Start Now for Ashland City Manager Transition

Mail Tribune - Sunday, July 12th 2020

In less than six months, the most significant change to Ashland’s city government in decades will occur: the switch to a council/manager form of government. A city charter amendment, approved overwhelmingly by city voters in May, goes into effect Jan. 1.

This transition needs careful planning. It’s critical that Mayor John Stromberg and the City Council take immediate steps to begin the transition, but with the mayor and two councilors not seeking re-election, the decision on who to hire for the new city manager position should be left to the new council that will be seated in January.

This new council and their newly appointed city manager will have to take on the challenge of crafting a balanced budget in the face of a massive revenue shortfall and past systemic overspending. In order to be prepared to appoint a city manager in January, we urge the mayor and the council to take the following steps:

1. By mid-August, create and approve a job description and qualifications for the city manager. In our view, the qualifications should include a degree (preferably a master’s degree) in public administration or business and 10-plus years of progressively responsible public sector administrative/management experience (including 3-5 years in a chief administrative officer position). This is no time to hire someone who needs on-the-job training. We need a seasoned, experienced professional.

2. We recommend that a committee consisting of citizens and council be formed to develop the qualifications for the city manager position. A list of desirable knowledge, skills and abilities can be viewed at www.ashlandaces.com/city-manager-qualifications.

3. Engage a professional recruiter to search for and develop a vetted list of candidates to be interviewed by the new council when it is seated in January. They could begin reviewing candidate qualifications in November after the election so that the person selected could take over in the weeks shortly after Jan. 1.

4. Give preference to hiring a manager who is new to Ashland. We need someone who can take a fresh, objective look at the organization, and is not beholden to anyone associated with the city or mired in old ways of doing things — a leader who can make the difficult decisions and course corrections. The council must select someone with a proven track record of evaluating and rationalizing city services, overseeing the business aspects of a city (e.g. electric, AFN, ambulance) in addition to traditional government services and have demonstrated success leading a city through a difficult financial period.

Some will argue that it would benefit the city to avoid changes and save money by leaving the current senior staff in place. However, a large portion of our senior staffing is currently interim, unvetted, and doesn’t have many of the necessary credentials and experience. Ashland requires the most qualified staff possible to ensure a sustainable financial future. Following the “no change” logic will prevent us from reaching that goal.

As a corollary, we strongly recommend not filling any senior staff position before the new city manager is in place. It’s only fair to let a new manager put together his or her team. For example, the city has been without a permanent finance director for a long time. We highly recommend putting the filling of that position on hold but having a vetted list of candidates ready for the new city manager. Work on the “bones” of the next budget can be continued by the current staff.

The new city manager will bring about long-overdue, non-political city management that reports and is responsible to the council. With a professional manager devoted to delivering services to Ashland’s residents, the mayor and council can better view our long-term needs, develop relevant plans, focus on setting policies that guide their implementation, and concentrate on evaluating how these policies are being implemented — holding the city manager accountable.

The key is that the current City Council must act now! The journey on the road to recovery from these devastating times will be long and difficult. Having a new city manager ready to hit the ground running as soon as possible after Jan. 1 is crucial to successfully navigating that journey.

Bill Heimann is a member of Citizens for a Better Government. Susan T. Wilson is a member of Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability.