GEORGE KENNEDY: New city manager best candidate of strong field

Thursday, March 24, 2011 | 1:19 p.m. CDT; updated 11:52 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 25, 2011

COLUMBIA — We’ve all read by now the celebratory and self-congratulatory comments of our mayor and his City Council colleagues on the successful and conflict-free search for our next city manager. By this time next year, we’ll know whether Mike Matthes is really as good as they all seem to expect.

I’m not quite ready to celebrate, but I’m not ready either to second-guess the selection or the process that produced it. Having met and talked with all four finalists, I share the council members’ opinions that it was a strong field. My only quibble is that so few citizens and so few journalists took advantage of the opportunities we were offered to get acquainted.

Friday evening, for example, all the candidates and their spouses stood around for more than an hour chatting with their council hosts, city staffers, journalists and only a handful of citizens, none of whom you’d call ordinary. Saturday morning, only reporters from KMIZ-TV, the Trib and yours truly showed up for hour-long interviews with each candidate.

I came away from those sessions thinking that Lori Luther, youngest of the four, was the most enthusiastic. Her favorite adverb was “incredibly,” as in her assurance that a strong manager-council relationship is “incredibly important.” Now she has to go back to Wisconsin and work with a mayor who didn’t hire her and doesn’t like her much.

Kent Myers, whose latest stop in a long career is Port Angeles, Wash., struck me as the most confident and the most willing to point out changes needed in Columbia’s government. After he lost, the Port Angeles newspaper quoted him as saying he’d “sit down and reassess” his situation. I have to wonder whether his council will do some reassessing, too, given his open eagerness to be closer to his Texas roots and his wife’s family in Arkansas.

The other nonwinning Texan, David Vela, seemed happy just to be a finalist. Back home in Abilene, he told the local paper that his experience was really a compliment to the city and to his boss for making him competitive. He’s obviously a smart guy. No need to feel sorry for him.

As Councilman Gary Kespohl put it Monday, “Mike stood out a little.” Jason Thornhill described him as “the best fit” for Columbia. Barbara Hoppe noted with a little laugh that council members often disagree but were unanimous in this choice.

So what are we getting for our $150,000 a year?

An outsider, for one thing. That might actually be his most important characteristic, after a quarter-century of insiders. Clearly, this council wants a new perspective.

Both Mayor McDavid and Mr. Matthes himself described him as “Mr. Fix-it.” One thing he fixed in Des Moines was the city’s information technology system. Columbia’s apparently is in serious need of attention. So is the structure of city government itself. We can look for assistant city managers to be given more direct supervisory responsibility, such as the kind Mr. Matthes has enjoyed in Iowa. Like the other candidates, he was surprised that we don’t already have a comprehensive plan to guide our future. Expect a push to get one completed.

I was encouraged by his response when I asked his understanding of the term “smart growth.” That means to him, he said, a balance between growth and maintenance, using the infrastructure you already have, “what you can sustain.” Des Moines, he suggested, is ahead of Columbia in “reducing our impact on the environment,” stressing energy efficiency, with heavy emphasis on recycling and even hybrid police cars.

He invoked the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”

A goal of city government, he said, should be “to make life less irritating.”

We’ve learned from Ray Beck and Bill Watkins that a strong city manager is the driving force in local government. Mr. Matthes climbs into the driver’s seat with a clear sense of direction and a good sense of humor.

He’ll need both.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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