For Sean Quinn, even going to the grocery store can act as a performance review.

Standing over his chicken, the Fairfield City Manager entered into a 15-minute conversation communicating the goals of his city to a concerned resident.

The woman was upset about the recent layoffs of nine police officers.

“I explained to her that the bottom line is that we have no money,” Quinn said of the conversation that took place three months ago.

“I walked her through our budget and she had no idea of the state takeaways. At the end of the conversation, she said ‘well it sounds like you’re doing the right thing.’”

Talk about direct accountability.

“Cities and counties are at ground zero,” Quinn said. “What we do affects everyone in their daily lives. All the things people see. When people have a complaint they come down to a City Council meeting and complain. It’s democracy at its best.”

The good news for Quinn is that his innovative approaches and skills in communication and negotiation has Fairfield out in front of tough economic times for cities.

For his management, Quinn has been awarded as PublicCEO’s Public Official Of The Year. The award is the highest honor of this year’s awards (see full list here).

Quinn receives the honor primarily based on his ability to engage public employee unions and succeed in negotiating contracts.

Quinn, who has been the City Manager in Fairfield since 2007, has been there to help the city through a thorny stretch. It began in September 2008 when two members of the City Council died in the same month – one from suicide; the other was murdered in a case of mistaken identity over a $50 drug deal.

All of which took place when the city was beginning to go through financial issues.

Fairfield ranks as one of the highest areas hit by foreclosures. The area also was hit hard in the construction industry, seeing a drop in the yearly average of building permits from 750 each year to less than 150 in the last two years. Sales tax dollars have declined 14 quarters in a row, led by the decline of auto sales.

The result: Fairfield cut 24 percent from its general fund and eliminated 108 of 650 total positions in last 18 months.

This time around, rather than make such large budget cuts, Quinn and his team of administrators made the decision to engage employee unions on compensation cuts.

Having the conversation about cutting compensation by 12 percent isn’t easy.

“It’s a hard number for people to swallow when we negotiate,” Quinn said.

Quinn, along with Fairfield’s Finance Director, Human Resources Director and other staff members, began conversations this past June with a deadline of reaching agreements on compensation cuts by December.

Essentially, if a deal was not made then the city would have to make cuts.

The effort was a success; effectively agreeing to 12 percent of compensation cuts with the city’s major employee unions. The unions agreed to furloughs, increasing their own contributions to retirement and conceding pay raises for the next two years.

“They were in contract so they didn’t have to give it up,” Quinn said. “It was in good faith by them.”

It was Quinn’s ability to gain the confidence and trust of employee unions that made him successful.

“You have to have the relationship already,” Quinn said. “One of the things we do here is meet with employees to brief them on the quarter, send a lot of information and get out and about to keep the trust level up so they see you and know you. We shared all the information on labor issues so there were no surprises.

“We spent a lot of time with them, walking through the fact that if they gave concessions, we’d work with them.”

The biggest key was negotiating with the city’s public safety unions, as 76 percent of Fairfield’s city budget goes to public safety. Fire has signed a tentative agreement for furloughs.

The police union did not agree to the 12 percent cuts but did give up a big chunk through cost of living increases for the next three years and smaller contributions to health. By not giving up the full 12 percent, the city laid off nine police officers.

Give Quinn 15 minutes or so, even if it’s at a grocery store, and he’ll give you that complete explanation.

Join us in congratulation Quinn as PublicCEO’s Public Official Of The Year.

Other Local Government Of The Year Award Winners included:

For more information, please contact the editor, James Spencer, at