Updated 10:22 a.m.
Columbia’s next city manager will be Bill Watkins.
Watkins, an assistant city manager in Columbia since 1995, won the promotion over four other finalists. He will replace 20-year veteran Ray Beck, who has announced he will retire on Jan. 6.
“Bill’s got some big shoes to fill, and he’s going to do a good job,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said at a news conference Tuesday morning.
The news followed more than a week of Columbia City Council interviews and discussions about the candidates. The candidates also held a series of individual news conferences and participated in a community forum. The other four finalists were Assistant City Manager Sean Stegall of Elgin, Ill.; City Manager Larry Stevens of Edmond, Okla.; City Administrator Norton Bonaparte of Plainfield, N.J.; and City Administrator Steven Rasmussen of Ottumwa, Iowa.
Hindman said the council was blessed with a strong slate of finalists. “We found the the candidates were just excellent,” he said. “We were in the position where we couldn’t go wrong with our choice. ... We chose Bill because he had wide experience, and support for Bill came from all segments of the community.”
Much of the debate surrounding the search questioned whether the council should go with Watkins, an insider who knows Columbia well, or with an outside candidate who might bring new ideas and strategies to town. Watkins during the news conference appealed to those who felt he would be the wrong choice.
“For those of you who wanted to go a different direction, I challenge you to come work with us and help us,” he said.
Third Ward Councilman Bob Hutton, who also spoke at the news conference, said that even though the council selected a local candidate, it was important to do a national search to “validate the choice.”
The council had asked the public to provide its feedback on the candidates.
Hutton said Watkins, the former director of Regional Economic Development Inc., generated heavy support in the business community and elsewhere.
Watkins, who has said his longtime goal was to become Columbia's city manager, seemed humbled by his selection.
“As you might guess, this was very much a surprise this morning,” he said.
“Columbia is truly a great town, and it is an honor and a privilege.”
Watkins will be paid $140,000 per year.