Noel Bernal, ICMA-CM is the city manager of Brownsville, Texas. His session “Better Together: Leading Through the Pandemic” will be an on-demand session.

Check out our Q & A with Noel Bernal as he tells us more about what led him to present on this topic and any lessons learned.

What is motivating you to present on this topic?

Noel Bernal: Our motivation to present on this topic arose from the situation our city faced during COVID-19, starting with the odds being stacked against our favor as a community in the form of structural challenges. Despite these challenges, the city has taken an assertive, innovative, and strategic approach toward addressing these issues. These efforts became more significant during COVID-19 as structural challenges became vulnerabilities. When compared to the national average, higher levels of our residents are immunocompromised, live in poverty, are digitally disconnected, and lack access to healthcare.

In a sense, Brownsville had the perfect storm of structural challenges. However, through proactive efforts, together with our partners and community, we have weathered the pandemic in an effective manner. Brownsville’s Strategic Vision is guided by the systemic challenges facing our community such as the: digital divide, active living, and health equity. The city has answered this call to action by directly investing in these areas. We have also focused on our organizational culture development through leadership development at all levels for a responsive, agile, and adaptable 21st Century organization. By focusing on the city of Brownsville’s most important assets, its people, our organization was in a better position to act during this pandemic due to the ‘leadership mind shift’ thinking. The leadership mind shift allowed for us to quickly develop and implement continuity plans and provide a community centered response through innovative approaches to public health, economic development, communications, and service level adjustments.

What do you want the audience to take away? 

Noel Bernal: We want the audience to walk away with the understanding that strength in collaboration and partnerships, organizational culture development, and innovative community-centered response were keys in our response to pandemic challenges. These elements provided the context for our approach. We understand we cannot address our community needs alone; we are better together and can accomplish so much with the support of our people and our community partners including local non-profits, higher education organizations, and the private sector. An acute awareness of our challenges has led us to be more proactive and ahead of the curb. One of our community-centered approaches through Public Health includes the “Boots on the Ground” initiative where our employees go door to door in our most disconnected neighborhoods to provide critical information on resources that are available in response to the pandemic including testing information. Another innovative Public Health approach was the development of a first COVID-19 drive thru testing site in the region, which proved to be a model for other testing sites. Approaches on the economic development end include providing tools for small businesses through partnerships such as E-Commerce Training with our local university, business expansion made possible through various loan programs, and COVID-19 disinfection training in partnership with our community college. The focus on culture development for the organization allowed for quick mobilization including development of continuity plans based on pandemic planning strategies and teleworking plans, check-ins on city staff through town halls and use of new communication tools, establishment of sick leave pool and negative sick leave pool programs, and initiatives such as 3-D printing facemask production by city employees for city employees and the public.

In your own words, what does this topic mean to you? 

Noel Bernal: By sharing this topic with everyone, it gives us the chance to tell our story from a position of strength and resiliency. This is the ethos that defines our community and especially shined during the pandemic. We extend this message to communities who might experience the same challenges. Being a border town, our bi-national perspective can give other communities insight on our challenges and our successes. We used our weaknesses as an opportunity to increase awareness and emphasized the importance of our role as a local government and impact of public health in livelihoods of our citizens. The city’s role in approaching COVID-19 is crucial to our residents, as it is a life or death situation for many people.

Do you have any “lessons learned” on this topic? 

Noel Bernal: There are many lessons learned through this topic, including the value of local government and our critical role in responding to a pandemic. Local governments are best positioned to respond to the immediate needs of the community including the needs that are exacerbated due to a pandemic crisis. Through this pandemic we have learned as a city that first we need to understand our structural challenges and establish awareness. We then continuously evaluate which strategies worked and which did not to continue experimentation. With that in mind, we continue to learn and expand on what was successful; it reinforces the need to plan and be a learning organization to understand macro-level trends with an eye toward the future. While we cannot prognosticate future pandemics, we learned and validated the need to scan our external environment to be anticipatory where possible.

City governments should have partnerships, connections, and established relationships in place prior to disasters. In the event of an emergency, as a community we can quickly come together and respond. Another lesson learned is that there needs to be open communication with our city employees. Drastic situations shift the needs of our team and as leaders, there needs to be an understanding of their state of minds. The City of Brownsville already had a mechanism in place to support staff through continued culture and leadership development. In addition, with COVID-19 placing a strain on employees’ mental well-being, city leadership and the CARE Committee (a group of employees representing different departments from all levels) came into place to provide that support.  The City’s decision-making is guided by the Total Alignment roadmap, which includes our vision, mission, leadership style, and values along with strategies, structures, and systems. We will continue to focus on organizational culture development, community-centered approach, and partnerships/relationships to become stronger as we continue to face this pandemic and any other challenges that may come our way.

What to know about the city of Brownsville:

Community Population (US Census): 175,023 (2010) 182,781 (2019 estimate)

Land area (in square miles): 132.33 sq mi

Staff FTEs (full-time employee equivalents): 1,200

Website Address:


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