by Cynthia Taggart & r & With snow decorating tree limbs, Christmas lights glittering and downtown shoppers greeting friends with smiles, Coeur d'Alene is the American small town of happy stories. Everything about the city is appealing right now, and city residents believe they know why.
"Women are in leadership," says Mary Lou Reed, a former state legislator who has lived in Coeur d'Alene for 49 years. "They work with collaborative style. People are feeling great about the future. The entire climate is very wholesome."
Coeur d'Alene is the only city its size or larger in Idaho and Washington with three women at the helm -- Mayor Sandi Bloem, City Administrator Wendy Hague and Police Chief Wendy Carpenter. A fourth woman, Dixie Reid, is Coeur d'Alene's City Council president.
Such a municipal leadership combination is rare. Port Townsend, Wash., offers the closest match in two states with a female mayor and police chief.
"I thought what we had here was unique," says Carpenter, who leads the 90 employees in Coeur d'Alene's police department.
Gender no longer is an attention-getter when it comes to city leadership roles. Washington has 280 cities and 72 female mayors. Idaho also has its share of female mayors, though few cities have female police chiefs.
Still, gender often takes the blame when the city governed falls apart. In Coeur d'Alene's case, people are crediting gender with the city's relative contentment at the moment.
"I've always believed that governments are better off as entities with a lot of women at the table with men. Both bring different talents to the table," says Tony Stewart, a political science professor at North Idaho College. "Coeur d'Alene has certainly verified that belief."
A Northwestern University study in 2001 found women in leadership positions operate in a more democratic style than men in the same role. The study credited women with a less hierarchical, more cooperative and more collaborative approach to management -- traits social scientists strongly connect to the female gender. Business Week in 2000 reported that management gurus in search of the most effective leaders had begun hiring women.
Bloem was first elected mayor in 2001. City residents easily elected her for a second term last month. She took over a city wary of its leaders and skeptical that citizens were welcome at City Hall. Bloem's predecessor in the mayor's office, Steve Judy, was controversial.
"This administration is a breath of fresh air," says John Bruning, a city planning commissioner for 23 years. "They had to overcome the previous administration's mistakes, lower the stress level among staff, reorganize, get people so they weren't running scared all the time. They reinstilled a whole lot of trust."
Bloem's approach to leadership was nothing like Judy's. She encouraged departments to work together and council members to work with city departments. She appointed leaders and trusted them to do their jobs.
"I don't think the team concept that's in place would have worked as well under prior administrations because the mayor and council really have to delegate responsibility and trust their department heads," says Mike Kennedy, a 14-year Coeur d'Alene resident who was elected to his first council position last month. "Sandi does that very well. City Hall feels it can have a say in things involving its own departments."
How true, says Carpenter. She was appointed interim police chief 16 months ago and so impressed the City Council that the appointment became permanent. Carpenter wasn't convinced she wanted the position until, as interim chief, she experienced Bloem's hands-off management style.
"She doesn't interfere with anything. It's a great working relationship," Carpenter says. "She's very supportive of all the agencies and department heads. If we've done something wrong, she leaves it to us to fix."
Communication was a major component of Bloem's teamwork approach. She assigned each council member two city departments to shepherd. Council members became more knowledgeable about city services and department heads knew they had a council member listening to them.
"That type of interaction is a key," says Ben Wolfinger, a Coeur d'Alene councilman for the past five years. "She treats people the way she wants to be treated and that's a key element in a good manager."
Bloem extended her teamwork approach beyond Coeur d'Alene. She started the North Idaho Mayors' Coalition that brings mayors together regularly to share problems, issues and plans.
"That was never done before," says Kennedy. "Sandi has a very soothing presence. She's retained her soft side masterfully, but you also know in a meeting with her that she's taking it all in and her conclusion will be reflective of everyone's input."
Stewart believes Bloem's deep roots in Coeur d'Alene are as instrumental to her success as mayor as many of the characteristics of her gender.
"She's been here her entire life," he says. "She wants to maintain the quality of life she enjoyed in childhood."
Bloem's history in town linked her tightly to another long-time resident, business magnate Duane Hagadone. Her first campaign for mayor was greeted with skepticism by many people who believed her friendship with the resort developer and newspaper owner would allow Hagadone to call the shots from City Hall.
She proved otherwise. When Hagadone proposed a huge garden project that included drastic changes for Coeur d'Alene's downtown, Bloem marched unscathed through a gauntlet of personal and public pressure. She said little, but she listened to everyone.
"People don't have to get everything they want as long as they're listened to," Stewart says. "People are tolerant until they're ignored. Mayor Bloem's heart is in the right place and it shows."
Hagadone dropped the highly controversial proposal after the City Council decided the public should vote on it.
"What happened changed a lot of people's perspective of her because the council did the right thing and she supported it," Kennedy says. "As a citizen, it was tremendous for me to watch her do what was right for Coeur d'Alene in the face of intense pressure."
Characteristically, Bloem credits her team for much of her success.
"My idea of leadership is that the only way I can be successful is to create many new leaders around me," she says. "I love to play on a team, and it's an honor to be given the opportunity to be part of a team."
City Administrator Wendy Hague is a key player on Bloem's City Hall team. Like Carpenter, Hague began her position to fill an absence during a search for the right replacement. She handled affairs so efficiently, though, that it was clear to the City Council that she was the right replacement.
"She's a sharp, sharp lady," Wolfinger says. "You know where you stand with her. She'll tell you what she expects and lets you do your job. That's how this administration works."
Police Chief Carpenter understood and believed in the team approach long before Bloem moved into the mayor's office, so she blossomed under Bloem's leadership. Carpenter's staff appreciated her experience. Carpenter began her career in the police department ticketing cars for parking violations and climbed up through the ranks. Her knowledge of police work was unquestioned. Only her leadership skills were untested, but they proved strong during her five months as interim police chief.
"She knows the job inside out," says Wolfinger, who is a captain in the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department. "She's a take-care-of-business kind of person [with] no hidden agenda. She instills trust in people and earns their respect. They know she knows the job."
Carpenter faced some tough business. One of her officers, Michael Kralicek, was shot and critically wounded on the job. A father in his mid-30s, Kralicek survived but with spinal cord injuries that left him in a wheelchair. Six months later, Coeur d'Alene faced its worst crime ever -- a vicious quadruple homicide and kidnapping. The crime was in the county, but Carpenter's department helped immensely, says Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson.
"They loaned detectives, covered calls for us, loaned us personnel to protect the crime scene," Watson says. "The city police and sheriff's department constantly do joint things together and it works well. She's just a good manager."
Carpenter accepts the praise for her work modestly.
"We all work together. I can't take the credit," she says. "It's a great department. Everyone works hard."
Her attitude mirrors Bloem's and Hague's and is the reason Coeur d'Alene is humming along so methodically right now, says Reed.
"It has to do with no administrative egos to satisfy," Reed says. "The women in those roles say 'What can we do together to get this job done?' The entire climate is very wholesome."
The road ahead isn't smooth by any definition. Coeur d'Alene faces some major growth issues that are controversial by their nature -- subdivisions and tall buildings downtown. Candidates in the recent City Council election were hammered with questions about tall buildings blocking the view of Lake Coeur d'Alene and changing the city's small-town atmosphere.
Height controls are on the City Council's schedule for next year, and the issue is sure to generate emotional debate. Residents believe a view of Lake Coeur d'Alene is their right and will defend that right with passion. Developers believe taller buildings will revitalize downtown with living space and provide more reasons for attracting vacationers.
If any administration can handle such a hot-potato issue, it's apparently Bloem's.
"She can bring people to consensus better than anyone I've seen," Wolfinger says. "She's not afraid to meet with people one on one or in a group and say 'OK, let's get to business and figure out how to solve this.' The chemistry is good right now. There's great leadership in place."