Council discusses options for city manager position

Published 8:28 am Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Albert Lea City Council on Friday voted to invite potential search firms to the city to give an overview of what the search would entail for a new city manager.

The councilors indicated they did not know if they would definitely use a search firm for the process but they wanted to at least be aware of the costs and timeline involved with the use of one.

During a special meeting set up to discuss what steps to take in light of the resignation of City Manager Victoria Simonsen — who on Monday accepted a position as town administrator in Lyons, Colo. — the council talked about several initial options for how to handle the opening in February.

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Simonsen’s last day at City Hall will be Feb. 12. She has been city manager in Albert Lea since 2004.

Other options discussed included whether to hire an interim city manager since searching for a long-term manager across the country can often take four or five months.

Simonsen said she talked with department heads to get input on how they felt, and they indicated they were confident that if someone was appointed internally as acting city manager for the interim they could make it work for a few months.

The League of Minnesota Cities also produces a list of people that could be hired for the interim, she said.

The other option to consider, Albert Lea Mayor Mike Murtaugh brought up, was the concept of a shared administration between the city and Freeborn County.

Murtaugh said he and Freeborn County Board of Commissioners Chairman Chris Shoff had an initial discussion about the concept a few nights prior.

Shoff and Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever came to the meeting to answer questions for the council.

Councilor Al Brooks questioned if Kluever would have enough time to do both positions at once.

Kluever said it would be difficult for him to answer at that time, but he and Simonsen would need to discuss what kind of commitments would need to be made.

“It’s certainly an option,” he said. “I commend the council and mayor for looking at options.”

Shoff said he thinks it could be an option not only for the interim, but for a long-term solution as well — if it worked out.

“So often in campaigns and stuff we hear about working together,” Shoff said. “We’re all in the same boat budget-wise. We need to look at more solutions of working together.”

The board chairman said he had not talked to his board about this possibility yet.

Councilor Vern Rasmussen asked whether there were differences in how a city is run versus how a county is run and whether this would be a hard adjustment for Kluever.

Simonsen asked whether this would be just a combined administrator position or an overall combined administration, with a combined human resources, payroll and finance.

“That’s not just something I think you want to work out in a couple months,” she said.

That would need to be well thought out and could possibly require a feasibility study, she added.

Kluever said he does his job now based on the amount of time available to him, and obviously adjustments would have to be made if he had more to do.

Rasmussen said he appreciated that the city was looking at this option, but he was concerned whether the goals of the city wouldn’t always be aligned with the goals of the county.

There are some big initiatives taking place right now in the city, and he wanted to make sure those would be a priority, Rasmussen added.

He noted he was afraid that an assistant would have to be hired.

Murtaugh questioned what the City Charter said about the city manager’s role.

Simonsen said the charter identifies the city manager’s role and talks about some of the qualities that person should have.

And if there’s a vacancy in the position, the manager should recommend a plan.

Baker said he appreciated the county being willing to help in an interim, but he also has similar concerns as Rasmussen.

Councilor Larry Anderson questioned if there were any other cities and counties moving to a joint administration.

Simonsen said she was not aware of any in Minnesota, but she has seen several in Colorado. In fact, that’s the way many of them are moving, she noted.

City Attorney Lee Bjorndal pointed out the city’s institutional history and how the councilors have only had one day to talk about combining the city and county. It would not be as easy as they’d think to quickly make the change.

However, Bjorndal said, he doesn’t think the councilors should rule out any of the options yet.

Councilor Ellen Kehr said she thinks in 10 or 20 years shared administration is going to be the only way for cities and counties in southern Minnesota to have the quality of life that there is now. But it’s going to take a lot of work.

She said she thinks the council should focus primarily on the interim part right now.

“We need to set our sights high; we need a good person,” she said. “We need to take our time doing it.”

Kehr also added that she thinks one or two of the county commissioners should be invited to be a part of the hiring process for the new city manager.

“It makes a statement to the commissioners about how we feel about collaborating,” she said.

It also makes a statement to the public and to whoever the candidate is that is hired.

Baker said he did not anticipate a county and city agreement being worked out in the next six months, but he agrees that the council needs to work with the county any way it can.

Murtaugh said he thinks it would also be good to have some community input into the hiring process as well.

Simonsen said she would see if the firms could come to the council’s preagenda workshop on Wednesday but was unsure if they would be able to in such short notice.