To the best of CCMF’s knowledge, Aram and Arminé Chaparyan are the first brother-sister city manager pair in California history. Aram was appointed city manager of Torrance in October 2020, and Arminé took South Pasadena’s top administrative office in May 2021. They are also first-generation immigrants on a shared path to serve the public and give back. The Chaparyans sat down with CCMF to reflect on their journey in the city management profession.
What initially prompted you to get involved with local government?
Arminé: Aram and I were born and raised in Armenia. Our family immigrated to the United States in 1987 and we settled in Pasadena. Our parents are both very worldly—history and politics have always been topics of conversation in our home. Growing up, that seed was planted in us early on. We were blessed to grow up in a community that was very welcoming, very inclusive. But I think some of the hardships and challenges that most immigrant families go through are what prompted us to pursue careers in the public sector, where we have the opportunity to give back to our community.
Aram: The parallels have been there all along between Arminé and myself. We have always found inspiration in our academic and leadership pursuits—all stemming from this inherent need to serve. I think that’s been ingrained in us from the immigrant experience, dating back to our days in high school. We’re less than two years apart.
Arminé: I’ve always looked up to Aram as an older sibling. We grew up as best friends. Eventually, we followed each other to the University of Southern California (USC) for graduate school, where we both obtained our Masters in Public Administration.
Aram: I never thought I would pursue grad school, because Arminé was the academic. I always tell people, “My sister is the smart one, and the better-looking one!” I followed her to grad school because I was intrigued by the type of coursework USC’s program was offering at the time. It was tailored more for the practitioner perspective: more teamwork-oriented and hands-on, less theoretical. Arminé encouraged me to take that route, and I’m glad I did.
Why did you want to become a City Manager?
Aram: After finishing undergrad and working in various capacities for a few years, I found a management internship in Torrance to complement my studies at USC. As I progressed through various positions and opportunities, the City Manager track seemed very attractive to me: the prospect of being in a position where I could serve, and where I could help lead the organization. I realized that the natural next step up in my long-term career track would be to become City Manager. That path took almost 20 years. I’m now 10 months into my role as City Manager in Torrance, having first served as Assistant City Manager like Arminé did.
Arminé: While in grad school, I started my first government job with the State of California—Aram did a stint there, too. There, I worked for a really great mentor who advised me that, if I really liked what I was doing, I should look at the local government path. In my last semester, I started working for the City of West Covina in an analyst position. I started there at the same time as a new City Manager, and I was really fascinated with the fact that, in his role, he got to touch almost every department. I’m extremely bubbly and outgoing, so to be in a position where you get to touch a bit of everything sounded really interesting, intriguing and challenging. After that, I always had my eye on the City Manager role. This September, I’m going to celebrate 20 years in local government as I settle into my new role as City Manager in South Pasadena.
What is the most important part about your job as a City Manager?
Aram: The ability to distinguish between the role of administrator and the role of policymaker is critical: understanding that, as City Manager, you serve at the pleasure of the Council, who are a reflection of the community. There is no right or wrong opinion—it’s an exchange of ideas and priorities and trade-offs. In my role (having had wonderful mentors throughout my career and watching them really master this profession), I’ve learned that it’s all about being ethical, honest, transparent and forthcoming while being firm in your professional opinion, and giving the Council and the community the best professional advice you can.
Arminé: Managing people is a huge component of the City Manager’s role, and managing relationships both inside and outside the organization. You are the conduit between the community, the Council and the employees. Not only are you responsible for providing accurate information, helping solve problems and facilitating everything that comes to the Council, but you’re also the mediator that manages changing dynamics amongst all of the different stakeholders. On top of that, you’re also the face of the organization. It’s a lot of different things that you’re doing simultaneously.
Aram: 24-7, mind you. When you’re an Assistant City Manager, your boss is the City Manager. Now, I report to seven elected officials, and Arminé to five. So I have seven bosses, notwithstanding my wife and my kids at home!
Arminé: We each have three kids.
Aram: A lot of people ask us if we talk shop when we get together. No, we chase our five-year-olds!
As family members who share a profession, how do you collaborate to learn from each other?
Arminé: Aram is my sounding board, because I know that he will give me honest feedback even if it’s hard to hear. Aram works for a very large city, and I work for one of the smaller cities. That in itself is such a huge difference, yet our roles are the same—just in different types of organizations. He’s always been my sounding board ever since we were kids, and to be able to do that now professionally is just an amazing experience.
Aram: We find inspiration in one another. I have an awareness of what’s happening in Arminé’s city, and she knows what’s going on in mine. We exchange articles and share our network. We pay it forward and keep helping each other in the realization of our roles. But, at the same time, we try to separate ourselves from the roles when we’re in a family environment.
What is the role of a City Manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?
Aram: We have to be open and transparent, have integrity, hold high ethical standards and make the organization responsive to the needs of the public. Beyond the electorate, we also have commercial partners, major business employer centers, tourism and regional partners to account for. But the focus of the City Manager is really that core service delivery. We’re a service organization. We have to make sure that our operations are efficient and run in a prudent way, upholding our fiduciary responsibility to the public. And we always want to deliver more. I want to meet and exceed the expectations of the community, while bringing strong oversight and accountability throughout the organization.
Arminé: Continuing to build public trust means always putting our best foot forward and being sensitive to the perception that we have in the community. It’s important not to lose sight of our goals and the steps we are taking to accomplish them, while maintaining awareness of how all of our actions are reflecting on the entire organization. At the end of the day, working in government makes us public figures. We have to hold ourselves to the highest standards.
What has your work in public service taught you?
Arminé: Public service has taught me to always be true to myself, to hold myself to the highest level of integrity and never to compromise that. It’s taught me to be reasonable, fair, responsive and to always strive to understand the different sides of an issue.
Aram: We stand on the shoulders of wonderful folks who have been in our positions before us, and there is a fellowship of City Managers that all share this calling. You don’t do this job for the pay or benefits—it really has to be fundamental to your core to want to serve. Service has taught me patience, listening, balance and leading by example. This office of City Manager is bigger than me or Arminé or any of our counterparts, because it is the professional appointed position that the Council and the community entrust to deliver essential public services. People’s livelihoods—both our employees and the communities we serve—are on the line. Our work has a huge impact, and that weighs on you, but it’s also inspiring to know that you’re in a position of making a difference. It may be as small as solving a traffic signal issue or as big as dealing with some of the most complex issues of society today.
Arminé: When we reflect, we think about a lot of the obstacles we’ve gone through. Aram and I are both committed to paying that forward, both in our professional and our personal lives. We take pride in what we do and we are both committed to helping groom the next generation of talent. Neither one of us turns down a request to help someone out. Having been born and raised in a different country, we feel very fortunate that we’ve had the blessings, experiences and opportunities that we’ve had. We don’t take it lightly, and if there’s a way for us to inspire others to enter the profession and make it as fruitful for them as it has been for us, we’re both committed to doing that.