City manager finalists set to meet with public

Thursday, March 17, 2011 | 1:45 p.m. CDT; updated 11:54 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 18, 2011

COLUMBIA — The four candidates vying to become Columbia’s next city manager are scheduled to arrive Thursday evening and begin the interviewing process Friday morning.

The candidates will meet with city executive staff, tour the community and meet members of the Columbia City Council on Friday. Each candidate will interview with small groups of council members on Saturday and the City Council as a whole on Sunday. The candidate chosen by the council will replace Bill Watkins, the city manager for the past five years, who retired earlier this month.


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The public will have the opportunity to meet the candidates from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday in conference rooms 1A and 1B at City Hall.

The city manager position requires experience in public administration and knowledge of the community. The details of this position are outlined in full on the City of Columbia’s website.

Lori Curtis Luthercity administrator, Waukesha, Wis.

Luther, 36, is going on her fourth year as the city administrator at Waukesha, Wis. She is married and has three sons. She has bachelor’s degrees in political science and Spanish from Baker University in Kansas and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kansas.

  • Current Salary: $115,000
  • Oversees approximately 550 employees
  • Population of Waukesha:  70,000
  • Work Experience: Luther has 15 years of city management experience, and her entire career has been dedicated to city management and public service. Before serving as the city administrator in Waukesha, Luther also worked as a city administrator in Overland Park, Kan., for more than five years. Luther said she is qualified for Columbia’s city manager position because of the combination of her education, experience and approaches to problem solving.
  • Constructing a budget in hard times: Luther said the main issue she’s had to deal with at her current position is a constrained budget. One way that she’s dealt with this issue is by negotiating with unions to obtain an agreement on an increased employee contribution to health insurance in order to offset city expenses. According to an article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Luther stated that this strategy has “saved the city literally millions of dollars.”
  • Goals for Columbia: Luther has spent time reading local Columbia papers to learn about the city’s economy and budget issues. If selected, she said her first task would be to talk with community leaders, staff, the mayor and council to more fully understand the issues facing Columbia. Her long-term goals for the city would be to help Columbia continue with economic development, assist with conservative budgeting and maintain and enhance the level of city services.

Luther wants to come to Columbia because it “is an excellent career opportunity.” She also said that she would be closer to her family who live in Kansas City, and she wants to raise her children in a community with a high quality of life. “Columbia is a perfect fit for our entire family,” she said.

Kent Myers, city manager, Port Angeles, Wash.

Myers, 59, is married with two sons and has been the city manager at Port Angeles, Wash., for two and a half years. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Texas at Arlington and a master’s degree in public administration from Texas Christian University.

  • Current Salary:  $157,000
  • Oversees 350 employees
  • Population of Port Angeles: 19,038
  • Work Experience: Myers has been a city manager for about 30 years and said he has dealt with political, financial and personnel issues. He said he has been able to handle these issues capably and developed good working relationships with city staff, council and local citizens. In addition to Port Angeles, he has served as city manager in Hot Springs, Ark., Casa Grande, Ariz., and Converse, Texas. “I have the right set of experiences and skills that qualify me for this position,” Myers said.
  • Dealing with economic issues: Myers has worked to improve the local economy in Port Angeles by working with local industries to help them expand. In terms of the budget, he has worked to patrol personnel costs that include reducing costs for overtime and temporary salaries. In addition, he has reorganized the city staff, which resulted in an elimination of some positions to help with the budget.
  • Goals for Columbia: Myers has spent the past few months reading the budget of Columbia online and local newspaper articles. “From everything I’ve learned, Columbia is a well-managed city, but there is still a need to expand the local economy, create a more sustainable financial structure and reorganize and revise the number of people that respond directly to the city manager,” Myers said. If selected, Myers said he hopes to build effective working relationships with other agencies such as the county and public schools.

From a professional standpoint, Myers said he wants the position in Columbia because “it’s a larger city with larger challenges that is poised for real growth and development over the next several years.” He also wants the job for personal reasons, mainly to be closer to his family in Texas and his wife’s family in Arkansas.

David Vela, assistant city manager, Abilene, Texas

Vela, 37, is married with two children, a son and a daughter, and has served as the assistant city manager in Abilene for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree in government from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s degree in public administration from Texas State University in San Marcos.

  • Current Salary: $114,400
  • Oversees 550 employees
  • Population of Abilene: 117,000
  • Work Experience: Vela began his career in public administration 14 years ago. He has served as a public affairs specialist with the attorney general’s office in Austin and was a local government management analyst before becoming an assistant city manager in Alice, Texas, in 2003. As the assistant city manager in Abilene, he is responsible for the departments of Public Works, Community Services, and Water Utilities. He said that choosing a city manager comes down to the “intangibles,” which he describes as good relationships with the people, the media and the city staff.  Vela believes he qualifies for the position under those attributes.
  • Budget tensions: Vela said that as part of the executive budget team, he works with directors and management staff on how to close the budget gap. “We make sure we keep expenses as low as we can,” he said. The budget team has a systematic way of doing this, and Vela said it has produced positive numbers on the sales tax reports in the last five months.
  • Goals for Columbia: Vela said that the most important thing a management professional needs to do when coming to a new community is to work on building relationships with the council, staff media and community. “I would have no prior relationships, and I would need to get caught up to speed on the budget and other challenges.”

Vela believes he has the capabilities to make a difference in the community and wants to live in Columbia because of the community’s emphasis on quality of life. He also stated personal reasons for wanting the job in Columbia, which included the school system being a good fit for his 4-year-old son. Vela said the transition could be difficult, but “we’d love to experience everything Columbia has to offer.”

Mike Matthes, assistant city manager, Des Moines, Iowa

Matthes, 42, is married and has two children. He has served as the assistant city manager in Des Moines for about 10 years and has worked in the city manager’s office since 1996. He has a bachelor’s degree in American history from Graceland College and a master’s degree in public administration from Iowa State University.

  • Current Salary: $135,000
  • Oversees 1800 employees with 32 who report directly to him
  • Population of Des Moines: 203, 433
  • Work Experience: In his 15 years, Matthes has dealt with economic development, managed staff executives, done strategic planning and has dealt with financial problems. “City government is the most meaningful government work there is — we provide services most people understand and that most people benefit from,” Matthes said. “It’s also about doing the right thing, and I’m in a position where I get to do that.”  
  • Balancing the budget: For 13 out of his 15 years in Des Moines, Matthes said, the city has had to cut the budget. He said the city has two main programs, public housing and Section 8, and the latter is more efficient. Matthes said the city chose to sell half of the public housing and use the money for Section 8 instead, which allowed them to house more families and cut their liability in half. “We are now sitting on $13 million endowment fund that we use for affordable housing," he said. "It was a creative way to deal with a budget problem."
  • Goals for Columbia: “I really believe in high performance; I think that’s what people are paying for when they pay taxes and they deserve high performance,” Matthes said. Reaching the highest performance possible is his main goal if he is selected. He wants to better connect government with the community and maintain a high level of customer service. “I want to make sure people feel they get value for their dollar,” Matthes said.

Matthes wants to come to Columbia because it offers the quality of life for raising a family. He also said that the city government is in great shape and that they're dealing with the city's problems well. "Who wouldn't want to come to Columbia? It's a great town," Matthes said.

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