Veteran local government administrator to mentor ASU students as Harrell-Hutchinson Visiting Urban Management Professional

Robert O’Neill Jr. is former executive director of association of managers; was longtime city, county executive in Virginia


Arizona State University students planning for careers running cities, towns or counties will be able to spend a year learning how it’s done from a veteran local government executive starting in January.

Portrait of 2023 Harrell-Hutchinson Visiting Professional of Urban Management, Robert O'Neill.

Robert J. O’Neill Jr., former executive director of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), will share his many years of experience in those roles with public affairs students in 2023 as the first Harrell-Hutchinson Visiting Urban Management Professional.

O’Neill’s position is named for two former Arizona city managers, Lloyd Harrell of Chandler and Mike Hutchinson of Mesa. O’Neill begins his time mentoring ASU students Jan. 1 in a position that will involve in-person visits, Zoom lectures, speeches, discussions and consultations, said Shannon Portillo, professor and director of the School of Public Affairs. The school is based in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Portillo said she is particularly happy that O’Neill will be mentoring ASU students, as she has known him since she was in graduate school at the University of Kansas, when they co-wrote one of her first publications.

“In addition to his long list of career accomplishments, Bob has a long history of serving as a mentor to new professionals in local government,” said Portillo, herself a former county commissioner in Kansas who began her position at ASU in October. “We are excited for our students and community to connect with him over the next year.”

O’Neill was ICMA executive director from 2002 to 2016. More recently, he served as executive-in-residence and fellow for the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He also served as president of the National Academy of Public Administration and held city and county manager positions in Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s before taking a four-month temporary assignment as counselor to the director of the federal Office of Management and Budget in 2001.

'Local government is where policy meets the people'

O’Neill mentioned three things he plans to do when working with ASU students in the coming year.

First, he wants to encourage students to fortify their commitment to public service, because that commitment will be important in managing local government in the near future more than at any time in the nation’s history.

“The reality of it is that local government is where policy meets the people. So that’s what makes it so important. You can have big, broad philosophical conversations about national policy, but at the end of the day, it’s what happens in your own local community that impacts you the most.”

At the federal and state levels, “it’s the policy or the legislation that is the product,” O’Neill said, but in local government, it’s how policy affects each person, family, neighborhood and community.

Second, O’Neill said he wants to encourage students “to be the kind of change agents in their communities to make them better places to live for everyone.” And last, he said, “I want to help them as they make their career choices going forward. Sometimes it’s hard to navigate those choices.”

O’Neill’s year as a visiting professional is supported by a gift from Harrell, who served six years as Chandler city manager after holding similar positions in Texas and Missouri communities, his wife, Nancy, and Hutchinson, who served five years as Mesa city manager, concluding a 28-year career with the city. Harrell served as a School of Public Affairs faculty associate for more than a decade; Hutchinson is executive vice president of East Valley Partnership.

Role model, mentor, 'a great year of learning'

Harrell said he is excited and proud that O’Neill agreed to be the first visiting professional.

“He has had an extraordinary public management career, capped off by leading the premier city-county management professional organization in the country,” Harrell said. “He undoubtedly will be a distinguished role model and mentor for the ASU students.”

Hutchinson agreed, saying O’Neill’s presence will mean a great year of learning for students.

“We are indeed fortunate to have someone of Bob O’Neill’s stature as our initial visiting professional,” Hutchinson said. “Bob has had a stellar career as a practitioner and teacher and will bring a wealth of practical experience and advice to his lectures.”

O’Neill’s Master of Public Administration degree is from Syracuse University in New York. His Bachelor of Arts degree in political science is from Old Dominion University in Virginia. Old Dominion also conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Lastly, he is a graduate of the Executive Program from the University of Virginia’s Colgate Darden Graduate School of Business.

O’Neill said he intends to share two thoughts with students that he wished were shared with him at the start of his career:

  • Don’t ever think you can’t make a difference. When O’Neill was starting out in local government, the expectation was that you “kept your head down, your mouth shut and you learned something.” Today, students going into the field are much better prepared to get more involved, he said.
  • Don’t think of your career linearly; a straight line from department head to assistant city manager to city manager, for example. “There are lots of ways to serve the public, and you have to think more broadly where those contributions can be. Housing, social services, financial management — there are different directions that can lead someone to the top position," he said.

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