voted for.

What has been your biggest accomplishment up to this point?

Balancing the budget. I mean, bar none. I walked into this job and we were facing a significant shortfall well over $400 million and we’ve ratcheted that back down to around $40 million in two years, and that hasn’t been without hard work and a lot of people helping and communicating and working together. We anticipate closing this year in the black for the first time in the last three years, and we’ve submitted a 1 percent budget deficit for next year, which is pretty darn close to balanced. I’m really proud of that.

How will your job change with the election?

Well, we have two candidates in the general, and they both have very different personalities from each other and very different personalities from Mayor Goodman. I think no matter what, it will be very different, but I also think it will be very exciting. We’ll go through a transition and really kind of follow the leadership of not only the mayor but we’ll have some new members on the council, too. That will create a new dynamic. I’m hoping to really update where they want us to go from a strategic standpoint, get a good feel for where they want to go as a group and we’ll get everything lined up and start marching in that direction.

What is your vision for Las Vegas in the next five years?

I hope we see a stabilized and re-emerging tourist, convention and gaming business here. I would like to see that we’ve taken advantage of this recession and learned from the last 20 years of massive growth to create a much more sustainable approach to our community. We were going so fast for such a long time that I think a lot of times that connection was lost. With such a huge infusion of new people who come every day into this town, making those connections and relationships happen is really difficult to watch prosper. Now we have a unique opportunity. I think people are here to stay, and it creates an opportunity for us to build that community and those connections and really stabilize as a city.

What are you passionate about other than government?

I love to play golf. I like to hike and ride my bike. I do read quite a bit, although I’ve kind of been tapped as a policy wonk so I probably read things that are pretty boring to everyone else, but I do like a good mystery novel every once in a while to kind of break away and really let go.

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