“You can't complain about what's going on in your world if you don't do something about it.”

Angela Connolly remembers hearing her grandmother say those words on more than one occasion when she was a child. Taking them to heart is what motivated her to become involved in county government.

As an employee of Polk County, Iowa, for 19 years and as the current chair of the county's Board of Supervisors, Connolly has coupled her talent for speaking up about problems in her community with the force of her convictions to rectify them. Despite three lawsuits in as many years that challenged her efforts to make big changes in the county, Connolly remains focused on her goals to improve the quality of life for the county's 375,000 residents.

While her crowning achievement is the construction of a $217 million arena and convention center in downtown Des Moines, she also drove a reorganization of county government this year that eliminated several management positions to cut spending. Pushing for change in central Iowa has not been the easiest job, but Connolly has weathered the criticism, skepticism and doubt in her abilities. Her perseverance has paid off in many ways, including being selected as American City & County's 2003 County Leader of the Year.

Laying the groundwork

Angela Connolly grew up on the south side of Des Moines, the only girl in a family of four children whose parents owned and operated an Italian restaurant. Her grandmother, who was active in the Iowa Democratic Party, claimed friendship with then-Governor Harold Hughes and had “several conversations” with John Kennedy. “She had pictures of [Kennedy] all over her house,” Connolly remembers.

Connolly got infected with her grandmother's interest in politics at an early age and worked in the Polk County election office in her first summer job. Following several summers working in the election office, Connolly moved to a full-time position in the Auditor's Office, and eventually to the Public Works Department, where she spent 12 years as a zoning enforcement officer.

In her experience as a county employee, Connolly had frequent contact with residents, viewing first-hand how county services can affect their lives. As a zoning inspector, those effects were not always positive.

“I liked the fieldwork; however, it's an easy job to get burned out on,” she says. “You're always telling people what they can and can't do. You're not the favorite person on the face of the earth, that's for sure.”

After 19 years as a county employee, Connolly felt the need for new challenges and saw an opportunity to change the direction of the county government. She ran for and won election to the Polk County Board of Supervisors in 1998, and, upon taking office in 1999, she joined a growing community effort to change the face of downtown Des Moines. Connolly believed the county could contribute to the downtown revitalization with a new county-owned arena that would meet the region's need for more recreation and convention facilities.

Connolly's timing was perfect. In 1996, the county had assumed responsibility for the operation and maintenance of Veterans Memorial Auditorium and the Polk County Convention Complex, which previously were run by the city. Both facilities' designs were outdated and were not large enough to meet the growing demands for their use. “The Des Moines area has missed out on things that are important to younger people, like a venue for events like concerts. We haven't had the right type of facility to make it a great experience,” says Bill Peterson, executive director of the Iowa State Association of Counties. “We did have a fairly strong Arena Football team playing in Vets Auditorium, but the facility wasn't conducive to packing the house.”

After studying the market for new convention and entertainment facilities, the county decided to renovate the existing auditorium and convention center and to build additional arena and convention space nearby. The resulting plan called for a 17,000-seat facility that could host concerts, professional sports and the annual Iowa High School Athletic Association sports tournaments, and 100,000 square feet of exhibit space to supplement the existing convention center. The $217 million project would be situated on the banks of the Des Moines River, two blocks from downtown and four blocks from the city's entertainment district.

Connolly worked with other county officials and the Greater Des Moines Partnership, an economic development organization, to plan the facilities and to ask the state for financial assistance in constructing what became known as the Iowa Events Center. Those efforts took hold in the legislature, which established the Vision Iowa Program in 2000 to provide grants to local capital projects with budgets of more than $20 million. Funded by state taxes collected on gambling revenues, the program granted $50 million to the construction of the Iowa Events Center and, to date, has provided $200 million to other communities in the state.

As a requirement of receiving the Vision Iowa grant, Polk County contributed $15 million to support construction of four projects downtown: a science center, a higher education center, a headquarters for The World Food Prize Foundation and a library. Together with the construction of new headquarters for Wells Fargo and Allied Insurance, freeway reconstruction and riverfront development, an estimated $1.5 billion in redevelopment projects are sprouting in downtown Des Moines. Construction of the Events Center began in December, and the exhibit hall is scheduled for completion next fall, with the arena opening in Spring 2005.

Overcoming obstacles

Although the Events Center is under construction now, many say it would not have gotten that far without Connolly's dedication. As the lead supporter of the project on the Board of Supervisors, Connolly fought criticism of the project's financing all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court.

To help finance the construction of the Events Center, the county issued $159 million in urban renewal bonds that would be repaid with revenues from the county-owned racetrack and casino, Prairie Meadows. Some residents challenged the board's authority to issue bonds in that amount without a referendum, and they gathered a petition to force the bond issue to a vote. Falling short of the required number of signatures, the challengers filed a lawsuit against the board that proceeded through the appeals process to the Iowa Supreme Court. In 2001, the county won the lawsuit when the court ruled the board had operated within the law.

Blockades to continuing with the construction of the Events Center kept coming, however, as the board faced opposition from construction industry associations that objected to the county's use of project labor agreements. The agreements applied to construction contracts on the project, requiring union-scale wages and establishing a method for resolving disputes to avoid strikes. Polk County was the first government in Iowa to use project labor agreements, which also were challenged all the way to the state Supreme Court. The county won the lawsuit.

Both court cases delayed construction of the project and discouraged many county residents. “The project lost some luster because of the disputes,” says Mark Stevens, project director for the Iowa Events Center. “Angela was very closely identified with [the center], and she persevered and provided the inspiration to staff to hang in there.”

Connolly's determination to keep forging ahead on the project, despite both lawsuits, impressed many. “Angela was able to take this vision of this project and really maintain it through the difficulties of two high-profile lawsuits,” says Michael O'Meara, assistant county attorney. “Maintaining that vision, I think, is the sign of a real leader.”

Although others may have doubted the project's survival, Connolly did not waver. “I felt in my heart that this was the right thing to do,” she says. “When I make decisions, whether it's the arena or building a seniors' center or trying to go after more federal dollars for affordable housing, I do that with my conviction. I really believed in my heart [that building the Events Center] was the right thing to do for the community, so I was going to stay on top of it no matter what.”

Despite the challenges to the Events Center, Connolly was re-elected in November. One of two returning supervisors on the five-member board, Connolly was elected board chair and was charged with leading the county through budget cuts to avoid a potential $12 million budget shortfall. “It was time for a change, and with a new board, I said, ‘We have to do business differently. Times are tough, and we have to get our house in order,’” Connolly says.

The board decided to reorganize county departments to consolidate and cut high-paying management positions. One of the casualties was the county manager's office, the elimination of which cut 13 jobs and saved approximately $930,000 in salaries.

Although the county manager's office was not a statutory position, the elimination of the office took many by surprise. It evoked a lawsuit from the county manager — the first African-American woman to hold that office in the county — who claimed the board violated her civil rights. A federal district judge found the county had acted within its limits and ruled in favor of the board. “It was simply a decision that the previous boards had made that they would exercise their responsibilities through the employment of a manager,” O'Meara says. “The present board decided they wanted to manage in a different way. [They] said, ‘We are full time; we are here; we want to be directly involved in the management of the county.’”

The reorganization took a toll on Connolly. “It was one of the toughest things that I've had to go through as a county supervisor,” she says. “[I had] a lot of sleepless nights because I'm affecting their lives and their livelihood. Not just that person, but their families. They're all very good people, but we had to go in a new direction.”

Although the board's move to eliminate the county manager's office was shocking, many say it has not negatively affected county operations and has helped make county government decisions more open to the public. “So far, the reorganization is working really well,” says Jeff Riese, president of the Polk County Taxpayers Association. “As large as Polk County is, it probably needs professional managing, but in the first six months, the supervisors have done pretty well. They have open workshops every Wednesday and Thursday morning. Some deal with things the county manager would normally deal with, and some are good policy discussions.”

Opening doors

By holding frequent public board meetings, Connolly is communicating with residents and employees about county government services and getting their feedback about what is working well and poorly. Going one step further, she started the practice of surveying residents about county services. Although several cities in the county had polled their residents about the quality of city services, the county never had.

In 2001, Connolly and the board established a new mission statement and set of core values for the county government. “One of the values said that our clients and citizens, when surveyed, will rate our services as excellent,” says Bruce Bernard, director of facility and support services. “We developed the survey to try to see where we might be with respect to that goal. Angela was instrumental in shepherding that process along and getting the support of the full board to do that.”

The county contracted with Iowa State University to mail the survey to 1,500 residents this year and evaluate the results. Besides questions about specific county services, the survey included questions to gauge residents' ratings of quality of life in the community.

Although the population of the Des Moines metropolitan area is growing, many college graduates leave for career opportunities in Minneapolis, Chicago and Kansas City. Connolly wants to ensure that the county is doing all it can to keep young residents in the area and preserve the quality of life for older residents. “I want to make sure people recognize that I was a true believer in bringing a quality of life to our citizens that everyone would be proud of,” she says.

Those quality-of-life concerns are partially what fueled Connolly's desire to build the Iowa Events Center. “We needed an attraction,” she says. “We needed people to be proud of it if they wanted to continue to live and raise their family here.”

Through the Vision Iowa program, Connolly has helped other communities in the state improve the quality of life for their residents. “The big difference between today and back in the early 80s is that today, companies are going where people want to live,” says Mike Blouin, director of economic development for Iowa. “Back then, they would go anywhere, and people would come. People want to live where they can enjoy themselves, where they have recreational opportunities and cultural opportunities. As the Vision Iowa program succeeds and these projects come out of the ground, you will have people seeing reasons to stay and finding reasons to move there.”

For Connolly, a lifelong resident of Polk County, the reasons to live and work in the county are clear: the county still faces large problems that need to be solved. Chiefly, jail overcrowding is causing the county to spend nearly $3 million annually to house inmates in other counties and states and to transport them to and from court appearances. Additionally, tightened budgets are prompting city and county officials to consider ways to share services and possibly consolidate governance.

Solutions will emerge, and Connolly intends to help them come about. “It takes time, but with moxie, you just got to hang in there,” she says. “You just got to make it happen. You got to keep singing that same song and dance over and over again. That's what I'm doing.”