Bridge builder

Leon County, Fla.'s Curtis gets players on the same page

PATRICIA CURTIS: Leon County, FLA.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

1978 Began work as programmer with Connell, Metcalf & Eddy, an engineering firm in Coral Gables, Fla.

1980 Worked as a programmer I for the fire department's CAD system in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

1984 Became a programmer/systems analyst for the Mississippi Automated Resource Center, a GIS for the state of Mississippi

1994 Hired as coordinator for the Tallahassee-Leon County GIS

1996-98 Served as executive director of the Florida Urban Regional Information Systems Association

1997 Appointed to the Florida Geographic Information Advisory Council by the governor

1999 Promoted to Leon County MIS director

2001 Selected Supervisor of the Year for Leon County Management Services.

Patricia Curtis

Robert Steven Cannon

Anyone who has worked in government knows it's not easy to get city, county and local agencies to agree on anything. Patricia Curtis has made a career of it.

Curtis, director of management information systems for Leon County, Fla., has spent the past 13 years building bridges across agency and jurisdictional lines previously deemed impassable, as she oversees the county's IT department in Tallahassee.

She's brought together cities and counties, public defenders and prosecutors, and sheriffs and police by taking the time and devoting the attention needed to smooth over old rifts while giving all her clients what they need.

'Pat is fantastic,' said Kim Dressler, the county's director of management services and Curtis' supervisor. 'Think of all the attributes you can to describe a good manager, and they would apply.'

Described by colleagues as diplomatic, supportive and tenacious, Curtis said any success she has achieved is due to a philosophy of consensus building, patience and the premise that information is meant to be easily shared among a wide range of users.

'Process improvements require a lot of interaction with people and convincing individuals to make changes for the good of all,' Curtis said. 'That can be difficult, but I'm persistent. I'm a firm believer [in] eating the elephant one bite at a time.'

The next level

Curtis oversees a 60-employee department that provides IT support services not only to the county but to the circuit court and most other offices in the region, including those of the sheriff, public defender, state attorney, supervisor of elections, property appraiser and tax collector.

Along with their traditional day-to-day responsibilities, the department supports electronic tracking of criminal cases, emergency medical services and a regional network to track stolen goods. Meanwhile, MIS maintains an all-inclusive Web site recognized in 2003 for its excellence.

'She's taken us to the next level since she's been here,' said Michelle Taylor, an IT manager. 'She's really taken a proactive approach.'

A 1979 graduate of Florida International University in Miami, Curtis spent her early career in private business but in 1985 became a programmer and systems analyst for Mississippi, where she was introduced to geographical information systems.

In 1994, she took over GIS operations in Tallahassee, and immediately met her first challenge. Despite a cooperative agreement, city and county officials had failed to come together to produce a user-friendly GIS network.

With city officials ready to walk out and make their own system, Curtis did something unusual.

'In the first two weeks, I went and talked to everybody and met all the players,' Curtis recalled. 'The county was shocked that I went over to the city and talked to the players.' Eventually, joint GIS system got done.

More than a decade later, it continues to run smoothly.

After taking the reins of the entire MIS system more than six years ago, Curtis faced another conundrum: How to get firmly entrenched and traditionally adversarial agencies to develop a system to track adult criminal cases.

Charged to develop a system linking judges, public defenders, prosecutors, court clerks and law enforcement officers, Curtis again used shuttle diplomacy to convince parties to compromise for the greater good. It took a few years as she convinced skeptical colleagues to abandon their own systems for a new one that didn't give everyone exactly what they wanted but was user friendly and fulfilled their needs.

'She has a talent for building external relationships with our customers,' said Herman Davis, another IT manager under Curtis. 'That made a big, big difference.'

Curtis' other multiagency success stories include a system to locate stolen goods by tracking pawn shop sales over an 18-county region.

The program, still growing, is accessible to the state's law enforcement officials.
She's also been active in a statewide effort to link the state's circuit and appellate court systems into a seamless network in response to a constitutional amendment shifting court responsibilities from counties to the state.

Not resting on her laurels, Curtis is looking ahead on systems that more quickly recover from natural disasters while moving forward on a long-term project to set up a workflow system to replace the paper pushing that has for so long characterized government work.

The variety of tasks, she said, is what makes government work so rewarding. 'Government is not like a bank. It's not like [an] insurance company or a lawyer's or doctor's office where we're all doing the same thing,' Curtis said.

Such long-term goals please Curtis' colleagues, who want her to stick around for a very long time.

'She can never leave,' Taylor quipped. 'I'll chain her to her desk. She has to stay here forever.'

Michael Peltier is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee, Fla.

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