(Crystal A. Proxmire, July 24, 2013)
After 26 years of service to the people of Pleasant Ridge, Sherry Ball is ready to say farewell, and get busy spending more time with her grand-kids. For the past 15 years she’s been the City Manager of the 2,526 person community just north of Ferndale. Before that she worked her way up through the ranks after starting out as a part time clerk in the post office in 1987.
“I came in to the post office and I saw the sign on the counter that said Help Wanted. My kids were a little older and in school, and I had some secretarial skills so I thought maybe it would be good to go back to work part time… They said they needed someone immediately and could I start the next day. I thought ‘well sure.’ I never dreamed I’d end up all these years later being the City Manager,” Ball said.
With a straightforward personality and an eagerness for learning, Ball’s career evolved as she took on increasing responsibility. In 1987 she came on for the post office job. In 1989 she was hired as a water department clerk. In 1991 she moved up to city clerk. And in 1998 she served as interim city manager before being hired for the long term job in 1999.
Ball announced her retirement at the July 9 City Commission meeting, and her last day will either be Nov. 30 or Dec. 1, depending on when the city determines her anniversary date is.
“It’s bittersweet,” Ball said. “It’s more sweet because I’m looking forward to being able to explore some things I haven’t had the time to do. But when you have something that’s been part of your life for 26 years, every day… for 10 and 12 hours a day, you know, how can you not miss that?”
The City Commission has not yet voted on a course of action for replacing Ball, though she stated that Recreation Director Scott Pietrzak and City Clerk Amy Allison would be helpful to whomever comes on either as interim or as long-term City Manager. “I’m really proud that we have hired good people and have a good team in place,” she said.
Though Ball is a 40+ year resident of Oak Park, she’s had many memories in her long days at Pleasant Ridge City Hall. She’s proud of the way the city worked with residents to create a pool and recreation facility that “brings people together all year round,” and the changes she helped implement to make City Hall more welcoming.
“All of City Hall was different,” Ball said. “The employees were all partitioned off so everyone had this little area behind a wall and you couldn’t see them if you came into the City Hall. So I was glad to get rid of those walls and you can see how it’s laid out now, it’s all open space.”
Pleasant Ridge has been known for its collaborations with other cities and private companies over the years. The sharing of services pre-dates Ball’s employment, but the arrangements have given her plenty to learn and be proud of. Examples include a previous arrangement with Oak Park for leaf collection, work with Royal Oak for water bills, and a 50 year old relationship with the Ferndale Fire Department for fire and rescue.
In the 1990s, Ball was working as City Clerk when the city decided to eliminate the Department of Public Works in favor of a less-expensive private contract. “I learned a lot about labor law,” she said. “That was the most interesting project I was part of…That was a move that saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.”
During the 90s she also went back to college to earn her B.S. in Public Administration after the Mayor at the time, Ralph Castelli suggested it. “I believe that any learning experience is helpful to you, you gain knowledge and all the benefits of an education. But there is nothing like on the job training. Being here at the right time with the right opportunities opening up, that’s just been invaluable.”
A commitment to learning is a big part of what made Ball an asset to Pleasant Ridge. Things changed quickly in the quarter of a century since she first started. There were no computers back then, and documents were created with carbon paper and an IBM Selectric typewriter. “Next we got a word processor, which seemed state of the art at the time,” she said, noting that it took up nearly all of her desk. “We got our first computer in the 90s. There was one computer for the entire office, which was fine because no one really knew how to use it”
The culture changed too. “I was telling the City Commission just last week that I was cleaning out the basement…and I found a box…and in that box was the contents of a desk from probably the 80s. And one of the items in the box was an ashtray. And as I thought about it, when I started here, every employee smoked, and a majority of the residents smoked. And that seems so foreign now when you think about it, and young people probably can’t even relate to that. But we would have residents come in, light up a cigarette, stand at the counter and you’d be smoking…It just seems so strange to me now,” Ball said.
“It’s been really some fun times. And it’s been some sad times,” she said. “When I first worked here you were also trained as a [police] dispatcher… And I’ll never forget the day I think it was in 1991 that the call came across about a shooter at the Royal Oak Post Office. And that is just emblazoned in my mind because it was so tragic and it was something you just never heard about. It was a disgruntled employee that had gone back over to the post office. He had been fired, had gone back over there and I think killed three people and wounded many more. But those were people that I worked with in the post office so it really hit home. And some of our employees and our police employees went over the scene and I mean it was just like time stood still at City Hall because we listened to that police radio while that was going on. So I remember that as one of the saddest times. But there are many more happy stories.”
Ending with some words of wisdom for whoever may be the next City Manager, Ball gave some advice. “You have to pace yourself in a small city. You can get bogged down with minutia. Budget your time.” She added “You have to be a people person and you have to want to interact.”
The Pleasant Ridge City Commission will meet again Sept. 10, and it is likely the topic of Ball’s replacement will be discussed. To learn more about the City of Pleasant Ridge, visit their website at http://www.cityofpleasantridge.org/.