By Katie Dahlstrom
The Clinton City Council spent an hour and a half questioning city administrator finalist Ben Benson during an interview Friday afternoon.
Benson, who is the assistant city manager for the city of Joliet, Ill., was subjected to more than 30 questions from council members that ranged from issues of building consensus among the council and city staff, dealing with the city's financial woes and his commitment to being a contributing member of the community.
Benson said he felt the city administrator should be heavily involved in the community and in service organizations. He added he has already worked with a Realtor to find a place for him and his family to live should he be offered the position.
"There is no hesitation and no delay in me moving here," he said.
Benson said in the time he has met with community members, business leaders and others he has felt the community has a hunger for collaboration, which he wants to provide. He identified his leadership style as team oriented.
"I would never ask someone to do something that I wasn't willing to do myself or that I haven't already done. I think you need to set that tone on day one when you come in," Benson said.
He further explained to the council members that he would like to look at the services provided by the city department to both improve them and possibly identify any existing opportunities for collaboration.
"Coming in I would like to do some evaluation with staff on their processes and map out their processes that they use to achieve some of the services that we provide as a city," Benson said. "We have found doing this in Joliet that involving the staff in taking ownership of their programs also helps make them more better and more efficient. I definitely would want to be involved and hands on with the staff. Particularly with the department heads and see how we can get the most out of their departments."
Regarding the difference in the roles of the council and the mayor, Benson said he saw the council as the authority and the body that would make high-level policy decisions, meaning he would be the one making recommendations to the council.
He said he would look to the mayor for input and a take on the council.
During his interview, Benson stressed transparency as one of his focuses, saying the city needed to be a bigger leader in the community and more openly communicate with citizens whether it be through the website or other means.
When asked what his biggest challenge at his current job has been, Benson said it was a $900,000 project to remodel council chambers. Through the project he was able to secure federal funding and learn about the subcontracting process. The city was also going through the budget process and launching a marketing campaign at the same time the remodel was taking place, he said.
He was asked several questions relating to Clinton's embattled services. He said he would like to look into privatizing solid waste services.
“I'm definitely a fan of looking into it,” Benson said. “I think in these financial times you at least have to look into it and see what the opportunities are. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn't."
When asked how he would handle the serious dissatisfaction that has been caused by repeated rate hikes for citizens, Benson related to a recent sewer rate increase that Joliet instituted. He said it was explained to council and community members why the increase was needed and what it would mean the their bottom line. They also made sure it was a fix that wouldn't need to be reviewed shortly after it was implemented.
"If you are going to have to go back to raise revenues, make sure you go back and fix the patient. Make sure that you're not just putting a Band-Aid on that situation so you don't have to come back time and time again," Benson said.
Benson said he would be able to recommend significant cuts to programs, services and expenditures, but wouldn't stop without suggesting other options for the council, such as partnerships to continue offering whatever was slated to be axed.
"I wouldn't want to come in without a solution to it," Benson said. "I think it's hard to be able to just throw something on the floor. We have to still be able to meet needs."
Benson was also asked why it would be in the city's best interest to hire him based on the number of issues the city faces and his limited experience as a city administrator.
"I feel coming from a little bit larger city, there's a lot of responsibilities and opportunities that I was afforded to have those experiences that I could bring to a smaller community," Benson said. "
To conclude the interview process, Benson explained why he is the best candidate for the position.
"I'm excited about the opportunity. It's a good fit for me as far as the model that's in place, the assets that are in place. My comfort level with what's here and what I'm capable of doing," Benson said. "I'm looking for a partnership. I'm not going to be a miracle worker. It's going to take some time, but I think through the collaborative efforts of staff, administrator, council, residents, the community seems poised to take it to the next level. I think I would have the experience, knowledge and industry contacts to lend to the situation that will help foster that."