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Archive for Saturday, April 22, 2006

Timeline set for city manager’s hiring

April 22, 2006

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The search for a new city manager is on.

City commissioners hope to have a consultant on board to help conduct a national search by early May, and to have a new manager picked by the end of August.

"The timeline, I think is realistic," Mayor Mike Amyx said. "It will be a big goal of mine to stay within it. I really don't want it to go longer than that."

Commissioners are seeking to fill the city's top nonelected position after Mike Wildgen resigned under pressure in March after 16 years as city manager.

Commissioners cited concerns that the city had not done an adequate job of long-range planning and that they had concerns about city infrastructure issues, particularly streets and sewers.

Wildgen hasn't specifically responded to those concerns, instead only issuing a short written statement following his resignation.

"I'm a strong supporter of the city manager form of government," Wildgen said in March. "One of the basic tenets of the form of government is the responsibility of the City Commission to select and retain the city manager."

Assistant City Manager David Corliss is serving as interim city manager while a replacement for Wildgen is sought.

The search

Commissioners have put out a request for proposals seeking a consulting firm that will help the city attract and screen applicants.

"I think we need to cast our net as wide as possible to identify every possible candidate we can," said City Commissioner Boog Highberger, who was mayor at the time of Wildgen's resignation. "Consultants know the people in the industry. They can go out and recruit. It is something we would not have the resources to do on our own."

The commission hopes to have a consultant selected by May 2, who would be in a position to begin the search immediately. In the meantime, city commissioners will work to develop a job description for the position. Commissioners are expected to have discussion about what role they believe a city manager should play. Issues such as whether a city manager should primarily be focused on enacting City Commission policy or whether the manager should also have a strong voice in crafting policy will need to be decided by commissioners before they make a hire.

"That is something we need to be clear about before we start the hiring process," Highberger said. "My sense is that the majority of the commission is interested in a candidate who will be active and initiate changes."

City Commissioner David Schauner said he's leaning in that direction.

"What we need as a commission is professional advice, professional long-term planning, professional guidance," Schauner said. "And if that means a bit stronger hand on the tiller, that might be OK."

The city manager already is generally seen as the city's most powerful nonelected official. The manager oversees the city's $126 million budget and has final authority on all personnel matters related to the city's 750-member work force.

Issues await

Whoever is hired likely will be asked to spend a lot of time dealing with city infrastructure concerns. Wildgen became the subject of commission criticism after questions began to emerge regarding whether the city's sewer system could adequately handle the expected growth in the northwest area of town.

Further criticism was leveled at Wildgen after a city study of existing streets found that approximately 30 percent were in such a condition that routine maintenance or simple repairs would not bring them up to an acceptable condition.

Also two major city staff positions that normally would be selected by the city manager are open. Linda Finger resigned her position, under pressure, late last year. Roger Coffey in September retired from his position as director of utilities, which oversees the sewer system that has been the subject of questions.

Along with the retirement of Fire Chief Jim McSwain - whose position already has been filled - the departure of the four high-ranking city employees amounted to a loss of 115 years of city service.

City commissioners have not officially announced that they've put on hold the search for a planning director or director of utilities, but there's some sentiment that the positions should not be filled until a new city manager is hired.

"A new planning director or utility director would want to know who their boss would be, and right now we can't tell them," Amyx said.

Building confidence

But city commissioners are assuring residents that the city will continue to operate efficiently during this transition period. During his mayoral acceptance speech in April, Amyx said the city's existing staff was doing a fine job in tackling issues facing the city.

"Transition periods or times of change can be difficult," Amyx said. "The old saying is 'nobody likes change.' The key for Lawrence during this transition is to remember things are going to be OK.

"We may not like change any more than before, but we will be able to negotiate through the change and make a transition. City services will be in place, decisions will get made and actions will be taken. Business will go on."

In particular, staff members have been working to answer questions surrounding the ability of the sewer system in northwest Lawrence to handle additional growth. A team led by Corliss - who joined the city in 1990 as a management analyst and began as an assistant city manager in 2000 - has put together a plan that would involve $3 million worth of sewer improvements in the northwest area designed to eliminate questions about whether the system can handle future growth. Commissioners approved that plan in April.

Amyx said addressing other issues that have created questions about the city's ability to handle new growth or keep up with existing infrastructure issues would be a priority during the next year.

"I look at this next year as one where the City Commission and the mayor have to make people feel confident in city government and city services again," Amyx said.

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