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Archive for Saturday, March 11, 2006

Simons: Hiring a new city manager poses challenge for commission

March 11, 2006

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With the resignation of Mike Wildgen as Lawrence's city manager, the pressure now is on the city's five city commissioners. The big question in Lawrence today is: What kind of person will the commission select as our next city manager?

This is a critical time for the city. The individual selected for this position will play a significant role in the development of Lawrence in the next 10 to 20 years - actually, longer than that, because policies coming out of City Hall have an impact on a city and its residents far longer than the term of any one city manager.

Lawrence adopted the commission-manager form of government in 1951, and Jim Wigglesworth was the first to hold the manager's position. He was followed by Harold Horn, who served from 1957 to 1964 and left Lawrence for a position with the Ford Foundation which, at that time, was involved in various facets of city government.

Then came Ray Wells. He served from 1964 to 1969 and was a major force in the community. He was not afraid to take action, but his aggressiveness eventually caused city commissioners to suggest he practice his profession elsewhere. It should be noted that he was cited twice by the national association of city managers as the city manager of the year in communities where he served after leaving Lawrence.

Buford Watson Jr. was the next city manager, serving from 1970 to 1989. Watson was the first Lawrence city manager who perhaps stayed too long. He was highly popular, was able to figure out ways to get problems solved without angering anyone and was, indeed, a "people person." He had to work with a difficult group of city commissioners but survived a commission-led effort to oust him and continued to serve as manager until his death in 1989.

Wildgen, who was the assistant city manager at that time, succeeded Watson and served until his departure Friday.

The average tenure for Lawrence city managers is just under 11 years, but this is weighted heavily by the 19 and 17 years served by Watson and Wildgen, respectively. Before Watson, the first three city managers served for six, seven and five years respectively.

Each had his specific strengths and each played a major role in how the city addressed various challenges and what the city did to become an even finer place in which to live, work and play. Each also had to work with a commission chosen for him by city voters. Some were easy to work with; others seemed to delight in making it difficult for the city manager.

Lawrence enjoys many advantages, and the future is bright. However, complacency is a constant danger. Too many in Lawrence seem to think good times are assured for the future and that no matter how the city and its residents may mess things up, how shortsighted city commissioners or city managers may be or how many times the city seems to wound itself, everything will turn out OK and Lawrence will continue to grow and prosper. This is faulty and dangerous thinking because there is nothing automatic or guaranteed about Lawrence's future.

Can the current city commissioners put aside their selfish likes and dislikes? Can they put aside biased political leanings? Can they approach the task of selecting a new city manager with the idea of doing what is in the best interests of the entire city rather than just for those residents who got them elected to office?

Although Mayor Boog Highberger said he wanted the hiring of a new city manager to include "as much community participation as possible," this search/selection should not be turned into a "town hall" process! This is the job and responsibility of the five city commissioners, who cannot try to place this responsibility on citizens of Lawrence. This job belongs to Highberger, Mike Rundle, Sue Hack, David Schauner and Mike Amyx!

They should not try to lessen their responsibility by calling in a jury of hundreds or thousands. These commissioners, led by the mayor, should have the courage and wisdom to do this job themselves. Look at Horizon 2020 if you want an example of how a "town hall" approach to solving problems actually turns out. This job search deserves something much better, regardless of the mayor's wishes.

It is known several city commissioners thought Wildgen had just about worn out his welcome in Lawrence or, in fact, had stayed too long. But they were concerned about the motives and goals of some fellow city commissioners and didn't like the prospect of those commissioners choosing a new city manager based on how candidates mirrored their own opinions.

There is plenty on Lawrence's plate today. How will the commission, and an acting city manager, deal with matters such as the questionable and costly sewer capacity issue? What will they do about the need for a new sewer treatment plant, the type of treatment system and the location of the plant? Can they make those decisions in time to get a treatment plant on line by 2011, when projections say it will be needed?

This brings up a major question. Just how accurate are the many projections City Hall is using to address various needs and actions? The recent record has been poor. Who is at fault? Why haven't city commissioners demanded more accurate projections?

Is there any reason local residents should have confidence in current projections for the city, whether they deal with population trends, city growth, the need for fresh water, retail sales, etc.? The much-ballyhooed Horizon 2020 has proven to be far off target in its projections for Lawrence.

How long will it take to select a new city manager? How serious are current commissioners about seeking the very best? Will candidates look upon the Lawrence job as an attractive opportunity or will they be scared off by the obvious split among commissioners on how they view the city's future?

What about the South Lawrence Trafficway? The mayor wants the trafficway built at a different site than has been recommended and approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Kansas Department of Transportation. Will the mayor hold out and oppose any city manager candidate who won't agree to support his position on the SLT? This same question could be asked about a number of likes, dislikes and beliefs held by current city commissioners. Will these opinions color their thinking about the merits of various candidates?

The pressure to perform is on city commissioners. The manner in which they approach the task of finding a new city manager will say a great deal about individual commissioners. Will they display statesmanship or support only those candidates who agree with their own narrow blueprint for Lawrence?

Commissioner Amyx may unintentionally have highlighted a fundamental issue when he said of the commission's present task: "We have a community to run."

It's the commission's basic job to set policy, not "run the community." Unfortunately, Lawrence city commissions have a history of micromanaging staff members and decisions that goes far beyond policy issues.

Local residents should keep a watchful eye not only on how commissioners go about the selection of a new city manager but also on whether they are trying to "run the community."

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