COLUMBIA — The City Council might step closer to starting the search for a new city manager next week.
During a work session Monday night, the Columbia City Council decided to make approving a contract with Affion Public, an executive search firm, a possibility at next week's meeting, though the Council left it open for continued review. The company was one of three firms that presented about the search for a new city manager at the work session.
Bill Watkins will resign from the position in March because of family responsibilities, a decision he announced in October.
Scott Reilly of Affion Public was the final person to present, and the council members agreed that having the person who would be the principal on the project present to them was helpful. Reilly answered questions and talked about previous experience in cities like Columbia.
The search process, outlined in a PowerPoint presentation, would start with input from town stakeholders, such as the city council, city departments and university representatives. These meetings would last two to four days.
Affion Public would then develop a profile of position specifics. Then, after several interviews and background checks, Affion Public and the council would narrow the candidate pool to about nine people.
Reilly added that the company would look at existing government officials as well.
"We always include existing staff," he said. "Some people don't want to see much of a change."
Reilly spoke about other towns Affion Public is working with to find city managers, such as Plano, Texas, and Savannah, Ga.
"We do so much work on the backside that it's hard for us to miss on the frontside," Reilly said about his company's research into candidates.
First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz asked specifically about a hiring process the firm finished last week in Morgantown, W. Va.
Reilly said the process was "very difficult, very challenging." He referenced Morgantown's previous city manager, who had been there for about 19 years, and the "900-pound gorilla," the University of West Virginia. He said it was difficult deciding "who (in the community) had what weight" in the decision.
"At the end of the day, it's your hire," he added.
Karolyn Prince-Mercer, senior vice president for Mercer Group, gave the first presentation of the night. Jim Mercer, founder and CEO of the firm, who would be the project manager for the search, was unable to attend Monday because of a previous appointment.
Prince-Mercer said the process of choosing candidates would involve narrowing a group of 15 to 20 people to about seven. The council, she added, would be an integral part in choosing finalists and ultimately selecting one person.
Robert Neher of Neher & Associates was the second person to make his case, which he did via telephone. He gave a 20 minute explanation of his company and how he would tailor the process for Columbia.
He said the firm has a database of about 1,000 resumés seeking city manager positions, but he wouldn't just pick from those at random. His process would be similar to Mercer's, with a narrowing-down system and involving the council.
During the question-and-answer with Neher, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe asked about Neher & Associate's work in Portland, Ore. Neher said that the process there would be similar to what they would do here.
"We would look at other cities that have a presence like the University of Missouri," he said. They study these cities to find people who "know what works" there.
After the three presentations, the council discussed the next steps and agreed that a resolution that would allow for a vote would be the best way to get things moving. The resolution may be amended to allow for further discussion of other firms, or the council may vote to pass the Affion Public contract through.