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Take two: National experts say Grand Rapids a good prospect for city manager candidates

BY Sunday, February 18, 2018 07:06pm

GRAND RAPIDS –– As city officials retool their efforts to find a new top executive for Grand Rapids, national experts say there’s a ripe market nationally for talent. 

With the national attention the city has garnered and its greater emphasis on data-driven policymaking, top city managers around the country should be interested in the job, said Kirsten Wyatt, executive director of Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL), a West Linn, Ore.-based networking organization for municipal executives nationwide.

“You’re definitely in a part of the country where you have programs going on that people want to be part of,” Wyatt said. “When it comes to recruiting for that position in a full-service city, it’s definitely a desirable place to be and you’re going to have considerable interest.”

In early February, Grand Rapids city commissioners voted to reopen the search for a new city manager after a series of private meetings, public forums and interviews with three potential candidates. 

While many commissioners and Mayor Rosalynn Bliss had their own preferred candidates, they also recognized divides in the broader community, and therefore made the decision to restart the search process. 

“We had three very strong, qualified candidates spend a week in our community and they went through a very rigorous process,” Bliss said at a Feb. 6 City Commission meeting that was archived online. “I think each of them had strengths. … I’ve also listened really diligently to the community and I sense a divide. I think at a time like this, we have to have really strong candidates where we don’t have a divide, where you don’t have segments of our community feeling like they weren’t heard.”

Cities often face challenges with how open they should make the hiring process for top municipal executives, especially when some candidates are hesitant to apply out of the fear their interest will get back to their existing employers, experts say. 

“They’re recruiting for the highest paid person in the agency and you get what you recruit for,” Wyatt said. “So in this case (it’s) making sure that you’re recruiting for your (city manager) like you’re recruiting for a CEO. … Now there’s obviously a difference because you want the community to be engaged, but at the end of the day the city manager reports to the council. The council reports to the citizens.”

A DEMANDING ROLE

Exactly how the City Commission plans to relaunch the search process for the job remained unclear as this report went to press. Several commissioners expressed a desire to revamp the process to get it right this time, while also moving quickly to find suitable candidates.

In Grand Rapids, the city manager is the municipality’s top executive who’s responsible for day-to-day management of the city, as well as union negotiations and other key responsibilities. 

The opening came about as former City Manager Greg Sundstrom, who is often credited with helping the city get its finances in order in the wake of the Great Recession and amid state cuts to municipal revenue sharing, retired this month. 

Prior to his retirement, the city retained municipal headhunting firm GovHR for $25,000 to lead a national search, which resulted in 61 applicants. The field eventually was whittled down to five and then three candidates who interviewed as part of a public process. 

James Freed, Port Huron’s city manager; Jane Bais-Disessa, deputy mayor of Pontiac; and Carol Mitten, deputy county manager of Arlington County, Va. made it into the final round. 

While the city manager would be expected to take on the practical responsibilities of running the city, each of the three candidates was asked how they’d tackle larger external challenges such as housing issues and racial and socio-economic disparities. 

“There’s a lot that’s being asked in terms of the quality of the individual to lead the city,” said Second Ward City Commissioner Joe Jones. “Most people, as they described who they wanted, my thought was, ‘You’re describing Jesus Christ, and he’s not applying.’ There was this laser beam focus on finding all these gifts and skills and talents. Everyone is going to have some shortcomings.”

But experts who track municipal hiring say modern-day municipal executives commonly have to deal with such grandiose demands.

“These are challenges that just about every professional local government manager is going to face,” said Michelle Frisby, director of public information for Washington, D.C-based International City/County Management Association, a local government membership organization. “There are so many communities that are experiencing these same challenges that it’s going to be difficult for a manager to not run into those.”

DRAWING ATTENTION

According to ICMA data, the national talent pool includes up to 7,000 professional government managers in cities and up to about 1,000 more county executives. 

“The outlook as far as numbers looks very, very good,” Frisby said. “Grand Rapids would be viewed by many of our members as a plum place to relocate.” 

Additionally, with a proposed starting salary of around $175,000 for the position, the city falls in line with the median salary of about $184,000 for cities of a similar size, according to the ICMA data. 

But sources also pointed out that many municipal executives would tend to place salary further down their list of considerations. 

“I would guess that salary isn’t even in the top few consideration items. They’re really looking at a community and what the community is looking for, how they want to grow, how they want to develop, programs they could manage,” said Wyatt with ELGL. “City management isn’t for the faint of heart. You’re running a multi-million dollar — in some cases billion dollar ––  organizations on a public sector salary.” 

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