City leaders grateful for changes Markus made at City Hall, begin to consider next city manager
photo by: John Young
Though Lawrence city commissioners said they were sorry to hear City Manager Tom Markus’ announcement that he plans to resign, all said they are grateful for the changes he’s brought to City Hall.
Markus, 67, announced Tuesday that he plans to resign in the spring of 2019, which will mark approximately three years since he began his position as the city’s top administrator. When Markus was interviewed, he said he planned to hold the position a maximum of five years, and Markus said on Tuesday that he felt it was time for him to move on and that he hopes to spend more time with his family, including his six grandchildren.
Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she was sorry to hear about Markus’ decision, but that she understands his desire to spend more time with family. Larsen said though the city didn’t get the maximum of five years, the commission has gotten the shakeup at City Hall that it sought when hiring Markus.
“One of the reasons to have somebody from the outside come in is it gives you an opportunity to have somebody look at it from a whole different point of view,” Larsen said. “He has shown us where some of our weaknesses are.”
Mayor Stuart Boley said he’s grateful that Markus, who has more than 40 years of experience in municipal government, wanted a challenge late in his career, and that the city has benefited from his expertise and leadership.
“I wish it was going to be longer, but I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, he let us down,’ or anything like that,” Boley said. “He’s done really good work for us.”
Commissioners credited Markus with spearheading a more organized and transparent budget process, the merger of the public works and utilities departments, and conducting city business in a more transparent way. The latter, commissioners noted, included reporting mistakes and other issues to the commission that in the past might have been less publicly handled.
Specifically, commissioners noted that when staff realized that the city had failed to send invoices for nearly $700,000 worth of leases and other agreements, Markus brought that information to the commission. Ultimately, city staff succeeded in collecting the past due amounts, which went back several years.
Boley and Larsen noted that the city took heat for the error. Larsen said the situation might have been handled internally in the past, but that Markus brought it out in a transparent manner.
“He brought that forth — there was a mistake historically but owning up to it and taking care of it,” Larsen said. “And that’s just the whole mindset I think he has brought to the commission.”
Larsen also noted that the city held open contract negotiations for the police officers union contract and worked to make sure it lined up with the city’s ordinance regarding union contracts. Larsen also said that Markus has opened up discussions about the service agreements between the city and county, some of which haven’t been revisited in years or were only agreed to verbally.
“We really need to operate based on what our written agreements are, and if they’re not good enough, let’s make the changes that are necessary to make them work,” Larsen said.
Commissioner Jennifer Ananda also said she was impressed with the level of transparency. She said that bringing such things forward allows the commission to do more to address the underlying issues.
“Even though some of these things originated under a previous city manager’s watch, owning that and working to change it and taking the heat from these things,” Ananda said. “The point is actually making change and giving the city commissioners the information that they can use to make good decisions.”
Boley said a major improvement to the budget process was that the city began including all city funds in its annual operating budget, instead of just the funds required by state law. State law does not require cities to budget certain funds, such as those for capital projects, internal services, enterprise funds and various special revenue funds. Boley said that meant there were millions of dollars that weren’t prioritized across the government.
“We spent in 2015 almost $16 million outside of our legal annual operating budget,” Boley said. “So that meant we were making one-off decisions, on things like the skate rink, instead of saying, ‘How does that fit within Parks and Rec priorities?'”
Commissioner Leslie Soden said she thinks one of Markus’ strengths has been his open-mindedness. She thinks key accomplishments during Markus’ tenure have been the efforts to address the city’s affordable housing shortage, development of a strategic planning process, the initiation of priority-based budgeting and organizational changes with management at City Hall that she said have helped increase collaboration between departments.
When asked if there are ongoing efforts they would like to see completed or prioritized before Markus leaves his position, commissioners mostly noted that the transition process in general would be key, and that ongoing efforts would fall under that. Larsen said she is still considering that question, but that one thing she would like to see prioritized is the recently begun discussions with Douglas County regarding the funding and service agreement for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Department.
A true council-manager form of government
Commissioner Matthew Herbert said one of the noteworthy things about Markus is that he tells the commission when he thinks the discussion is going in the wrong direction. Herbert said though the commission has gotten some criticism on the regard, that he thinks Markus’ perspective as a professional city manager is important.
“I think having that strong backbone, the willingness to step up and say, ‘Hey, hear me out,’ I think made him effective,” Herbert said.
Throughout his career, Markus worked in municipal government in various Midwestern cities. Herbert said that Markus brought an outsider’s perspective to governing that the city needed.
“He brought in a blank slate,” Herbert said. “And there are some things that we had done in this town for a long time that, frankly, we probably didn’t have a better excuse for other than we had always done it that way.”
Herbert said that included the merger of the public works and utilities departments, the city’s move toward priority-based budgeting and a more organized outside budget request process. Herbert said he thinks the operational efficiencies created with those changes will be a legacy of Markus’ tenure.
Soden said Markus’ experience was especially helpful given that four out of five commissioners were serving their first terms when he began his position in 2016.
“I think he was really responsive to understanding that there were changes we wanted to make, and helping to guide us to what would be appropriate solutions,” Soden said.
Boley said that, under Markus, the commission has had significant discussions about how the council-manager form of government operates. He said part of that has been understanding that Markus is responsible for administration as opposed to the commission, and that the commission benefits from Markus’ professional guidance.
“If all you do is politics and you don’t have professional guidance, it ends up not actually serving the public the way the public needs to be served,” Boley said. “And that’s one of the significant lessons that I’ve learned from Tom, was just, let’s do council-manager form of government the way it’s supposed to be done.”
The next city manager
As far as what the commission should be looking for in its next city manager, Soden said she’d like to see someone with experience working in at least a couple of cities and someone who, like Markus, is not afraid to make changes and has experience doing so.
“The biggest thing that I’m interested in with the transition is that we get a replacement that is also interested in promoting creativity and innovation,” Soden said. “I’m not looking for a city manager that’s looking to just maintain the status quo, I want someone that will continue to engage with these new ideas.”
For him, Boley said that he thinks it’s important that the city manager understands the progressive nature of Lawrence, and that the city manager’s vision for the community reflects that. Larsen, too, said she would be looking for somebody with professional, progressive ideas.
Ananda said that she thinks it was good for the city to have someone like Markus, who can give an outsider’s perspective that is not ego-based. She said whether the city needs more of that or someone looking to stay in the position over the long term will be something the commission will have to consider.
“I think there are benefits to both,” Ananda said. “What do we need as a city?”