Archive for Thursday, March 9, 2006

Longtime city manager resigns under pressure

Commission cites planning issues

March 9, 2006


Longtime City Manager Mike Wildgen resigned Wednesday.

City commissioners asked him to leave, citing concerns about inadequate planning for the city's growth. His last day will be Friday after 16 years on the job.

"We have taken this decision to address the challenges that are facing the city of Lawrence in the future," Mayor Boog Highberger said, following a 5-0 vote to accept Wildgen's resignation after a 90-minute closed door executive session.

David Corliss, an assistant city manager and the director of legal services, will serve as interim city manager after Wildgen's resignation becomes effective at 5 p.m. Friday.

Wildgen issued a brief statement Wednesday afternoon saying it had been an honor to serve as city manager since 1990 and thanked staff members and the city commissions he has served under.

"I am a strong supporter of the city manager form of government," Wildgen said. "One of the basic tenets of the form of government is the responsibility of the city commission to select and retain the city manager."

Wildgen, though, did not respond to criticism that he had failed to adequately plan for the city's growth and development in recent years. He left City Hall after resigning and did not return phone calls to his home seeking further comment. An avid jogger, he was seen shortly after his resignation running on the Kansas University campus.

Wildgen, 58, joined the city in 1974 as an assistant city manager and was named acting city manager in October 1989 following the death of Buford Watson. As city manager, Wildgen generally was regarded as the most powerful nonelected official in city government. He oversaw the city's $126 million budget and had final authority on all personnel matters related to the city's 750-member work force.

Infrastructure issues

When pressed, Highberger said concerns about the inability to provide adequate sewer service to growing parts of town and the need to rehabilitate major portions of the city's street network were prime factors in the decision to seek Wildgen's resignation.

"I think there are concerns about providing infrastructure to the city over the long term," Highberger said.

Individual commissioners refused to answer questions about why they had voted for his resignation, instead referring questions to Highberger.

The announcement - which occurred about noon - created a buzz around the community from supporters and detractors of Wildgen.

"I think he is a decent human being, but I think it is no secret that there were problems in planning, and the buck has to stop with Mike," said David Burress, a Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioner who has criticized staff for not being active enough planners. "I really think change is good at this point in time."

Mark Buhler, an executive with Stephens Real Estate, said the fact that city officials refused to give final approval to some developments in northwest Lawrence because they were uncertain the city's sewer system could handle the projected growth represented a lack of leadership at City Hall.

"To wake up one day and say we can't flush north of West Sixth Street is incredible," Buhler said. "It is just incredible."

Buhler said holding the city's top executive responsible for planning mistakes was reasonable, but he said the issue went much deeper.

"I do believe leadership has to start at the top, and the City Commission is at the top," said Buhler, who is a former county commissioner and state senator. "For several terms now, this commission has not spoken with a consistent voice.

"I compare it to a family. If the parents are constantly fighting, how do you expect the kids to do the right thing?"

'Hard to replace'

John Nalbandian - a city commissioner from 1991 to 1999 and chairman of Kansas University's department of public administration - said he thought Wildgen had done an adequate job of alerting commissioners to potential problems, but that the community had not always been willing to spend the money to address problems.

"This is not a Wildgen problem," Nalbandian said. "This is not about management. It is about people's willingness to spend money.

"What we do over and over again is we wait for a crisis, and then we spend the money. What that type of attitude does is it makes it very difficult to plan."

County Commissioner Jere McElhaney said the forced resignation was a sign that a majority of city commissioners had become inflexible and difficult to work with.

Mike Wildgen

Age: 58 Work history: Joined the City of Lawrence in 1974 as assistant city manager. Named acting city manager on Oct. 25, 1989. On April 12, 1990, Wildgen had the acting title removed. Before joining the city he worked two years each in the city manager's office in Olathe and in the city development department in Kansas City, Mo. Education: Master's degree in public administration from Kansas University in 1972. Family: Wildgen grew up in Hoisington, where his parents owned and operated the Barton County Lumberyard. Wildgen and his wife, Linda, have two children, Chris and Anne.

"Even our County Commission has had problems working with this City Commission," McElhaney said. "So it doesn't surprise me that this City Commission can't get along with anybody. It is going to be hard to replace somebody who is knowledgeable like Mike Wildgen."

Search details

Replacing Wildgen's experience and knowledge of the city will be difficult, said several people familiar with the workings of City Hall.

"Mike has been around City Hall for a long time," said Rod Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment who served as an assistant city manager under Wildgen for 10 years. "He knows the organization probably better than anyone."

Wildgen's resignation continues a trend of longtime city employees who recently left City Hall. Planning Director Linda Finger, a staff member since 1978, resigned under pressure in late 2005. The city's director of utilities, Roger Coffey, and fire chief Jim McSwain both retired in 2005 following careers that stretched more than 20 years with the city.

City commissioners also expressed appreciation for Wildgen's years of service.

"Mike has been incredibly dedicated to this community," Highberger said. "He loves this community very much, and he's really built a strong organization. He has hired a lot of really excellent staff members, and his service is very much appreciated and will be for years to come."

Highberger said the process for replacing Wildgen had not yet been determined. He said the commission wanted to move forward "fairly quickly," but would conduct a nationwide search.

The mayor also said that commissioners had not yet discussed qualities they would be seeking in a new city manager.

Also not finalized is a severance package for Wildgen, who earns $121,144 per year, plus benefits. Highberger said the severance package was being reviewed by attorneys and would be up for approval at the commission's Tuesday evening meeting.

Highberger said Wildgen would be available as a consultant during the transition to a new manager.

Corliss in command

Until commissioners find a replacement, Corliss, 44, will oversee day-to-day city operations. Corliss - who joined the city in 1990 as a management analyst and worked his way up to assistant city manager by 2000 - said he would work with city commissioners to address their concerns about planning. But he also expressed gratitude for the job Wildgen had done.

"If you love Lawrence, you should thank Mike Wildgen for making Lawrence a great place," Corliss said. "I look forward to helping the commission during this transition period and tackling and responding effectively to the challenges that the community has before it."

Interim city manager

David Corliss, acting city manager; interim city manager as of Friday Age: 44 City experience: 1990, joined Lawrence City Hall as a management analyst. 1996, named director of the city's Legal Services Department. 2000, became one of two new assistant city managers. Keeps his responsibilities as director of Legal Services. Prior experience: From 1987 to 1990 served on the staff of the Kansas League of Municipalities. Education: Came to Lawrence in 1980 to attend Kansas University. Received an undergraduate degree, a master's in public administration and a law degree, all from KU. Family: He and his wife, Sarah, have three daughters.

Staff reporter Mike Belt contributed to this report.


bearded_gnome 12 years, 2 months ago

Poop press machine? wow, didn't know our city owned such a technological innovation. seems could use it for what comes from mayor/buddies on the commish.

very sorry to see things end this way for Mike Wildgen. hope he finds a good thing to do next.

Good luck David Corliss, be praying for you.

Linda Aikins 12 years, 2 months ago

Fact of life - if the team is losing, the coach gets fired. Let's hope for the best here.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 12 years, 2 months ago

You may find it funny, but it does absolutely nothing to advance us to solutions to the city's problems, or finding a competent replacement for Wildgen. On the contrary, such pointless pettiness is a large part of the reason we are where are now.

kansas_prairieland 12 years, 2 months ago


Wow! Man! Thanks for the info. I'm not in the market for another car..............but if I ever am, I sure won't be going to that place you've mentioned!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 12 years, 2 months ago

OldEnuf-- "granola-eating city commision" "Birkenstock-wearing dude"

I'm glad we don't have someone as petty, prejudiced and simple-minded as you making the selection of the next manager.

You have lots of company on this board, though, and I'm glad you are all in the position of sideline whiners.

tpatric 12 years, 2 months ago

I'm with you Pilgrim, if only someone would run other than these people. One reason I advocate a REAL commission and mayor is that the job needs to be able to attract viable candidates.

Charles L. Bloss, Jr. 12 years, 2 months ago

This just takes the cake! Does anyone actually believe that Mr. Wildgen didn't know about the street and sewer problems, and that he told the mayor and city commission about them? Of course he knew, and of course he told them. One or more of them were probably so stoned they didn't comprehend what he was saying to them, but the rest heard it. That's right you idiots, fire the messenger because it was your job to something about the problems, like fund the street repairs or replacement, and fund the additional sewer capacity. If you keep getting rid of talented professionals that know their jobs, and do it well, who will see to it that the city runs and hopefully grows? It's obvious you can't run the damn city, and when you finish running off anyone that can, well it just makes me even more happier that I live in the county. Damn I am pissed off! I apologize to you Mr. Wildgen on behalf of the idiots that ran you off for no reason at all. Thank you, Lynn

kansas_prairieland 12 years, 2 months ago

ottr......I agree.

It's not uncommon to find in the world of business that "consultants" actually make more money "consulting" than the person (or persons) who need to be "consulted".

Rick Kittel 12 years, 2 months ago


You are right on the mark. I guess the commission needed a fall guy to blame for what looks like an evitable increase in taxes to pay for road repair an new sewer lines.

Is there something else going on here that is not so obvious to us outsiders?

Dave McClain 12 years, 2 months ago

Sounds like a case of shooting the messenger to me!

There have been many instances where Mr. Wildgen has informed our commision that the infrastructure of our city needed repair. That the need for planned growth included facilities to handle the growth. That a set of priorities and the horizon plan were his instrutions of growth. Yet, our political infighting changed the plans on a regular basis. And the lack of commitment to the needs that Mr. Wildgen presented have resulted in our current climate. Mike is probably glad he will no longer need to retrain the new commision every other year. I really fear that our bipolar community will never figure out how to plan a city properly.

moveforward 12 years, 2 months ago

Though not elected, Mike was a true public servant. He served in the best interest of Lawrence's future. A portion of the current commission is short sighted and lacking mature judgment.

To quote Mark Buhler here is laughable. He is the antithesis of a public servant.

JustWondering 12 years, 2 months ago

Now that Mike Wildgen and Linda Finger are gone, how many more years is the illegal car sales lot going to continue to operate at 936 North 3rd Street?

Nothing about it is legal in any way, shape, or form.

There is no State of KS licensing, there is no sign, there is no telephone, there is no office, there is nothing but junk vehicles amidst the overgrown Vietnam jungle of weeds.

A toothless 85-year-old man who will take your money in exchange for a jalopy with a floating title (still registered in the name of the previous owner he bought it from), does all his "business" in the cul-de-sac (city street).

How much longer is this (LITERALLY back-woods!) hillbilly activity going to be allowed to continue in this here so-called "progressive" high-falutin' fancy-schmancy town?

kansas_prairieland 12 years, 2 months ago

Am I the only one here who happens to think that with downtown's 19th Century/early 20th Century sewer lines that continue to rupture here and there....and on top of that, the fact that in order for there to be growth....there needs to be addition sewer lines in place....that between the two, Lawrence just can't handle the load (dollars and cents-wise). I mean, it would appear as though Lawrence can't have it both ways!

Fix the existing lines first.......then worry about the "growth lines". It's kind of amusing to think that the "powers that be" are grapplng with what needs to be done in order for there to be continued (and timely) growth........and yet, downtown, we've got "sink holes" popping up out from out of nowhere and water mains bursting without warning too!

This whole situation is laughable.

s2h2golf 12 years, 2 months ago

If I could, I would like to quickly address the City's current sewer system. First off, the City has outstanding plans for maintaining current infrastrure utilizing the best technological systems and programs for rehabilitation of existing lines and manholes. Unfortunately, there is a budget issue here - there is simply not enough manpower and money for the wastewater utility to rehab every line and manhole in the City...but progress is being made but funding needs to increase to accomplish this task. Now, the biggest issue with "growth lines" is the real estate developers. They sneak in multi-family homes where there are supposed to be single family homes, the quality of work is poor (broken lines and manholes) and they hire plumbers that will tell you otherwise. When you combine this all together, you get a drastic increase in flow through a system designed to carry a third of that capacity. If developers and contractors would listen and be mindful of the problems they create, capacity could be maintained and growth could continue. The developers have a lot of clout in Lawrence and politics do play a large part. That's about it in a nutshell and I am sure I will get blasted by someone for these comments, but I was involved with these issues for a long time before leaving because of politics.

avhjmlk 12 years, 2 months ago

Hey folks, for everyone's sake, please go back and re-read the quote ("willingness to spend money") that has been referenced on the chat more than once. It doesn't come from a city comes from a former city commissioner/mayor who is the chair of the public administration department at KU. I think many people have misread it, and therefore misinterpreted it.

Rick Kittel 12 years, 2 months ago

I can't wait to hear the outrage when the taxpayers find out that to get a decent, qualified replacement we will have to pay the next city manager double Mike's salary, only to see that manager use this position as a stepping stone to something bigger and better. Forcing this resignation is a huge mistake. Good luck finding another city manager with the experience, skills AND dedication to this community that Mike possesses.

down_the_river 12 years, 2 months ago

Boog seems to speak from both sides of his mouth? Review his comments from December, as noted below, and compare with this week. Reminds me of the stale joke, how do you know when a lawyer is lying?

"City managers from across the state came to Lawrence City Hall on Tuesday night to present City Manager Mike Wildgen with an award recognizing him for excellence in city management.

At Tuesday's meeting, Wildgen received the Kansas Association of City/County Management's Buford Watson Jr. Award for Excellence in Management. The award is the top honor given by the state association, and is named for former Lawrence City Manager Buford Watson Jr.

"None of this could have happened without supportive city commissioners and great staff," said Wildgen, who has been with the city since 1974 and took over as city manager in 1989 following Watson's death.

The City Hall crowd gave Wildgen a standing ovation and Mayor Boog Highberger thanked Wildgen. "We think your award is right on target," Highberger said. "We realize we have a good one here."

kansas_prairieland 12 years, 2 months ago

Gee OldEnuf, you make Lawrence, Kansas sound a lot like Bouder, Colorado!!

........Oh, wait! They are eerily similiar in a lot of ways. The only real difference between the two cities is the topography that surrounds the then. I mean, Boulder has the beautiful Flatirons that make for a lovely backdrop and Lawrence has........and Lawrence has...........and Lawrence has.....Okay, let me get back to you on that one.

Anyway, I see your point.

Hawkman 12 years, 2 months ago

Ms. is not a is called progress...lawrence has been stuck in the 1980's since the 1980's...let's move forward with new would all be suprised how much authority the city manager has so a lot of the blame is deserved. Everyone knows lawrence is not moving the right direction, if Mr. Wilgen couldn't get the commission to go the right direction, he should have resigned years ago.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 12 years, 2 months ago

Regardless of whether or granola-eating city commision likes/agrees with Wildgen, they needed to slow down before firing a 16 year veteran. Experience matters more than ideology in these situations. The'll find some Birkenstock-wearing dude with nice credentials and a crystal hanging from a piece of twine around his neck who won't have a fraction of Wildgen's managerial prowess.

The biggest test of that position is the day to day management, not political affiliations. I fear we will regret this.

lunacydetector 12 years, 2 months ago

i like how the city commission cowardly had the city manager force out the planning director, then they forced out the city manager.

the three amigos or whatever you call them need to take responsibility for their inactions. the expense of the roundabouts everywhere instead of providing adequate sewer service shows an ineptitude with our commission. the buck stops with the city commission regardless of what mr. burress says....wait a minute, wasn't he a former disgruntled city employee at one time?

i wonder what hippie friends they have in mind as replacements.

i sure hope everyone gets out and votes the commission out of office come next election. a year away isn't a long enough time for people to forget.

neopolss 12 years, 2 months ago

I love how he's blamed for infrastructure issues, then the quote says people weren't willing to spend the money. Trust us, the citizens of Lawrence have long recongnized the need for street repairs and sewage treament trumps the need for roundabouts and pet projects.

I love how the other commissioners refused to comment, letting highberger take all the heat. How cowardly!

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 12 years, 2 months ago

Although I like Wildgren, he was involved in the huge mistake of recommending developments when there isn't enough sewer capacity. Unfortunately the developers thought they already had the go ahead when the plug had to be pulled. The commissioners can only make decisions from the information the is provided them by the managers. Unless we're willing to make the position a full time job, with a decent wage, then you can't expect the commissioners to go out and do the studies themselves. Wildgren and Finger were in charge of making sure we had the infrastructure for the building. When word came out that the commissioners had to decide to put the developments on hold until the sewage problem was solved, the nay sayers were complaining about that; although, it was the responsible thing to do. Now you're upset, because they fired the people who were responsible for the faulty information (it might have been an honest mistake, but a serious one). I guess they're damned if they do, and damned if they don't. Also, the vote was unanimous.

craigers 12 years, 2 months ago

Neopolss, I completely agree about the commission refusing to give grounds for their actions but sending all questions to Wildgen. That was really noble of them, taking the high road and all. And then telling us that the city isn't willing to spend money? What? Are you serious? If we aren't willing to spend money, then why does the city need all the additional tax revenue from our new increased property values? Get real people, the commission just approves anything and almost everything.

As to the resignation, you can always use new blood and fresh ideas, but the same goes for the commission.

simplyamazed 12 years, 2 months ago

This is a great day! Now we must really get down to who is causing some of the oversights of the infrastructure! Lets start with the Assistant Director of Wastewater! Dave Wagner should have been telling everyone a long time ago that we had problems. Instead he has spent over 20 million on a project that they now wish they didn't have at the current facility. It is only used during rain events (two or three times a year) and doesn't work properly then. What a waste of money that could have been put towards the current infrastructure thats failing. Not to mention the millions spent on the poop press machine that is also not productive to our problems. Make the people who are making stupid decisions on our needs accountable as well. There needs to be a change in many of the management positions. Dave Wagner is only out for himself and to stay in front of technology that most of the time doesn't work so he can read his name in national magizines. If they residents only knew some of the stupid things that truely happen at the wastewater plant you would agree that more people in high positions need to go as well! Wake up Lawrence and ask questions!

Richard Heckler 12 years, 2 months ago

If every reason was spelled out as to why Mike Wildgen resigned some would not accept no matter what. Frankly that is none of our business. It's a little matter known as privacy. If Mike Wildgen wants everyone to know everything he knows how.

Obviously there has not even been a simple majority supporting a resignation until very recently. That translates into at least 3 who were not seeking a resignation. Comm. Hack and Comm. Amyx seem to be immune to criticism for their support of the resignation. However speculation says that something surfaced to bring them on board rather suddenly as well as one more. NW Lawrence certainly has created a fire storm.

Sue Hack and Mike Amyx are close to development as their campaign funding reveals. We all know that community is PO'd to say the least while also part of the problems. Were they under pressure? Who knows? We'll never know. Basically human resources matters are not for public scrutiny.

City Commissioners depend on staff for information. A consultant says 30% of our streets are in dire straits. At one point there were a huge number of homes that had been signed off on without being inspected. The NW sewage system suddenly becomes overloaded probaly because of so many multiple family dwellings. Perhaps the consultants data was centered around single family dwellings? Members of the building industry wanting to build at free will was probaly creating many headaches for city hall when for so many years city commissioners could rarely say no.

Every city commission majority for the prior to this commission had been saying the city needed to be more friendly towards development. Then every city commission prior to this commission has contributed to the current situation. For the longest period of time our Chamber of Commerce, planning commission,City Commission and County Commission has been inundated by members of the building industry which in my mind spells conflicts of interest and in retrospect turned out not to be very good planners. I'd say this is where our inflated property taxes began. Hopefully members of this commission are working on this terrible deck of cards to have been dealt.

In Lawrence,Kansas we have two governing bodies deciding how Lawrence should grow which probaly won't do our property taxes any favors.

As Linda Finger seemed to emphasize there are a number of special interest groups to keep happy in Lawrence, Kansas.

Homey 12 years, 2 months ago

Many poor decisions are made during a crisis. Time will demonstrate that the forced resignation of Mike Wildgen was a poor decision. In a crisis you don't eliminate the major resource that exists to resolve the crisis. Mike Wildgen knows city hall, politics and spirit. No single individual is in a better position to assist the city with infrastructure problems caused by shortsighted capital budget decisions past and present, than our departing City Manager. He understood that his function was to follow the direction of the City Commission, who sets the budget that pays for infrastructure improvements. His style, unlike his predecessor, was not to take the credit or self glorify. He insisted that the media interview the Mayor, not the City Manager, whenever there was a major city accomplishment and there have been many. Now that the city has a problem he gets the limelight. Mike Wildgen dedicated his career to this city at great personal sacrifice. He spurned other opportunities for better pay to continue to work with the city he loves. His salary was lower than that of the leaders of other governmental entities in our community and he knew it. However, this city meant so much to him that he continued to serve below the pay grade of other comparable cities. In time, the detractors of Mike Wildgen will grow to understand that he was a great city manager. Mike Wildgen deserves our thanks and hopefully someday the city will give proper recognition to his many accomplishments. Thank you Mike Wildgen for the many years of service to this community. You are a class act.

Deb 12 years, 2 months ago

For Heaven's Sake!

First Linda Finger, now Michael Wildgen??!! I voted for this city commission majority, and I am at a complete loss as to why they (or anyone else) thinks it's a good idea to throw out the baby with the bathwater!

It's as if the commission is saying "it's not what you do right that we will focus on, it's only what goes wrong that we will use to evaluate your performance."

So WHAT if there were mistakes (if any - given the preternatural manner in which developer/builders open up whole tracts of land for construction) made in planning future development -- how does that outbalance the majority of time spent by the city manager, or the planning director having to research, respond and accommodate new mandates made by the city commissioners or the general public??!!

Just like Mrs. Finger as Director of Planning, Mr. Wildgen has the ability and the pure undiluted personal experience to be the best option, the absolute choice, the most desirable professional one could possibly want as city manager -- to expect him (or anyone else) to anticipate all things for all people is patently naive and (from my perspective) just plain stupid.

I've lived here only since 1989, and of all city politics, this is a very, very poor decision by city commssioners and quite frankly, frightening to residents who understand that progress is both personal and professional -- results cannot be judged by complaints.

I plan to be at city hall on Friday, with flowers, and I hope to see many others besides myself there as well. This is an absolute tragedy.


Deborah Snyder

Deb 12 years, 2 months ago

Thank you for your postings -- I remain at a complete loss as to how this situation benefits the City of Lawrence. I happen to know that David Corliss will do the very best he can to continue as smoothly the procedures and processes of city management (and thank goodness for the city manager's staff to help Mr. Corliss accomplish this), but to move into this position under these circumstances cannot be anything even remotely desirable on his part!

Look, I understand the hierarchy of responsibility, and I hope I got across the concept stated so well by OldEnuf2BYurDad, that requesting the resignation of an individual who has more than 20 years of experience (remember -- Mr. Wildgen was Assistant City Manager prior to becoming City Manager) is just tragic for Lawrence!

Does ANYONE truly, honestly believe Mike Wildgen was cutting off his nose to spite his face in managing this city? Does anyone think for a moment that he didn't invest all of himself into his position??

I can only guess that the city commissioners held so little confidence in their ability to trust Mr. Wildgen that they themselves felt sabotaged by events that overan even the most experienced of professionals (please note that was plural) in city government. If this is so, wouldn't it have made more sense to relay this impass in a closed-door review, than to take the drastic steps in such short time as what appears to have happened here??!!

I believe there could have been a better process of review and evaluation than what was done here, and the tragedy is that the question of how it was handled will scar the position for decades to come!

The vulnerability for manipulation of city growth and planning has grown exponentially overnight. With the inevitable change in elected officials, this situation can easily become worse.

Does anyone truly believe progress is truly served by eliminating the one person most capable of dealing with the PLAYERS as well as the PROCESS of city management??

I do not understand how this resignation benefits the very nature of our city, and am still reeling in shock to even begin to express the mourning of such a loss. It feels like the very personality of this city has been suddenly extinguished.

Please help me understand how Mr. Wildgen's forced resignation makes for a better relationship between city commissioners and city government!!??


Deborah Snyder

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