City manager is central to dealing with cuts

Published 8:18 am Thursday, March 18, 2010

As we go into the process of interviewing city manager candidates this Friday and Saturday, I wanted to give some thoughts from the mayor’s perspective.

First, our city charter has Albert Lea established as a city manager form of government, and has been since the charter was first adopted in the 1920s.

Some have asked, why can’t the mayor or council do the job? The short answer is legally we cannot. The charter further states that an elected person may not be employed by the city for a year after leaving office. Council members are prohibited, also by the charter, with interfering in administration. We work with, and through, the city manager.

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With the budget situation we face this year, and beyond, there is no question in my mind we need a strong, central figure to work with staff and the council through this process. Now that the state’s House and Senate budget plans have been unveiled as an alternative to the governor’s proposal, Albert Lea still faces a significant cut to our budgeted appropriation of local government aid for 2010. And unless the economy turns around soon, 2011 will be worse.

Former City Manager Victoria Simonsen deserves a lot of credit for working with staff in bringing in a 2010 budget that was over $1 million less than 2009. There is some cushion in there for further cuts, but depending on what comes out of the legislative session, we face a further cut of up to $850,000 this year.

As an early part of the city manager replacement process, we did have discussions with the county as to whether this was an opportunity to share the city and county’s manager/administrator positions. Ms. Simonsen and Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever met on this topic more than once. In doing research on this, I contacted Gary Carlson with the League of Minnesota Cities in late December for information.

I wanted to know if anyone else in Minnesota was doing this, and what legal issues there were. In short, no one else is, yet, and there are legal issues that would need to be resolved. Both the League and the House of Representatives Research Department have documents discussing “Compatibility of Offices.”

Two key points I saw from this showing possible incompatibility: 1. If occupying the two offices is likely to result in occasions where the individual must harm or neglect one position in order to perform duties that are part of the other position. 2. If the positions are required to make contracts with the other.

For now, the best approach, I believe, is to look for common functional areas where the city and county can share. That will need to be done from the city by the city manager.

For the interview process, we would have liked to have had the county administrator, or a member of the county board of commissioners personally involved. They were asked; however, at this point, schedule conflicts will likely preclude that. Nevertheless, Mr. Kluever was invited to submit questions to be asked of the candidates, and so even if he or a commissioner is not actually present, county input was still obtained.

There has been quite a bit of discussion about our finalist candidates, in that a majority of them had been terminated or asked to resign from previous positions. I was disappointed that the initial Tribune story about the candidates, and a subsequent one, did not make clear that, of course, the council knew of these facts, and the reasons behind them. This was openly discussed, and part of the background material both the council and media received. I do thank the Tribune for clarifying this point in its editorial on March 12. Of course we knew; unfortunately, not everyone assumes this.

Having been terminated does not make one a bad employee. In fact, seeing that one of our candidates was hired elsewhere shows that other cities realize this, too. Having been involuntarily separated myself in a workforce reduction puts me in a similar situation as I look for a new job. It’s all how you handle it.

Why did the city choose to hire a search firm instead of doing it ourselves? In short, time. It is already three months since Ms. Simonsen gave her resignation. We are on schedule to have a replacement on board in May, maybe sooner. With the budget situation, we do not have time to wait.

The Brimeyer Group is under new ownership and operated by Richard Fursman. I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Fursman speak at a conference last May and was impressed by his energy. With my own schedule, unemployed but presently attending Riverland Community College full-time, without assistance, I cannot see it being done with justice in this timeframe.

The public is invited to observe the interview activities in the next two days. If you have opinions on any of the candidates, please let me or your council member know.

Personally, I hope not to be pressured into making a decision on Saturday. My personal preference will be to give it the weekend, and look for a decision at our regularly scheduled council meeting on Monday. Again, if you have thoughts on this, please let us know. Thank you for the opportunity to serve as Albert Lea’s mayor.

Mike Murtaugh has been mayor of Albert Lea since January 2009.