For 45 years, the shadow of Ray Beck has fallen on every corner of Columbia.
His role in transforming Columbia from a small town into a small city has elicited both praise and derision.
Now that Beck has announced he will retire at the end of the year, the City Council will have to decide whether it wants a successor in Beck’s mold or someone who will cast a different shadow.
The council will find an abundant market of professionals ready to take Beck’s place, and they may utilize the services of a consulting firm to help choose his replacement. The role consulting firms play in locating candidates is helpful to cities whose officials may not have the time to conduct a proper search.
Second Ward councilman Chris Janku said that a search conducted by a committee comprised of city employees could result in an odd working environment.
“They would have to work under a boss they hired,” he said.
Jim Mercer, president of the management consulting firm Mercer Group, Inc., said consultants can help a city define the educational, professional and personal background it would like to see in a candidate. It also allows consultants to learn about the city itself.
“We spend quite a bit of time with the client up front trying to determine criteria,” he said. “During that time, it will be a back-and-forth discussion.”
Coni Hadden, president of the Missouri Municipal League and a councilwoman in Liberty, said such discussions made Liberty’s search for a new manager two years ago easier, despite the fact the manager they hired did not stay long.
“The consulting firm had the expertise, and they were able to enumerate our characteristics and the different styles of professionals in the field, so we weren’t blindly searching,” Hadden said.
Mercer said that most firms put together a four- to six-page recruitment brochure with information about the position and the community. He said his company uses professional directories and buys lists of potential candidates from the National League of Cities to identify upwards of 500 qualified people.
Beck’s 20-year tenure made him unique, leaving the city wondering whether it can find that same stability again. The League of Cities reports that turnover of city managers is typically high, with the average person holding the job for six or seven years before moving on.
Jerry Newfarmer, president of Management Partners and a former city manager, said turnover is a bigger problem in larger cities where the community is politically divided and media scrutiny is higher.
Newfarmer said how long a city manager stays in the job depends on the job itself and the professional goals of the person hired. He said there are really two types of city managers.
“It’s different strokes for different folks,” he said. “Some individuals establish a career with one city, and others, as a part of their career development, (and) advance from one city to another with greater responsibility.”
Both Mercer and Newfarmer said that attracting a candidate with a longer term outlook should be Columbia’s goal. Mercer predicts that the city could receive as many as 100 applications.
“I think Columbia will attract a large contingent of interested candidates,” Mercer said. “The position of city manager and its location in a college community make it attractive.”
Janku said he thinks Columbia, with its strong financial situation and stable employee base and its high quality of life will prove attractive to candidates. Having six months to conduct a search should ensure that the council is not rushed into a decision, he said.
“We’re recruiting from a position of strength,” Janku said. “We have a degree of stability in city government, and we’ve never been in a position of major council turnover.”
Janku said the fact that Beck will hold the job until the end of the year means that operations will continue as they have before. This should allow the council the proper focus during the search process.
“It will take some time, but we want to do it right,” Janku said.
Mercer said that, with an outside consultant, the city could have a new city manager hired in three to four months depending on when it actively began its search.
In addition to speeding up the hiring process, a consultant can ensure an array of talented candidates, and the best candidates are more often than not those who are happy and well-situated in their current position, Newfarmer said. At that point, the consultant becomes an agent for the city, talking up the perks of the position in an effort to lure a qualified candidate.
In the end, most cities wind up with three to four candidates that are actually interviewed by the council, but that doesn’t mean the job is over. Consultants can also check references and conduct background checks.
Consultants do cost money. Mercer charges $20,000 to $30,000 for his firm’s services. But it is a one-time cost that Hadden said he thinks is worth paying.
“I would say that if the city has the funds it is an investment well worth making,” Hadden said. “It is nice to have someone with much more training and experience to handle the various issues a city faces.”