2017-01-26 / Front Page

City Consults on Manager Post

Council Hears From Escanaba’s Bob Valentine About Process
By Erich T. Doerr

The St. Ignace City Council held a special meeting Friday afternoon, January 20, so it could meet with Escanaba City Treasurer and Human Resources Manager Bob Valentine. Mr. Valentine gave the council some advice about how it can carry out its search for city manager using lessons from Escanaba’s current manager search efforts. He visited the council as a professional courtesy, and there was no charge for his advice. Escanaba City Manager Jim O’Toole and St. Ignace Manager Les Therrian will both retire in 2017.

Escanaba is further along in its manager search than St. Ignace. It is already looking at resumes, while St. Ignace is just starting the process of posting the position. Mr. Valentine complimented the St. Ignace council on its manager search, saying the city has given itself adequate time to complete the process.

Escanaba began its search, its first since Mr. O’Toole assumed the role in 2006, by updating the job description, then working to set up a recruiting process. He said St. Ignace’s decision to update its own description is a good one, noting this is a good time to determine what the future manager will do. Mr. Valentine will send the council Escanaba’s new description as an example and help look over St. Ignace’s posting. The job description will include information about the community, such as its demographics and budget.

Mr. Valentine said one option St. Ignace can look at is hiring a search consultant to assist with the process, an option Menominee recently took in its manager search. Escanaba opted not to use one in its search.

“It works for some, and doesn’t work for others,” Mr. Valentine said. “We thought we could do it in house.”

Mr. Valentine said he questioned the decision not to hire a search consultant when the city only received a few resumes throughout the early stages of the search, however, the number coming in increased greatly as the deadline approached, leading to it being extended through Friday, February 3.

It can be hard to attract candidates to the Upper Peninsula, he said. He noted one way to counteract this and get a candidate who will make a long-term commitment would be to get someone who would have a vested interest in the community or already has a local connection. Someone who previously lived in the area and is looking for a “path back home” is one idea. He did not rule out candidates without a local connection, but said some would likely have a shorter tenure, as they would use the position as a rung while climbing up the career ladder.

In St. Ignace, there has already been discussion among the community and elected officials about the merits of a longer or shorter commitment for the manager. Some have said they prefer a person who will spend their whole career here, while others have pointed out the benefit in hiring a visionary manager who will bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the role, and whose achievements and ideas would remain in the community even after they have departed for another post.

When it comes to benefits, Mr. Valentine said retirement packages are usually not a deal breaker.

He cautioned the city against offering better health insurance to highly compensated employees than is offered to other staff members as a slippery slope that can lead to hard feelings. Escanaba offers the same insurance package to all its employees.

Councilmember Paul Fullerton agreed with Mr. Valentine’s suggestion to offer insurance for families, noting it is hard for St. Ignace to hire police officers unless insurance coverage extends to their family, as well. Councilmember Luke Paquin said an insurance package covering a family would be important to get more experienced candidates who may stay longer, and without it, most of the applicants would likely be younger managers seeking to move up. He added it is especially hard to maintain workforce talent in St. Ignace from the 35-and-younger crowd. Mayor Connie Litzner said a candidate who knows something about the U.P. is preferred, but no one would be ruled out just because they lack that.

Mr. Valentine said that hiring a candidate unaccustomed to the U.P. can lead to culture shock when they arrive, and candidates who are married may have a spouse who does not like the rural, northern area, leading to a shorter tenure. Mr. Fullerton noted St. Ignace has its advantages, such as a good school system.

Mr. Valentine advised coming up with a pay range, rather than specific pay rate, while candidates are being considered. He recommended that St. Ignace should know what it can afford to pay a manager and what the likely response to the job will be with that pay range. Menominee is paying its recently hired manager about $108,000 a year and Escanaba is likely to pay its manager about $100,000. St. Ignace is a smaller city, so its managerial pay will likely be less than the others. Mr. Valentine noted a good way to find out about what other communities pay their managers is to contact the cities themselves, or look at general guidelines from the Michigan Municipal League.

Mr. Valentine recommended targeting Michigan with most of the advertising for the job. He recommended posting the position in local newspapers among other advertising opportunities. When Escanaba advertised its position, it bought a pricey advertisement in a Green Bay, Wisconsin newspaper and Mr. Valentine admitted that may have been a mistake, as it drew little interest. Escanaba spent $4,763 on its manager search and the Green Bay ad cost $2,600 of that total.

Mr. Valentine recommended that the International City/County Management Association, Michigan Townships Association, and Michigan Association of Counties could all be good organizations with which to post the job opening. He advised against posting the job on a popular general Internet job site because, while it would likely draw a likely large number of applicants, few would be qualified.

Mr. Valentine recommended a possible baseline candidate for St. Ignace as having a college degree in a relevant area and former managerial experience; he suggested a preference for municipal management, but suggested that other candidates, such as those with military management skills, should not automatically be disqualified. Some applicants will likely request confidentiality, and it should not be a problem to comply with, although, he noted, the veil will eventually need to be lifted if an applicant is selected as a leading candidate or called for an interview.

Escanaba has been advertising its manager position since mid-November and has received about 40 applicants, with two or three opting to drop out in the time since. Mr. Valentine said about half of the applicants were ruled out immediately, with the goal being to whittle the field down to about the top four or five for interviews. The search returned a variety of applicants, including city and county managers, lawyers, military base managers, and even a musician from a diverse geographical area. He noted he has used online services like Skype to conduct face-to-face interviews with candidates far away; usually he uses it during the screening portion of the hiring process, but Escanaba has used it for final interviews when it was impractical to bring in someone, such as when the city hired an employee who was living in Alaska.

When conducting interviews, Mr. Valentine suggested that St. Ignace script its questions in advance, perhaps using a panel format to ask the questions before moving into a question and answer period at the end. He said scripting is a good way to make sure none of the questions ask anything discriminatory by mistake.

Mayor Litzner and Mr. Clapperton said they felt well informed about the options of the city manager search after speaking with Mr. Valentine. Mayor Litzner told The St. Ignace News she believes this is a good place to start off and it’s nice to know that Mr. Valentine will help the city look over its job postings. The new manager is will have to work hard; several city hall employees fill multiple roles.

Managers serve an important leadership and even visionary role in their communities. Escanaba’s new manager will come into a community in need of some change as its number of businesses and median family income are both decreasing. The manager will need to work under those conditions to keep the city’s organizations working together as a cohesive team.

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