The phone rings. It’s a concerned citizen who wants to know when a pothole on her street will be fixed. A pinging text alert reminds that a fundraiser event is tonight. An email pops up into her inbox. It’s a man complaining about his neighbor’s dog. It’s only 6:45 a.m. but as Councilmember Melissa Head slips into her shoes and heads out the door, she knows it’s going to be a busy day, like most of her days.
Some people heed the call to enter into public service early on in their careers and Head is no exception. While attending law school, the Creighton University graduate jumped head first (pun intended) into the public sector workplace. She took a job as a law clerk and eventually, a real estate specialist in the real estate department of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, where she remained in the department for seven years. Head would work for USACE about nine years before trying her hand at local government work.
Head credits some of her experience with the Corps of Engineers for her success as a councilmember, as her area of expertise would benefit either organization.
“We did a lot of work with local municipalities as part of a project team with real estate, we saw how cities would interact and the different things you had to go through to get approval.”
While in her role as a real estate specialist with USACE, Head volunteered to do a tour in Iraq and later Kuwait, each for about two years. The experience she gained abroad prepared her for her current position as an attorney with the Corps of Engineers. Navigating the world of real estate in the Middle East was significantly challenging, Head said. One of the most difficult real estate challenges was determining land ownership in acquisition real estate cases. Having spent so much time away from home, something was calling her back.
“After being overseas for almost four years, I had a new sense of appreciation for community and for the form of government that we have, the freedoms that we have here, and I wanted to try to get more involved in the community, feel more a sense of home again.”
There was an opening on City Council in Head’s hometown of Council Bluffs, Iowa just months after she had returned from Kuwait. Her renewed sense of hometown pride acquired abroad lead her to run for the councilmember position.
Being a councilmember in Council Bluffs and an attorney in Omaha poses some unique situations, like having to complete two tax returns each year. The practice is common for people who have two jobs and work across state lines.
Elections in Council Bluffs are held every two years, for a four-year position. The election cycle for each councilmember is staggered so there is not a complete overhaul in any given election year. There are five councilmembers, each serving the community at large. Council Bluffs does not have separate districts, like some other municipalities do. Head sees the Council Bluffs district-free strategy as a benefit because it allows councilmembers to reach out to the entire community and not just focus on a particular section.
There are laws restricting federal employees from working for state or local government positions if they are partisan in nature, the primary law being the Hatch Act. Head’s councilmember position is nonpartisan so she is free to run for each election cycle. Head consults the expertise of the lead Omaha District attorneys to navigate the legality of her running for office. Both jobs must remain mutually exclusive in that one cannot use the one position to influence or secure the position of the other.
Most of Councilmember Head’s work is done during the evening hour, after she has left her day job at the Corps of Engineers. Board meetings are the second and fourth Monday of the month at 7:00 p.m.
While she must keep her duties separate, that doesn’t mean Head’s experience from one can’t inform the other.
“When we’re on some of these project teams and we’re talking about things we need from a municipality, whether it’s cost-sharing for a Corps project or acquisition, or we need some sort of agreement from them, being on both sides allows me to help the group understand what is needed.”
On the converse side, Head says that working for the federal government has also helped her do her job better as a councilmember. An example was during the 2011 flooding in Council Bluffs. She was able to act as a liaison between both organizations.
As anyone with two jobs, finding a work-life balance can be tough.
“During election time it can be challenging because you are attending a lot of events to get your name out to try to convince people to vote for you. The job does not pay enough to be a sole source of income. Sometimes you can’t attend certain things when having to be at the other job.”
Former mayor of Council Bluffs, Tom Hanafan, who was somewhat of a mentor in Head’s early days as councilmember, had originally advised her not to run when she was first looking into it. He felt that she should first become familiar with her new job at the Corps of Engineers instead of taking on two new major things at once. Head took the mayor’s advice and waited for the following election cycle.
“She was a very good councilmember because she would read up on things, understand the concepts, understand budgets—one of the most important things on the Council,” said Hanafan. “She’s made a difference with her constituents. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is work hard for your constituents.”
With respect to getting a campaign together, Head says the key is to have a great group of volunteers. The flex time offered by the Corps allows her the ability to come in late on some days and stay later, or vice versa.
Working as a city councilmember is not for everyone, Head says.
“You have to be willing to take risks, step outside your comfort zone because it can be really scary to put yourself out for an election position because there’s obviously a chance you’re going to lose, there’s a chance you’re going to get rejection, and you’re putting yourself out there for critique.”
Despite the challenges that come with being a councilmember, Head thinks you should pursue what you love.
“I would definitely recommend doing it if it’s something you have a passion for, it can be very rewarding. But obviously, it can be very time consuming. Sometimes it can be stressful, because there are certain topics you can never make everybody happy on.”
In February 2019, Head will celebrate her 17th year with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Her successful career in both the federal and local government workplaces shows that one truly can take their passion for public service to the next level. For Head, public service is an essential part of her life, and she has no plans to slow down.
For more information about the Hatch Act, visit the Office of Special Counsel’s website at https://osc.gov/Pages/HatchAct.aspx.
To learn more about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, visit our website or social media sites:
Twitter: https://twitter.com/OmahaUSACE?lang=en Handle: @OmahaUSACE