2017-03-23 / Front Page

Search Underway For City Manager

By Ellen Paquin

Advertisements to attract candidates to the upcoming city manager job opening in St. Ignace are in northern Michigan newspapers and job search sites online. The city council, which hires and oversees city managers, has named economic development as an important emphasis for the incoming manager to have, as well as leadership and relationship-building skills. When applications are received, the council hopes to begin evaluating them right away, leaving enough time for careful consideration and to allow for a second round of applications later, if necessary. City Manager Les Therrian will retire at the end of this year, and it is hoped that a new manager will start work in the fall.

Expertise in implementing capital improvements, a strong work ethic, and community involvement are other traits the council is looking for. The advertisements do not specify that any particular training or degree is required, as the council does not want to screen out well qualified candidates who may be retired from other fields, such as perhaps the military or business, but the council wants to find a professionally educated or experienced manager with skills that will be used for proactively planning for St. Ignace’s future.

The council has defined its priorities well before interviews take place, said Mayor Connie Litzner, and that is important.

When the mayor polled city administrative staff for their viewpoints, they suggested council should look for someone with an emphasis on zoning and planning.

Various citizens have expressed their ideas to the council about whether the manager should be someone who already lives in St. Ignace, or has connections here, said Mayor Litzner, and public opinion – at least among those who have voiced their thoughts – seems to be split on that point. But to the mayor and council, who have given the matter much consideration, she said, this point is of secondary importance. While someone who already has ties to St. Ignace or perhaps, on a broader scale, the Upper Peninsula, may be inclined to stay in the job longer, the tenure of service is not the most important point the council will consider. Skills and knowledge will be the focus.

“Their local ties will be secondary,” the mayor says, as “We will focus on background, education, and experience. If [a well qualified person] has a passion to take this on, that supersedes location.”

The council, faced with hiring for several key city jobs this year, is positioning the city so as to be able to devote attention to the manager search. They are considering promoting from within, not for the sake of convenience, but when it benefits the city, to eliminate the distraction of having to fill other key positions at the same time, or even once the new manager is in place. That was the reasoning behind the council’s recent decision to promote the experienced city utilities foreman to supervisor of public works, filling one key role.

“The council looked at that department a year ago, and said, ‘We have to be prepared,’” Mayor Litzner said, as the outgoing city manager will also retire as the public works director.

“If we were without a public works director” when the new manager is hired, Mrs. Litzner said, “we may feel we would have to choose someone as a manager who has those skills. This way, we’ll already have that position in place.”

With the same reasoning, the council is exploring whether it would be beneficial to promote from within in the city clerk’s office, too, as the current clerk will retire this year. Discussions about filling the clerk position are underway by the council, and all agree it is imperative that the new clerk must have some education or experience in accounting. The assistant city clerk, council pointed out in a work session Monday, March 13, already has completed much training over the years, which was an investment made by the city, and additionally is well versed in the operation of the department.

Still to be determined is the salary range for the incoming city manager, and the council wants to be able to offer a salary and benefits package attractive enough to interest well qualified candidates. The mayor will soon call a meeting for an updated look at the city budget to help determine the salary range.

In terms of planning and budgeting for this, as well as working with tier classifications impacting the city’s pay scale, “The city can choose what kind of package we want to offer in terms of insurance, and so forth,” said Mayor Litzner. “We are not constrained. Sometimes people look at [the current or past situation] and say, ‘This is how it is.’ But we can choose it.”

The Negotiations Committee of Councilmen Jim Clapperton, Jay Tremble, and Luke Paquin are formally tasked with considering the manager position, but they often bring the discussion to the council’s informal work sessions, the mayor said, to have the benefit of hearing everyone’s ideas.

The mayor particularly likes the discussion that takes place in the work sessions, a less formal gathering she instituted to encourage council discussion. They are open to the public, like a regular council meeting, but differ in their purpose, as they are designed for bouncing around ideas, but not taking public comment or reaching a decision. The council members, and sometimes city officials and others, can explore ideas together without taking any formal action on them. Sometimes, she said, tasks assigned to a particular committee are also brought to the work sessions so all council members can take part. The council members value each others’ opinions and seek them out, taking the time to learn about the reasoning behind the viewpoints, which does not always take place to the same degree in city council meetings. This open discourse is a positive tool for reaching the best decisions.

The work sessions, she said, “are really good for open conversations. These work sessions are pretty productive.”

Councilman Jim Clapperton also likes the discourse sparked by the sessions.

“One of the best things we’ve ever done is those sessions,” he said. “They are less confining than committee meetings” in part, because more council members can participate.

Mrs. Litzner encourages the open communication among councilmembers, as well as among city employees, department heads, and the council. She sees her role, in part, as one of a facilitator: “I don’t try to direct the council, I try to inform them of what’s coming up.”

Another important hire coming up in St. Ignace is that of the Downtown Development Authority director, a task that falls to the DDA board, although the council will ultimately have to approve their decision. The mayor is hoping the council and DDA can share ideas about the process, as the DDA job is one involving proactive planning, just as the council hopes the manager job will be.

“I think the council and the DDA board should have a discussion about what we’re looking for,” she said, although discussion has slowed on the idea that perhaps the two jobs could be combined. “At least one of them should be proficient in grant writing. I’d like to see [the two future administrators] work well together. Those are our top two positions, and they really need to work together.”

The mayor said she and the council are also actively working to foster an environment of open communication with city employees, because, as Mayor Litzner says, the council has the responsibility to oversee city operations and expenses, and must be prepared to answer citizen questions.

“The more you are communicating with us,” she tells city workers, “the more we are educated about how you’re doing things, and the more we will have your back.”

She also encourages the city administrators and employees to be open to considering problems or challenges in a new way.

“Just because we know something has ‘always been done this way’ or ‘this is how it is’ doesn’t mean it can’t be done any other way,” she says. “We can and should choose the best course of action.”

Mr. Clapperton, also the director of the Michigan Works office in St. Ignace, wrote the proposed language of the employment ad that was approved by the council. The city has reached a new point, said Mr. Clapperton, one where it is on more solid financial footing than in recent years and at the same time has the opportunity to replace several key administrators.

“We’re at a point where the focus is changing,” said Mr. Clapperton. “Now the key word is ‘forward thinking.’ In the next city manager, I would like to see downtown planning or future planning experience. Now we have the opportunity to do that, and look for someone who can take us further down the road.”

Bob Valentine, the Escanaba city treasurer and human resources manager, has talked to the council about his city’s recent experience with its manager search. Both Mrs. Litzner and Mr. Clapperton said they found the advice helpful.

Mr. Clapperton said his eyes were opened to new ideas through the meeting.

“We thought we needed someone with a focus on grant writing. Bob said, ‘We have someone else handle that, not the manager.’ We thought budgeting. Bob said, ‘We have a clerk handle that.’ It opened our eyes to new ways of thinking of that. The Bob Valentine visit was a turning point for me. It showed you don’t have to stay within the envelope [in hiring a manager]. You can take it wherever you need to go.”

One challenge for the council, Mr. Clapperton said, will be finding a way to make the salary attractive to a well qualified candidate.

“In terms of a manager, you can offer what you want, but that doesn’t mean anybody’s going to come,” he said. “People won’t come and do this work for $30,000 or $40,000 anymore. We’ll probably looking at a range of more like $50,000 to $70,000. I think that’s probably where we’re going. Mr. Valentine said anybody worth their salt is likely to be looking for medical insurance for themselves and their families.”

Like the others on the council, Mr. Clapperton is hoping to get many applications.

It’s likely the new manager will not be put on the job before fall of this year, Mr. Clapperton said, because if they are a professional, onthe job training from the current manager will be unnecessary, which was an earlier idea council had considered. The council would like to have all of the budgeting process done before that time, Mr. Clapperton said, so the new manager is not encumbered with that task while new on the job.

Once the new manager is in place, Mr. Clapperton said, “We are likely to push for accountability and transparency with the new manager, requiring regular evaluations of department heads and city employees. I think we can eliminate a lot of the city’s trivial problems right at the start this way.”

The current city staff, he said, has been a key component of some recent improvements.

“You can’t believe how much better our water system is than it was a few years ago,” Mr. Clapperton said, “when about 84% of our water was not getting where it was supposed to go. Fixing that system was a huge accomplishment.”

The council is making strides in planning for city equipment needs, Mr. Clapperton said.

“Trying to get our motor pool in shape is also underway now. It’s costly, but we have to be proactive, rather than reactive” regarding repairs and replacement of the police cars and plow trucks.

Finding the right manager to help lay out the path for the city’s future is critical, he said.

“The whole key to everything is finding the right person. I hope it goes well. There’s a lot at stake.”

Just getting underway for the city are efforts to be designated redevelopment ready, Mayor Litzner pointed out, as well as the harbor project that seeks to help plan future waterfront and harbor use. An effort to designate US-2 as a scenic byway is another current positive development.

“This is all heading in a direction of, ‘What does our future look like?’” she said.

Economic development means improving the economic well being of the community, and increasing its quality of life, particularly by creating or retaining jobs.

“Sometimes people are a little afraid of change or economic development,” Mrs. Litzner said, “but all of the people I work with are all very interested in protecting St. Ignace, and what it is, its beauty. That will never be taken away. But still, I think we can grow and provide jobs.”

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