To understand what drives Chad Magill to work so hard to make Corpus Christi a city of which its citizens can be proud, it requires a look into the not-so-distant past. There we find a young Magill responding to a call from his dad, Don, a 35-year veteran in the world of fraud investigation. In May of 2002, Chad moved to Corpus Christi from Houston to help his dad make his business more efficient and more lucrative, a move that would allow him to be a big brother to his sibling James, who was only 10 at the time. It was a move that would chart a course for the direction Chad’s life would take.
“My dad specialized in bringing stolen vehicles from other countries. His biggest customer was BMW Financial Services. After all the re-po folks gave up, they would hire my dad. If he didn’t bring the car back, he didn’t get paid. He would find the vehicles somewhere in the world through his decades of experience, contacts, and knowledge,” Chad explained. Don Magill was making four to five thousand dollars on each vehicle he recovered and solving five to eight cases each month. He had two employees who would fumble through ten, three-drawer filing cabinets for a week looking for the information needed to find one car. They would pull the file, and Don would let his instincts go to work. He would miraculously find the car, but he wasn’t happy with the tedious process. He needed a guy with a keen intellect who could understand data, logically connect it to people and situations, and create a computer program that could “think” like he thought. He called on his son to write a database.
“My dad’s instincts were good, but his search methods weren’t. I integrated some logic in the search functions, in the LIKE commands, so you could be close to what you’re looking for and still find it,” said Chad. “When I wrote the database, and he started using it, he was solving 25-35 cases a month.” When Don was doing extremely well, he said to Chad, “You know, I’ve always wanted to buy a building downtown and try to bring it back and show people what could really happen.” That idea led to Chad and his father putting in some offers, which resulted in landing a bid on a building. They went to work. Don invested nearly 500 thousand dollars of his retirement money into the venture but was quickly disappointed as he attempted to navigate an inefficient and broken city government, which included dealing with city inspectors who more than suggested that he take a less-than-legal route (something a fraud inspector could never agree to do). Don shut down the project, and Chad watched his dad give up.
During one of the election cycles when everybody was bashing downtown at a public forum, Chad took the floor. He said to those in attendance, “The problem isn’t that people aren’t doing something. The system is so flawed that they don’t even realize it. I’m standing up right now telling you we spent a half-million dollars. One, nobody knows. Two, I don’t think anybody cares. And, three, I’m going to do something about it.”
This started Magill on a path to leaving Corpus Christi better than he found it, a lesson passed on to him from his dad. He got involved in many civic groups, including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Management District, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas. Though unsuccessful in 2007 in his first run for the District 2 council seat, he didn’t give up. He worked hard for safe neighborhoods and a revitalized infrastructure, seeking to help the residents of his district be proud to live in District 2. In 2012, Magill became their council representative. His philosophy for leadership by multiplication began to take shape along with his mission of focusing on needs before wants, getting a return on investments from tax dollars, and creating primary jobs for the people of Corpus Christi. Like a master chess player, he thought several moves ahead as he planned a new course for the city, one that would lead to major changes in thought and action by council members and city staff, changes Magill hoped would create a culture of pride for the city.
“One of the ways we can be proud of our city is taking the time and effort to get away from incremental budgeting and go more toward zero-based budgeting (ZBB) or service-line budgeting. That affects the funding throughout every facet of the city. Therefore, it changes the financial culture of the city. By changing the culture and the mindset of each department head of owning and managing their costs, it puts our entire city government on a different path of understanding what their mission is. Their mission is to provide the needs for a community that frankly could evoke pride in itself once they have confidence in city government,” Magill explained.
“At present, when the city goes through the budget process at council, the employees of the Strategic Management and Budget Office make the presentations – not the department heads. That is a key component of how we can improve. Each department head should present what the mission and services are for their department. In doing so, they rightfully take ownership of their costs. It helps change the culture in their department. ZBB forces each one of us to account for the mission and service of that need. Wants get pushed aside because you’re focused on needs; that’s my mission. Part of being proud of your decisions is having trust in the process. I think ZBB helps improve the trust across the board, both with citizens and city staff,” he said.
Magill explained how some truly talented people in the city departments are always in a reactive mode due to a lack of public trust. “Therefore, the staff’s creativity and ideas don’t flow through. If you’re always in a break-fix mentality, you’re never going to get into what IT folks call a ‘manage services’ mode. If you’re the computer guy who shows up only after the computer is broken, then you spend your time waiting for the next phone call for the next broken computer. When you can step above that, you manage the computers actively before they break. You’re performing a day-to-day service. You can then manage hundreds – even thousands – of computers a day rather than 2 or 3 a day.”
He then talked about employee raises being tied to the process. “It helps align goals. If you can align goals with city employees to be more efficient, why wouldn’t you? I think it’s one of the greatest benefits of this process. As we see savings, we’re going to fund two things: residential street reconstruction and city employee step raises, which are based on merit.”
Magill believes the typical role of council in this process is to create policies to shape the existing city government and the future of the city. This, he said, involves a second role for the council, working with the city manager who in turn directs city staff, the actual people who get things accomplished in terms of service and performance within the city government. A third role, that of holding people accountable for doing the work, is typically highlighted by the public via the local newspaper, print media, social media, television, and radio. “However, sometimes there’s truly not an accountability layer because some who are supposedly holding others accountable need some accountability themselves. When this layer is missing, council members will drop out of the policy-making mind frame and into the accountability layer.”
This, he said, prompts conversations at council meetings where members are asking if a task was completed or not. “Instead of that authoritative accountability role, we should be in the policy-making role. It’s unfortunate that we have to drop in to the authoritative role, but we have to do what we have to do.” He explained that when the public and the media hold the policymakers and city staff accountable, then council members can focus on policies that shape the future of the city, concentrating on long-range plans that include water supply developments, repairing waste water issues, fixing our streets, and improving public safety.
Magill devoted hours to analyzing the proposed comprehensive plan, PlanCC 2035. He found it completely lacking in the areas of support for public safety (fire, police, and emergency response), in support and growth of our military presence, and in support of our port, elements clearly defined in the 1987 comprehensive plan and essential to creating a safe environment where families can thrive. “Since I voted for the process to create the document, it is incumbent upon me to make sure that we aren’t passing an incomplete document,” he said. He identified several aspects of PlanCC 2035 that he classifies as wants. “There’s nothing wrong with having wants, but applying city budgets to them is essential.”
In his typical, analytical, chess-playing style, Magill went about merging the 1987 plan with PlanCC 2035 and named it PlanCC 2036, to reflect a 20-year plan. “Plan 2036 doesn’t get rid of the wants from 2035; it just puts them in a separate document entitled ‘Ambitions and Aspirations’ that will help guide the city staff in the future. If Parks and Recreation wants to provide free swim lessons to all citizens, let it compete with the other missions and core services and go up through the chain of the budget process. If there’s funding for it, then it will survive.” To him, it is about being a good steward of the resources with which he and the rest of the council have been entrusted.
When asked how he felt about the naysayers who have criticized his methods, he said, “Our annual budget is about $841 million. Imagine it as an enormous ship. When you steer that ship in a different direction, you’re going to get some waves. If you want the ship to go in the same direction all the time – or the same way it’s been going for 30 or 40 years – you get fewer waves. Some people spend all their time and energy trying to minimize the waves instead of looking at the new direction. The new direction of this ship is headed toward fixing and maintaining our streets, improving our water supply, repairing wastewater issues, and focusing on public safety. That’s a more responsible and practical approach, and that’s where our ship should have headed long ago. Am I afraid of the waves? Absolutely not, because I see the new direction.”
Since 2011, Magill lost both his parents but started a family of his own. “At some point in life, all of us will be focused on other things. My entire life isn’t just about city government. My daughter is everything to my wife and me. She inspires me exponentially more than I was ever inspired in the past. In the future – when I leave city government- I’ll know that I’ve at least helped others lead in the same direction. To me that’s so much more than a legacy of a statue or a building with my name on it.”
Related articles: Sam Houston: Portrait of a Leader