Director of Columbia Water and Light resigns

City manager cites family issues; chief engineer will replace Kahler
Wednesday, September 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:33 a.m. CST, Monday, November 30, 2009

COLUMBIA — J. Kraig Kahler, director of Columbia Water and Light, has resigned after only 14 months on the job.

In an official statement Tuesday, City Manager Bill Watkins said he asked for and received Kahler's resignation, which was effective Saturday.

"I have no doubts about Kraig's professional integrity and intelligence, but he is experiencing some difficult family issues at this time," Watkins said in a news release. "In my opinion, this has affected his focus on the department in a way that is not likely to change in the near future."  

Kahler was charged with third-degree domestic assault in March and is scheduled for trial on Oct. 21 in the 13th Circuit Court. His wife, Karen Kahler, filed for divorce in January. In March, the court granted a request by Karen Kahler for an order of protection against her husband.

Kahler could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. He will be replaced in the interim by Michael Schmitz, who had been the Water and Light Department's chief engineer. Schmitz becomes the fourth head of Water and Light in less than two years.

First Ward City Councilman Paul Sturtz said the job has been difficult to fill in the past. The city charter requires the director of Water and Light to have an engineering degree, which narrows the pool of qualified applicants.

"That kind of requirement doesn't always coincide with leadership capability," Sturtz said. "It's actually fairly unusual."

Hank Ottinger, chairman of the Osage Group of the Sierra Club, served on a 10-person search committee that interviewed candidates for the position in 2008. Ottinger said Kahler impressed the committee with his professional experience and personnel skills.

"He struck me as the kind of guy that could speak cogently and comfortably with anybody from a board member at Ameren to a lineman working the streets," Ottinger said. "Whether or not that was borne out, you'll probably get different thoughts from different people."

Ottinger agreed that the position is hard to fill. He also said that cities have a tough time competing with investor-owned utilities.

"A lot of people out there don't want to work in a municipal-run utility," he said. "They'd rather work for a private utility like AmerenUE, which typically pays more."

When Kahler was appointed in June 2008, the council raised the salary cap for department heads above the previous limit of $129,000 in order to attract more qualified candidates. Kahler was hired at an annual salary of $150,000. Toni Messina, Public Communications director for the city, said Tuesday that Kahler was the highest-paid employee in the city.

Like Kahler, Schmitz has an engineering degree. He came to Columbia in 2001 and has worked in the utility industry since 1968, according to the news release.

The Water and Light Department manages its namesake utilities and oversees the Columbia Terminal Railroad, or COLT. It is the city's largest department in terms of its annual budget.

According to its Web site, the department provides electricity and water to roughly 45,000 Columbia residents.

Fred Eaton, a technician supervisor who has worked with Water and Light for the past 19 years, said Kahler's resignation came as a surprise.

"It's not really anything we expected," Eaton said. "(Kahler) seemed to be a good boss."

As far as high turnover at the director's position, Eaton said, "It's definitely an issue as far as leadership. You'd like to see consistency there."

Messina said Kahler will receive about $35,000 in separation pay during the next three months — two months of regular pay and an additional month of severance pay.


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