The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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December 6, 2012

THE HERALD'S OPINION: Make sure administrator search process is thorough

CLINTON — With the recent resignation of former Clinton City Administrator Jeff Horne, the Clinton City Council — and really the city of Clinton as a whole — has a huge task ahead of it.

You see, Horne, whose resignation was received and accepted late last month after he had taken a few weeks off to deal with personal issues, had been with the city for three years, and during that time had had a heap of problems to deal with — problems that will continue to face a new city administrator as he or she works to lead a council and a city administration that must get this city back on track.

So what were/are the problems?

A pivotal moment — make that moments —  emerged in the summer and fall in 2011 when there were several council sessions conducted to figure out how to slice the fiscal year 2012 budget. Alongside it all was the emergency borrowing in August of that year to cover payroll. Then there was the ongoing changeover in city staff, a few of them department heads. Some of that changeover — for many and varied reasons — appeared before the cuts; others were the result of retirement incentives in the form of buyouts offered as part of the 2011 budget cuts.

And then there were the problems that Horne had to deal with throughout it all when figuring out where the city was at financially. He said poor recordkeeping, which came to light in full force on the heels of the retirement of former city finance director Deb Neels in 2010, was causing headaches for the council and himself as they worked to formulate a budget.

Then there were the lawsuits, which included the EMS settlement in 2010 that will cost the city $4.5 million over a 10-year time period to settle a suit that claimed the city was wrongfully miscategorizing ambulance call reports to gain higher Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, and the recent settlement with former HR Director Dave Giesler, who said the city had met improperly to discuss the elimination of his department and job amongst all the budget cuts.  And then add to it all the problems with sewer bill collecting and the deficits created by a new automated trash pickup program. And these are only the things we saw in open session. Oh, and speaking of open session, the council also is being sued so that it will open up closed-session minutes concerning meetings that had to do with the EMS settlement. The city also is in the process of suing the attorney that represented it as it headed toward trial on the EMS issue and through the EMS settlement negotiations. It's easy to see that the next city administrator who comes to town will have to be able to jump in with both feet to get this city back on track. That's why we are hoping, make that pleading, for the council to take its time to make the right selection.

This means making sure that a proper search firm is selected to do the sifting. Go ahead and run ads in publications targeting people with these skills, but realize that approach alone may not reach the person for the job — a person who possibly could be someone not currently out looking for work but  who would need to be found and approached by a firm that specializes in this area of expertise.

In fact, the city would be wise to take a cue from the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency, which is conducting its own search to fill the upcoming vacancy that will be created when current chief administrator Glenn Pelecky leaves next year. The AEA sent requests to 12 search firms, received seven bids and narrowed the field to four to interview on Dec. 12.  All four of the firms the AEA has chosen to interview have a knowledge of the Iowa system of area education agencies and the demands of a chief administrator.  Once a search firm is employed, they will begin a nationwide search for Pelecky’s successor. These firms have contacts across the country and also will help the agency choose an appropriate salary, put together a list of interview questions and organize the interview process.

In the search for city administrator, we think a similar process should be used. Once a firm is selected, the work needed to be done to find the right candidate should include not only the entire city council  — a step which thankfully is being taken as the council voted to abandon the former process of creating a committee of a few council members to do the work — but business and community leaders in town as well. This needs to be a thoughtful, determined selection process; having many points of view will help shape the definition of what kind of leader Clinton needs now.

It is indeed a special person who is needed to correct many of the failings of past city department heads and elected officials. They will need to be someone who has worked with a city the size of Clinton or larger, who has dealt with and solved problems like ours. This is not a job that lends itself to on-the-job training; and honestly with the precarious situation the city is in, this position is going to require a greater skill level to help us recover and compete. This process also will require those involved to look beyond their own agendas and work together for the good of the city. We need to face the fact that we are a town with high debt, low morale and a bad track record at filling the positions at many levels of administration over the past few years.

This search will not be an easy one, there is no doubt about it. It will take an investment of time and money to make it happen. And it is an investment that we as a community must make.

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