Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Wildgen’s departure surprises ex-leaders

March 12, 2006

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Mike Wildgen beat the odds.

He was not Lawrence's first choice to be city manager when he was hired in 1990 following the death of Buford Watson Jr. And there was at least one time over the years when his job appeared, briefly, in danger.

Yet by the time the City Commission asked him to resign last week following a three-day evaluation, he had lasted far longer in the high-pressure position than most city managers do.

"City managers move around for a lot of reasons and their tenure is variable, but 16 years is a long tenure at a single city or county," said Don Moler, executive director of the Kansas League of Municipalities in Topeka.

Even Watson, whom many considered one of the premiere city managers in the state, had his close calls, Moler said.

"He barely survived a couple of 3-2 votes by the commission," Moler said. "What that says is even the best managers occasionally have an issue with the governing body. That's just the nature of the business."

Lawrence businessman Bob Schumm was on the commission that hired Wildgen. He thinks there were three commissioners at the time who wanted to hire Gary Eide, who was the city manager at Salem, Ore. Schumm said Wildgen, who had been assistant city manager since 1974, was his first choice to replace Watson. But he was not opposed to Eide.

"Everybody had their own opinions," Schumm said. "My guess is that people thought that might be a good opportunity to go outside and bring in new talent and ideas and see if we were capturing everything in Lawrence that we should."

Eide, however, turned down the job, and Wildgen was hired.

Schumm said that when he heard Wildgen had resigned under pressure, he was saddened. Schumm was a commissioner from 1990 to 1993, and Wildgen was always on solid ground with commissioners during those years, he said.

"I was always pleased with what he did, and I think the city benefited from his services," Schumm said.

Robert Walters also was a commissioner when Wildgen was hired. He was a staunch supporter of Wildgen then and still is, he said.

"I'm just terribly disappointed that he was forced to leave his post," Walters said last week. "It's a hard job. There are a lot of politics."

Walters and other former commissioners described Wildgen's strengths as his knowledge of the city, its resources and its finances.

"I recognized him as a true steward of the city's resources," former Commissioner Jim Henry said. "He had an ability to recognize where money needed to be spent and an ability to keep it in balance."

Former Commissioner Bob Moody agreed. Wildgen always provided information in a timely fashion and was supportive of the staff and decisions by the commission.

As for weaknesses or criticisms, Henry said he didn't know of any, and Moody wouldn't discuss them.

"I think his strengths far outweigh his weaknesses," Moody said, declining to elaborate.

The only weakness Walters could think of was that Wildgen may have been a little shy. He said that may have led to some of the criticisms Wildgen faced during his tenure that he was "gruff" or didn't always communicate well with the public or some commissioners.

But Moody looked at it another way.

"I think Mike was brutally honest," he said.

Henry recalled that some people criticized Wildgen for not having a good vision of where the city should be headed, but he disagreed.

"In my opinion it's the City Commission that needs to have the vision," Henry said. "He takes direction from the commission."

Kansas statutes basically define the role of a city manager, Moler said. A city manager is the chief operating officer. He runs the day-to-day business of the city, manages the staff and hires and fires. The commission or council role is setting policy development and general oversight.

"The governing body deals with the 'big picture' stuff, but the day-to-day nitty gritty is run by the city manager, assistant city manager and the department heads," Moler said.

Many factors can decide how long a city manager stays in one city, Moler said. For those who stay for a long time, "the fit" of being in the right city and the right job could be a key factor.

"Communities, like people, are unique and different," Moler said. "Communities change over time. The mix of people on governing bodies change and managers change. There is no one (management) style that fits."

Lawrence should not have a problem finding a new manager, Moler said. If the commission conducts a nationwide search, it should receive plenty of applicants from within and outside the state, he said.

The Lawrence job is considered to be among the top jobs for city managers in the state, in a city with a good reputation as a growing one but also a great place to live with nice people, Moler said.

"The job is a plum," he said. "I know all the people involved there. All good folks. I'm sure the city of Lawrence will move forward and have a very positive outcome no matter what the city decides."

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