Five men with experience as high-level city administrators have been named finalists in Columbia’s search to find a replacement for City Manager Ray Beck.
Mayor Darwin Hindman released the names of the finalists at a news conference Wednesday morning. They are Norton Bonaparte Jr. of Plainsfield, N.J.; Stephen Rasmussen of Ottumwa, Iowa; Larry Stevens of Edmond, Okla.; Sean R. Stegall of Elgin, Ill.; and Bill Watkins, an assistant city manager in Columbia.
Hindman told reporters in the Columbia City Council chambers that the process for selecting the city manager will be as open as possible.
“I was told (by the consultants) that this is one of the most open selection processes they have seen,” Hindman said.
The public can submit questions for a televised community forum to be held Friday afternoon and can offer feedback to the council through next week.
The finalists were chosen from a pool of 73 candidates from 24 states. The city hired the PAR Group, a consulting company from Lake Bluff, Ill., that specializes in local government, to help solicit candidates and then narrow the list to 12. The council then chose seven finalists; two withdrew their names.
“A city manager needs management and financial skills as well as an ability to work well with the public,” Hindman said, explaining the qualities the council would like to see in its new manager.
The candidates face a challenging weekend of interviews, meetings and tours with the council, city department heads and the public. News conferences and a community forum are planned for Friday afternoon. Over the weekend, the council will hold closed sessions with the candidates. Hindman said a decision could be reached as early as Nov. 17, but he would not set a definite date for a decision. Delays could result as the council makes its offer and negotiates the details of a contract with the next manager. The proposed salary for the position is in the neighborhood of $148,000.
Beck has set a tentative retirement date of Jan. 6, but Hindman said Beck would stay on as long as necessary.
Hindman said the City Council is determined to make sure the voice of the public is heard as it works toward a selection. “We try and do the kinds of things the public wants to do,” he said.
Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash also emphasized the weight of the outcome and, therefore, the need for public involvement.
“The hiring of the city manager is one of the most important decisions that council members are going to make,” Ash said. “Any time we are going to make an important decision like that, it’s good to get public input.”
John Clark, who built a 2004 campaign for mayor around the hiring process and criteria for a new city manager, was less optimistic about the sway public opinion will hold over the council’s decision.
“What public input we have in creating the process or in providing input to the council is trivial,” he said.
Judging strictly from the cities they come from, Clark thinks the chosen finalists are under-qualified, insisting instead that they have at least five years experience as a city manager, not as city administrators. While a city administrator’s duties are closely aligned to those of a city manager, they tend to work in smaller cities of 50,000 to 70,000.
Clark was particularly concerned that the inclusion of Bill Watkins might have scared away potential candidates. He suggested the council restart the search and clearly indicate that it would not choose an inside candidate unless he or she clearly outshone any highly qualified outside applicants.
“Start the process over,” Clark said. “Include an explicit letter that says we are looking for new eyes and a new candidate.”
All the candidates are employed as city managers, city administrators or assistant city managers. Asked if they want a candidate who would meet or near Beck’s 20-year run, Hindman noted that the average city manager stays in one place only about five or six years.
“I doubt that we are looking for anyone (to serve) as long as Beck,” Hindman said.