Decisions, Decisions

EC’s next city manager faces some tough challenges

Eric Larson, photos by Andrea Paulseth

CITY HALL. While the building stays the same, the people inside are turning around quicker than ever.
CITY HALL. While the building stays the same, the people inside are turning around quicker than ever.

In April of next year, the Eau Claire City Council will vote to select a new city manager. The election comes at a particularly crucial time for the city, as the high number of baby boomers working for the city approach retirement age. This combined with the new challenge of redesigning work rules and operational procedures to replace employee bargaining (set to expire next summer, due to Gov. Walker’s actions at the state level) puts added pressure on the council making the best selection for our future.

“The city has experienced an increasing trend in retirements for the past three or four years, although the impact varies by work group. The expectation is that the trend will continue for the next couple years, and then decline,” said Mike Huggins, former Eau Claire city manager who stepped down in December after a five-year stint.

(It’s) not so much ... selecting people who are unlikely to leave, but rather lead a work environment that motivates qualified people to stay.” – Former city manager Mike Huggins, on hiring for the future

City Council President Kerry Kincaid said they recognize the higher-than-normal retirement trend in both the public and private sectors. “You can plan for what is expected to be a large turnover of an aging workforce, but that’s just part of the demographics the whole country’s facing,” she said.

Kincaid and Dave Duax, city council vice president, said the council is far more concerned with the personnel procedures challenge facing the new city manager. A challenge that will be a major change for the city, both from the management side and the employee side. 

“You’re really coming up with a different system to replace the one that’s been there for 40 years plus,” Huggins says. “Regardless of the results of the recall election, there will be significant changes that have to be discussed. … It also brings a unique opportunity to design an organizational work environment that integrates employees and management in a collaborative focus on protecting the important public structures and services critical to the broader community.”

If the operational procedures are done right, Huggins said the issue of hiring solid employees to replace retirees may handle itself. “A critical leadership role for the new manager is not so much seeing that the city’s employment process selects people who are unlikely to leave, but rather leads a work environment that motivates highly qualified people to choose to stay.”

So what other qualities are the council looking for in their upcoming hire?

“Well, given that Wisconsin and the state have been through kind of a tense, political period,” Kincaid says with a laugh, “I guess this is a little more important. We need someone with not only great qualities, but superb qualities.”

Those superb qualities, she says, include being able to manage a large body – the city currently has more than 500 employees.

“The city manager has a republic responsibility, so their sentiments and passions have to extend to 66,000 people,” she says. “Not only does this person have to be the right fit for the city, but the right fit for the public sector, too.”

Huggins adds that a manager needs to be a strong communicator, as well. “Whether it’s community service, or working with different neighborhoods, communication skills are important.”

Although the election is still a ways away, Duax says it’s good to be thinking ahead.

“These times require a great commitment in both time and energy to do the job. But what we can hope for is that our city challenges are interesting ones (and) we have talented and capable council members and staff to work with them. Without that, we cannot succeed – and with that, we cannot fail.”