Tom Crawford was appointed Interim City Administrator shortly before the COVID-19 crisis prompted the current state of emergency and quarantine. He has been Chief Financial Officer of the City since 2004. Twice before, Tom has been appointed Interim City Administrator, so this is his third time working in the position. In our conversation, we talked less about the specifics of City management (Tom told me that he saw where others – notably, Stephen Postema – had already discussed that with me) and more about his general philosophy: finding the good in this situation and looking ahead to positive outcomes.
This is part of a series of interviews with Ann Arbor residents, talking about personal experiences adjusting to (and adapting during) the COVID-19 crisis. This interview was conducted remotely via the ZOOM application. I appear in this video as “Mrs. Nelson” – we talked over the ZOOM account that I use primarily with my preschool class. Interviewed May 1, 2020
I’m talking to Ann Arbor’s interim City Administrator, Tom Crawford. I just want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Thanks for inviting me!.
So I’m going to ask you the same question that I’m asking everybody which is basically what kind of adjustments that you had to make in your life during this pandemic?
Well, we’re about seven weeks into this now and, yeah, I’ve got a lot of adjustments (it’s like seven months for me!). I started in this position about eight or nine weeks ago so it’s been a lot of adjustments.
I mainly work a lot. Some of the adjustments that I’ve made: I started out in with this working a fair bit from the office. I have two children – nine and seven – and so… [barking noise] …and a dog!… trying to get some of that work done at home, initially, was a bit of a challenge. My wife works as well and so I was working in the office a fair bit and I was one of about six people in the whole building. After a couple of weeks, we really transitioned really well – the whole work force – into being able to not work in the office. So I ended up… I’ve now been home for weeks. I don’t go in at all.
So the adjustments for me… I mean, I’m in meetings all the time. I don’t know… I don’t know what to say… the job was a little bit new just because I just hopped in it.
So since you are at home and I’m talking to you in your household… I’ve been asking everybody: what kind of precautions is your household taking in those day-to-day activities where we have to go out in public? Like going grocery shopping and those kind of activities, what kind of routines do you have in your house?
Well, we stay here and so there hasn’t been a whole lot that we’ve had to do. My wife is a therapist and she was able to switch all of her clients online for this time. We do alternate on how we kind of watch the kids but she’s the one who enjoys grocery shopping and that’s pretty much the activity that we do out away from the house. She does that by herself and she is very diligent about the mask and wiping things down and such. I generally, you know, I’ve taken a few bike rides. I like to get out and do that kind of thing but for the most part we are right here at home.
I’ve only been out I think one time in the last… other than running into the office to pick up a piece of paper or something, I think I’ve been out to a public place one time in the last seven weeks (six weeks?).
I haven’t been to the store, I haven’t been anywhere!
Holy cow. Well, some people I’ve talked to really describe this feeling of being cooped up and so now I’m even more curious: how are you overcoming those feelings of being cooped up if you really are staying in your house that much?
Well, this has been a challenging scenario as far as the city organization so I’ve actually had to do a lot of work. I am not one… people get their energy from different places and I recognize a lot of people struggle with the lack of interaction with others. That has not affected me, personally, as much as it does others. I tend to be an introvert. I like to have quiet time as much as I can.
For me, this has been a really special time because I get to work hard but I also can at any moment kind of step away, enjoy my kids wherever they are. I sit in a corner of my house where there’s a window on my left, a window on my right, and I can glance out and see them playing and doing whatever.
Yeah, it’s been challenging. What I have found, one of the things I miss the most (as this has drug on longer and longer) is the small interactions. I like to talk…you get so much of life (some of the riches of life comes) from those little small discussions when you just bump into people and I get that at work, I would get that outside of work, normally. Those are the things that I think I miss the most.
You know, the homeschooling has been a challenge for us. My day is not as scheduled as it would be at work so then I’ll take a few breaks here and there then I’ll jump off. We recently built little offices for my two kids, just with all of the stuff in the house. So we have toys and stuff stacked up so they each have a corner that’s quasi-private. That’s good for a few days or a week of attention so that kind of stuff is a lot of fun to mix in.
Before this happened… with the kids this age, as you probably recall (or know) they take a lot of your time. I’m largely, in general, at the phase of my life where I’m working or I’m doing family things, anyway, whether it’s scouting or just other kids activities. That hasn’t changed other than that the kids activities are now a little more directed by the parents. (laughter)
Are you taking any special precautions when you are outside?
I have. The time I went out, I wore, threw a dish towel around my face and did that. But other than that, like I said, I’m really just around the yard and stuff, unless I’m walking around the block. I would say about two-thirds of the neighborhood uses a facial covering as they go around the neighborhood. My wife and I have tended to walk either in the road or we all give wide berths to people. We have not been wearing the facial mask around the block, which is about a third of the people.
That’s interesting. Yeah, my husband and I have been wearing masks when we go on walks in the neighborhood and we are very much in the minority. What I’m observing in my neighborhood is that most people are not wearing masks when they’re just walking down the sidewalk, that’s what I’ve been seeing.
We also tend to walk in the evenings. I think wearing the facial masks is very important so the fact that I’m not doing it when we choose to do it is not reflective of that. I think it shows a respect for the people— you don’t know where the other person’s coming from when you’re walking down the street and it shows a respect for where they’re coming from in their life. What I’m conveying is we do it in a manner where we’re not really running across people that much, it’s usually at dark, or in the road, kind of thing.
Right, and then that’s a point, too, because we’re all sort of calculating risk, right? Because if we wanted zero risk we would put ourselves in a ziplock bag and never do anything.
What would you say to people who are feeling so restricted by these guidelines that they are just tired of the isolation, tired of this quarantine and… you know, we have had these demonstrations in Lansing now a couple of times…. what would you say to them?
Well, I think it’s really important. This — from all the things that happen to us in our life — this is just amazing how it is really an issue for everyone to deal with at the same time. If we don’t respect where the other people are coming from and sacrifice some of our freedoms in that respect then we’re not advancing society. I think it’s really important. Our freedoms come from a society and we need a society to function well, so I do think we all have to play our part and get along. This is not forever and it’s not self-imposed, this was imposed on us. I think it’s important that we respect each other and recognize that we need to do the things we need to do for this period of time.
I appreciate that. Do you… is there anything else you’d like to add?
Not really. I was trying to think what some of the questions are you might ask.
I told you them before! (Laughter)
I didn’t really prepare answers to them. I glanced over them, to be honest.
I guess one thing that I might share… Oddly enough, before I started this job, I had been asked to give a little speech on leadership to a group. I had already prepared a few things of my leadership philosophy. It was really interesting to me to then have to pull that piece of paper out and look at it. Now I have it on the wall to remind me of some of the things that I need to try to follow, because it’s somewhat aspirational.
One of [the things] is: never let a crisis go to waste. What this means to me in this instance is that when we have crisis like this, there are times when the crises are bad—and to some extent they all are— but to the extent that we can, how we react to a crisis creates whether the outcomes of the crisis are really bad or good. I think about that a fair bit as I do my job and as I work with the kids, because I do think that as we go through this I try to keep [in mind] that lasting impact of what’s going to come out of this and try to make it a positive experience.
With all the difficult and bad things that go on in a crisis like this, there are good things. I see good things coming in the organization, I see good things coming in the community. It’s been wonderful to see neighbors helping neighbors and people helping the Human Services agencies. This is an opportunity, for example, for me to help my kids see some of that. The organization, for example, I’ve talked to the organization a couple times about trying to find a way to be innovative now. You can’t think of a better way, right now, than to redefine government.
So how can we do what we did yesterday in a different way? Zoom meetings is the obvious one that has been helpful to us. I don’t know where we would be without Zoom in this crisis. There are a lot of things that we may end up doing differently: some little and some big, in our personal lives and in our professional. So for me I’m spending a fair bit of time (likely too much right now!) thinking about how that might help the organization and hopefully the community in how we deliver services.
When you talked about the challenges of having your kids — being responsible for home schooling and that challenge — I can relate to trying to find the silver lining. I’m enjoying having my kids home. As much as it’s not good in many ways, I’m trying to appreciate the time that we’re having together, so I can relate to that.
You walk into a situation like this and you know that when they’re much older in their lives — as will we — we’ll look back and say oh, I remember that crazy time, right? I look for moments that we’re going to have, that they’ll remember. In my family, we like to learn through play and so we do encourage them to get out and make stuff and do stuff.
I looked out the window the other day and they had dug a hole in the yard, put a yard stick up and a cone on top. We have a basement game, I think, where they go down in the basement and just pull something out. They got some golf clubs and they had made a golf tee! So that has been an activity for several days. It’s a fun time. I’m glad to see them being able to do it, I don’t normally get to do that.
I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today! I hope we both get a chance to enjoy this sunshine. We’ve got some good weather!
Well, thank you for the time and good luck with your interviews.
Thank you so much!