Profiles of the three candidates vying to be Lawrence’s next city manager
The three finalists in the running to be Lawrence’s next city manager have, together, accumulated more than a 100 years working in municipal and state government.
That experience has been a priority to city commissioners when selecting candidates to fill the position, which Mayor Mike Amyx has described simply as “a tough job.”
The city manager’s responsibilities include overseeing city departments, administering the annual budget, preparing the weekly City Commission agenda and coordinating compliance with state and federal laws, among other things.
“We have a lot of things going on,” Amyx said just before announcing the names of the three finalists Tuesday night. “We look at so many things, from economic development to affordable housing and all the gamut in between. There are so many things Lawrence, Kan., really wants our city manager to be able to respond to and make solid recommendations on for folks in the community.”
The three finalists will meet with city staff and tour city facilities on Dec. 17. That evening, a reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St., where the public can meet the finalists.
On Dec. 18, city commissioners will hold final interviews with the candidates in a closed executive session.
The finalists, who were selected from a starting pool of 54 applicants, are: Rod Bremby, of Glastonbury, Conn.; Cheryl Harrison-Lee of, Gardner; and Tom Markus, of Iowa City, Iowa.
Bremby is already a well-known figure in Lawrence.
The former Lawrence assistant city manager and former secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said his knowledge of Lawrence and “extensive leadership experiences” would enable him to move the city forward.
“It’s a critical community role,” Bremby said of the position. “I have deep roots there, family ties there. It would be nice to be able to return home.”
Bremby, 55, has been working as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Social Services, a $7 billion organization, since 2011. In the past four years, he’s worked on implementing Connecticut’s Medicaid expansion under the national Affordable Care Act and modernizing online eligibility and enrollment services, he said.
He said his experience in Connecticut would be directly transferable to the push here to provide better mental health services for people at the Douglas County Jail.
Bremby left for Connecticut after former Gov. Mark Parkinson fired him as Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, a position to which he had been appointed by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and had held for seven years.
It was reported at the time that in 2006, Bremby became the nation’s first public official to refuse permission to build a power plant based on concerns about carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal. Parkinson in 2009 agreed to allow Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build one of its plants, but Sunflower officials concluded in 2010 that Bremby, as head of KDHE, was delaying issuing a permit to the company.
He was fired, and his replacement approved Sunflower’s permit.
Since taking up the job in Connecticut, Bremby was recruited to apply for the position of Fort Worth, Texas’ city manager. He had worked for as assistant to the city manager in Fort Worth for four years right after he earned his master’s degree from Kansas University.
He was named as a finalist for that position but withdrew his candidacy.
“It was just not the right time for transitioning,” Bremby said. “This organization [Connecticut DSS] was still doing some modernizations, and work still needed to be done here. We’re in a good place at the organization now, and I believe that we’ve turned the corner on a lot of things we’ve been working on. This would be an OK time to return.”
Harrison-Lee went to Gardner during a time of “turmoil and division” in the community that was prompted by the announcement in 2005 that an intermodal freight depot would be constructed outside of city limits.
It was reported at the time that the town was split over whether it had given too many tax and other financial incentives to the railroad. When Edgerton annexed the hub property, two city council members were recalled and a third quit.
“Gardner, when I arrived, was very divided and really needed a vision,” Harrison-Lee said. “It needed some strategic planning.”
In the past four years with Harrison-Lee as city administrator, the city has redone its comprehensive plan, created a new economic development plan and incentive policy and is near to completing a growth-management strategy plan, Harrison-Lee said. It’s also done a pay and compensation study for city employees, as well as an assessment of the city’s entire infrastructure and a plan for how to handle maintenance problems.
Care has also been taken to make a budget that reflects the city’s goals, she said. For its 2014-15 budget, Gardner won a budget presentation award from the Government Finance Officers Association.
“What we’ve done in that four years is what you see other communities do in almost 10,” Harrison-Lee said. “One thing I’m really committed to is helping communities establish a vision and have the implementation to accomplish that vision.”
Harrison-Lee, 53, moved to Gardner after working in city and state government in Florida for almost 30 years.
She’s worked for the cities of Orlando, Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach. She was also the district manager for public transportation with the Florida Department of Transportation.
Now, she’s looking to Lawrence because of her familiarity with college towns (she grew up in Orangeburg, S.C., home of South Carolina State University) and a desire to unite all parts of the city with a unified vision.
“At the end of the day, everybody wants a better community,” Harrison-Lee said. “I want to work on building the community’s trust and confidence and having a transparent organization that balances growth and maintains quality of life.”
For Markus, who is currently the city manager of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, the appeal of working in another, larger college town led him to apply for the Lawrence position.
“The community energy created by the university keeps the new ideas and opportunities flowing,” Markus said in an email. “There is never a shortage of opinion, which helps shape the discussion and ultimately improve the decision.”
The University of Iowa is a Big 10 school. According to 2014 census estimates, Iowa City has a population of 74,000. The city staff is composed of approximately 600 full-time employees.
Lawrence has a city staff of more than 800 part- and full-time employees.
Markus was named as Iowa City’s city manager after its previous city manager was fired by the city council for an undisclosed reason. That city manager had served for 11 months.
In a memo in which he told Iowa City’s department heads and the city council that he was a finalist for the Lawrence position, Markus said he is interested in the “challenges and opportunities” he would face in a larger jurisdiction.
He also aid in the memo that he has family members who live close to Lawrence.
Markus, 62, has worked in city government since 1973, when he started as an intern for the city of Waseca, Minn.
He served as city manager of Birmingham, Minn. for 21 years before taking the Iowa City position in 2010.
In Iowa City, Markus said he’s been focused on several areas, including affordable housing, environmental sustainability issues and maintaining financial stability in the wake of statewide financial cutbacks.
One of his first tasks was creating a succession plan for city leaders. Now that the Iowa City management staff is ready to move to the next level in their careers, he said, “I feel that I can pursue other career opportunities.”
Working with next-generation city leaders is something he’d like to continue in Lawrence, he said.
He noted KU’s School of Public Affairs and Administration, saying he’d like to enhance the programs between it and the city.
“I enjoy working with the next generation of city staff leaders by mentoring and coaching them to move to the next step in their careers,” Markus said. “Lawrence has similarly situated talent that I would enjoy working with.”