The Lawrence City Commission, four months into its nationwide search for a city manager, finally found what it was looking for in its own back yard.
Henry Michael "Mike" Wildgen, a 15-year veteran of Lawrence city government who has spent the past 5 months in an interim role as the city's top administrator, today was named city manager.
The commission met with Wildgen this morning for 15 minutes in executive session before making the announcement to a crowd of about 30 city employees and well-wishers. Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the appointment. Commissioner David Penny, who expressed concerns about the hiring process, cast the lone vote against the appointment.
The announcement ended the commission's efforts to find a permanent replacement for longtime City Manager Buford Watson, who died in October.
"I'M JUST pleased the commission feels confident in my abilities and I can do the job they expect me to do," Wildgen said after the announcement.
Wildgen, 42, came to Lawrence in 1974 to take a post as assistant city manager under Watson. A native of Hoisington, he earned his master's degree in public administration from Kansas Unversity in 1972. Before starting work in Lawrence, he spent two years in the city manager's office in Olathe and two years in the city development department in Kansas City, Mo.
Wildgen pledged to try to live up to the standards Watson created. Those standards, he said, include service, a high degree of professionalism within the city organization and a team-oriented approach toward providing services from city hall.
"BUFORD TOOK a lot of input from his staff. We did a number of reports and held a number of meetings on issues. When a report was issued it would be the city manager's recommendation, but it was the result of a lot of teamwork. It wasn't just a single-handed decision. That's how I'll continue to operate," he said.
Despite his long tenure under Watson, however, Wildgen said he would not be a carbon copy of his predecessor.
"First, I've not just worked for Buford; I had other bosses when I worked in Olathe and Kansas City. . . . But I learned a lot from Buford. I'm not ashamed of that; in fact I'm proud of that. If I'm influenced by what I learned under Buford, so much the better," he said.
COMMISSIONERS, in announcing the hiring, praised Wildgen.
"We said we wanted a person with high energy, creativity, the capability of making tough decisions and the ability to carry them out. We agreed that our city manager needed strong technical skills, ability to work in a diverse organization, and be open, candid and straightforward. . . . We believe Mike Wildgen is the city manager we have been looking for and he is the right person at the right time for the city of Lawrence," Mayor Shirley Martin-Smith said.
The commission named Wildgen acting city manager immediately after Watson's death, on Oct. 26. At that time, commissioners said the administration of city hall was in capable hands, and they indicated they would not rush to begin a search for a permanent replacement for Watson. Their task began in earnest six weeks later when they hired Bob Saunders, a consultant based in Liberty, Mo., to lead the search.
IN MARCH, commissioners interviewed five candidates for the post and offered the job to Gary Eide, city manager of Salem, Ore. Eide declined the job, which sent the commission into a monthlong regrouping effort.
Waiting through the process wasn't easy, Wildgen admitted.
"It's been somewhat frustrating," he said, "but then it's not an easy process. I appreciate the complexity of the process that faced the commission, though. There were a lot of considerations, a lot of concerns, a lot of local pressures for them."
Martin-Smith said after the meeting that Wildgen accepted a salary and benefits package exactly equal to Watson's. At the time of his death, Watson was working under a contract that paid him $80,017, including salary and deferred compensation, annually.