The Elbert Files: Who's the next city manager?
Thursday, January 09, 2014 2:00 PM
Des Moines City Manager Rick Clark’s surprise retirement announcement creates an unexpected opportunity for the city.
Clark has worked for the city for 40 years and done a commendable job as city manager during the past eight years. Finding his replacement should be a top priority.
There’s no shortage of possibilities, including Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, Deputy Des Moines City Manager Matt Anderson, Waukee City Administrator Tim Moerman and Dubuque City Manager Michael Van Milligen.
There are also a number of nontraditional candidates, including Greater Des Moines Partnership President Gene Meyer, who is a former mayor of West Des Moines, Des Moines Water Works chief Bill Stowe, and Pat Boddy, a partner at RDG Planning & Design, a local architectural engineering firm, and a former director of the Polk County Conservation Board.
Each has qualifications important to sustaining a string of successes that goes back to City Manager Richard Wilkey, who served from 1966 until 1985. Wilkey’s 19-year run helped create the foundation of public-private partnerships that produced tremendous progress and continue to spur results 30 years later.
His successor, Cy Carney, a top Wilkey lieutenant, was a nice guy, sometimes described as a “Boy Scout,” which he was. Carney was competent but lacked vision, and by the time he left for Arkansas in 1995, city finances were headed into a hole from which they have yet to emerge.
Carney’s successor, Evanston, Ill., City Manager Eric Anderson, was hired because he understood money problems. Anderson slashed the city budget. He laid off people and even turned off streetlights to save money.
Anderson hit on the idea of expanding the city’s income base by adding a tax to utility bills, allowing the city to collect revenue from hospitals, schools and other nonprofits that are exempt from property taxes.
Unfortunately, Anderson didn’t do his homework, or he would have done the legwork needed to make the tax legal. Des Moines eventually got the law changed, but not before losing a costly lawsuit that ordered the city to repay $40 million.
Clark took over when Anderson left in 2005 and successfully oversaw the completion of many projects, including the Principal Riverwalk, the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park and the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.
But city finances are still an issue, and the need for regional collaboration and cooperation has only intensified. Each of the candidates mentioned above has assets that could benefit the city.
But the elephant in the room at this early stage is Pomeranz, who was city manager of West Des Moines for 12 years before moving to Cedar Rapids in 2010. He’s only been gone three years, so he still knows all the players and important issues here. The question is: Would he come to Des Moines? By all accounts Pomeranz is happy and doing a fine job in Cedar Rapids, where his current salary, including deferred compensation and car allowance, is $341,826, which is more than 20 percent higher than Clark’s current pay.
Both Anderson and Stowe have many fans in the community where each has had a lot of contact over the years, while Waukee’s Moerman and Dubuque’s Van Milligen have plenty of accomplishments they can point to, if either decides to seek the job.
Meyer and Boddy are unusual in that both are consensus builders with experience outside government.
Des Moines lawyer Steven Zumbach offers this observation: Whoever is selected needs to understand how “a city with the limited resources of Des Moines has been able to achieve all the things it has.” It’s done that, he said, by having leaders who were able to build consensus with the private sector.
The challenge going forward, Zumbach said, can be boiled down to this: “The city needs good infrastructure, and it needs to figure out how to pay for it.”
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