On Tuesday morning, the two finalists for the Ann Arbor city administrator’s position – Ellie Oppenheim and Steve Powers – interviewed with city councilmembers and senior staff in a round-robin format, cycling through three small groups to answer questions about their experience, abilities and approach to the job. A third finalist, Harry Black, had withdrawn his name from consideration last weekend.
Conducting the interviews were councilmembers Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Mike Anglin (Ward 5), mayor John Hieftje, city attorney Stephen Postema and Barnett Jones, head of safety services. Each had been given briefing books prepared by the city’s human resources staff and consultants with Affion Public, a search firm hired by the city. The three panels consisted of (1) Briere, Rapundalo and Postema; (2) Hieftje, Higgins and Kunselman; and (3) Anglin, Derezinski and Jones.
Questions were essentially read aloud as scripts from these prepared materials to ensure uniformity of the interviewing experience. One or two questions were fairly general, for example: What do you think makes a good leader? But the majority were behavioral: Tell us about a time when your leadership skills were put to the test and what the outcome was.
The interviews were part of a two-day process, and included a lunch on Tuesday with staff and a public reception on Tuesday evening at the new municipal center, which featured five-minute presentations from each candidate, as well as time for informal conversations. On Wednesday, the finalists will be interviewed in city council chambers from 8 a.m. to noon. That session, which is open to the public, will also be videotaped and broadcast live on Channel 16 to allow viewing of the interviews by councilmembers and the public who are not able to attend.
It’s possible that a resolution making the appointment could be on the council’s July 18 agenda.
The Chronicle sat in on all interviews held Tuesday morning. This article reports on the responses by Oppenheim; a separate article describes how Powers responded to the interview questions. Because candidates often offered similar examples as answers to different sets of questions, their responses are summarized thematically.
Until earlier this year, Oppenheim was president and chief executive officer of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA), a position she’d held since 2006. In that capacity, she was responsible for leading the regional destination marketing organization promoting tourism and convention business for Reno, Sparks and Incline Village/North Lake Tahoe.
When asked by a councilmember to describe the RSCVA, Oppenheim said the organization is unique in many ways, with three major responsibilities. It handles marketing and promotion, a traditional role for convention and visitors bureaus. In addition, RSCVA owns or operates the major public assembly facilities in the region, including the convention center, a 27-hole golf complex, a bowling center, a livestock events center, a major performing arts center, and a visitor center at Lake Tahoe. The group also collects, disperses and audits the area’s hotel room tax, which accounts for about two-thirds of RSCVA’s budget. As CEO, Oppenheim said she oversaw all these operations, reporting directly to a 13-member board that included five elected officials and eight others who were appointed by various agencies, including the region’s hotel/motel association.
Oppenheim resigned from that job in February. According to a report in the Reno Gazette-Journal, she cited a need for more time to take care of her mother in Texas, who was ill – she mentioned that decision during her interviews on Tuesday. The Gazette-Journal reports that under terms of her contract, she remains on the RSCVA payroll until Aug. 10. Her salary in that position is $234,000.
Preceding her resignation, Oppenheim received criticism for her handling of an event involving the American International Choral Festival early this year: “Possible RSCVA Miscalculation Could Cost Local Economy Millions.” Members of the Ann Arbor city council search committee were reportedly not apprised of this negative publicity, and neither councilmembers nor Oppenheim mentioned that situation during Tuesday’s interviews.
Before leading RSCVA, Oppenheim worked for the City of San Diego, Calif. from 2002-2006 in various roles, including the deputy city chief operating officer and deputy city manager, and as the director of the parks and recreation department. She was general manager of the Los Angeles department of recreation & parks from 1999-2002, and served as vice president/general manager for GES Exposition Services in South San Francisco from 1996-1999.
Describing herself during Tuesday’s interviews as the daughter of two academics, Oppenheim has lived and worked in other university towns. She had various roles at Stanford University from 1977-1987, including the associate dean of students and the director of the Tresidder Memorial Union. From 1973-1977 she worked for the University of Wisconsin-Madison as the Memorial Union operations manager and mini course director.
Experience, Examples of Leadership
In her most recent role, Oppenheim said she led an effort to create a new market segmentation study that evolved into a new branding campaign. The goal was to differentiate the Reno-Sparks area from myriad competitors. If you look at travel magazines and lay out all the ads on a table, she said, you could cover up the names of the cities, and each destination would look the same – Idaho would look like Maine. Her group worked on a research-based effort to find out what motivated visitors, and what they believed was important when they made their travel decisions. The effort developed into a new brand for the Reno-Sparks area, complete with an animal spokesperson – a bighorn sheep. It was fun, humorous, and definitely distinctive, she said. It was intended to attract more visitors and bring more tourist dollars to the area.
In the Los Angeles recreation & parks department, its biggest challenge was a serious gang problem, Oppenheim said. She worked closely with the mayor – it was a strong mayor form of government at the time, she noted – and he was supportive of quality recreation programs. Parks had been taken over by gang-related activities, and she led an effort to develop a program called CLASS (Clean and Safe Spaces) Parks, focused on middle school kids. The program had a modest amount of funding, which was used to install a new children’s play area in each of the city’s 56 recreation centers. The program also spruced up the centers – painting, installing new carpet, buying used furniture – and reached out to the community to bring back community advisory boards.
On the program side, the department took a frequent-flyer approach, Oppenheim said. The more you participated, the more points you accumulated toward reward events – going to a Dodgers baseball game, for example, or to a performance of the Lion King. Organizers used it as a teaching moment, she said. They’d talk about what it means to go to theater, for example – what you wear, when to clap. The program gave kids choices other than joining gangs. “I think we made a difference, one person at a time.” It was creative, innovative and fairly successful, she said.
Oppenheim gave two examples when asked to describe a time that her leadership was put to the test.
Los Angeles is a large and diverse community, with an enormous recreation & parks system, Oppenheim said. When she arrived as general manager, the recreation & parks department was divided into three geographic areas that in many ways operated like individual fiefdoms. The system’s 13 golf courses were buried in different parts of the system. Each of the three area managers, who all reported to her, had different strengths. One was strong in recreational programming, another one had maintenance expertise and the third was a good administrator. But the golf program was suffering from a complete lack of attention, because none of the key staff had golf expertise. And the performance across the three sectors was very uneven, she said.
After thinking a lot about it and talking with staff and others, she proposed a reorganization – combining the three regions under one manager, and adopting the best practices of each. Additionally, she put the golf courses into a separate program. Predictably, the plan met with great resistance from the three managers, because they were losing a lot of power. One of them had applied for the job she’d been hired to fill, and soon it was clear that he was trying to undermine this new approach. She eventually had to sit down and talk to him, telling him to take off a week and think about what he wanted to do. When he returned, he had decided to stay and make the change, and he put his heart into it, she said.
One of the other managers really struggled, however, and eventually decided to leave. Doing things differently sometimes makes people uncomfortable, Oppenheim said. But six months after the reorganization, people were overwhelmingly supportive, she said.
A second example involved the the Greek Theatre in L.A.’s Griffith Park. Shortly before she arrived, the city council had accepted an unsolicited offer by Nederlander Concerts to extend the firm’s management contract of that facility. There was a great hue and cry from community members and competitors because the city didn’t go out to bid, she said. A major competitor threatened to sue, so the council rescinded its award and directed her to issue a request for proposals. She and her staff developed the RFP, making sure it was bulletproof. They got proposals from the House of Blues and as well as Nederlander.
She and her staff worked with an advisory panel to evaluate the proposals, and consulted with attorneys. They did a comprehensive financial analysis, and worked closely with both applicants. The House of Blues proposal had a more generous capital commitment, but both had the programming skills to operate the facility. It was a very competitive situation, she said – the two firms spent $750,000 on lobbying city officials over the contract, so she knew her recommendation needed to be solid. The recommendation she proposed was for the House of Blues, but the recreation & parks commission ultimately voted to award it to Nederlander. Despite the challenging situation, Oppenheim said both firms felt the process had been fair, and that she and her staff had handled it well.
Oppenheim gave different examples when asked to describe her greatest career achievement.
When she arrived in San Diego to head the parks & recreation department, on the first day the deputy city manager told her that there were about 140 capital projects that were all behind schedule, and she needed to fix that. She soon learned that the projects were also underfunded, and that the staff didn’t have a sense of urgency about it. There were no tools to track progress.
Oppenheim said she started using a tool that assigned every capital project a score based on timing and budget. It was a traffic light analogy – if the project was on budget and on time, it got a green light. Dangerously off track projects got red lights. Yellow lights were warnings. She met with each councilmember to review each project and its problems – the council cared, because parks were a big indicator of community satisfaction, just at they are in Ann Arbor, she said. The method helped them prioritize, and within a year things were back on track.
In San Jose, she was involved in managing a convention center that was intended to be an anchor for downtown development. She was asked to figure out how to measure its success, so she talked with the council, chamber of commerce, hoteliers, and others to develop benchmarks. Based on that input, she developed a tool that measured occupancy rates, attendance at events, and the number of hotel room nights – because the center was intended to bring visitors to town. The conventions center ultimately achieved one of best occupancy and financial performances in the nation, Oppenheim said, with occupancy at almost 77%. The center was transformed from an empty building into one of the nation’s best performers. Before that, San Jose had not been known as a convention destination, she said.
Communication, Management Style
Oppenheim described herself as motivated and driven, saying that often she’s the one who’s pushing to get things done. She tends to be proactive. During the recent economic downturn, as a leader she was out front, she said, trying to anticipate what was ahead. In December of 2008, revenues from the hotel room tax dropped, she recalled, seemingly out of the blue. January and February of 2009 weren’t bad, but March was down – they had a problem. Oppenheim said she catalyzed the RSCVA staff and board to look at best case/worst case scenarios. As they started to develop their budget – for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2009 – they knew that revenues would be contracting for the coming year, and they made adjustments. But soon after the start of the new fiscal year, summer numbers started rolling in and tax revenue was down even more than expected. That included both corporate visits and visits from California residents, which accounted for about 60% of overall revenue.
Rather than wait until the end of the year, Oppenheim said she decided to recalibrate the budget and respond to the downturn. If she had waited, she said, then the choices would have been draconian. In August significant budget adjustments were made, eliminating some programs and reducing some positions – mostly jobs that were already vacant, she said. Some people advised her to wait, but she didn’t. By December, things were worse, and it looked like she had made the right call. Oppenheim said she’s good at identifying issues, being proactive and helping an organization make decisions to address the problem.
Oppenheim said she likes to hear all sides of an issue and gather different perspectives. She wants staff to speak up and share their views. As staff, their role is to put forward their best advice to the elected policymakers. The city council’s role is to weigh that advice, and councilmembers may decide to take a path that’s different from the staff recommendation. Then it’s the city administrator’s job, along with staff, to deliver on that decision and implement it. That’s fine, she said – once it’s decided, it needs to go forward and made to happen. Often there have been situations when she’s discussed choices with her staff, but she knows that ultimately she’s the one who needs to choose the path to take. Then, she needs to pull together the organization to get behind that decision.
When she was a department head, there were times when the position she supported didn’t prevail. “I’m a good soldier at that point, and I’ll get behind it and make it work.”
In one interview session, Oppenheim was asked to give an example of a poor decision she’d made that hadn’t turned out well. She cited the time when she worked in San Jose, where the city operated the San Jose Historical Museum in Kelley Park. It’s a wonderful place, she said, with close to 100,000 visitors each year. At the time, the museum was at a crossroads. It had a strong volunteer cadre, but a nonprofit organization thought they could run it better. The nonprofit’s leaders approached her and the city council. She didn’t understand the internal politics, Oppenheim said, and ultimately the city turned the museum over to the nonprofit.
The volunteers became disenfranchised, and the staff felt undervalued and unloved. The museum didn’t improve, she said, and looking back, there might have been other ways to better support the organization without the acrimony that played out in the transition. There was a personality clash between the museum director and the director of the nonprofit, she said, and as a result, the decision to turn it over to the nonprofit didn’t propel the museum forward in ways they had envisioned. She said she wished she’d seen that coming, and had better understood the dynamics behind it. It was hard after that to put the museum back on track.
When asked what makes a good leader, Oppenheim said a leader is someone who can motivate and inspire, with a sense of vision. Yet it’s hard to be a good leader without also being a good manager. It’s one thing to fly at 50,000 feet, she said, but you also have to translate that vision into action and to work effectively with key leaders in an organization. She looks at her role as an orchestra leader. She has to pick the music and pace, in conjunction with council and staff, but it takes the whole group to play a symphony. Her job is to help people see that they play an important role that’s critical to the effectiveness of the organization and to the health of the community. She said she tries to listen and to keep people informed, whether it’s good news or a heads up on bad news. Letting people know about bad news gives them the chance to cope and strategize, Oppenheim said, both individually and as a team.
Oppenheim was also asked how she boosted low morale in her staff. In the short term, there are a range of strategies, she said, from buying pizza for lunch to giving people a half-day off. It’s more difficult when there’s a prolonged situation – when resources are declining, and jobs are eliminated. It’s hard on the organization and on survivors who aren’t laid off. It’s important to take time to bring people together to talk about what’s happening, to share your vision, and tell them there’s a game plan – to say, “We’ll get past this and it will get better.” People need to celebrate successes, and recognize that things take time to improve, she said.
At the RSCVA, the staff held an annual summer family activity at the local water park for a day. They also took staff outings to the new baseball park and the bowling stadium. These were low-cost ways to boost morale, she said.
Oppenheim was asked to describe how she built relationships within the community. She cited an example from her tenure in L.A., when a school official decided not to renew a joint use agreement that the city’s recreation & parks department had in place for after-school programs. Oppenheim’s staff told her there weren’t any alternative locations in that neighborhood. After doing some research, she discovered there were several ways the parks department was assisting the school district – providing maintenance and other services, for example. Oppenheim said she wasn’t sure if the school official was aware of that.
When they sat down for a meeting, the official started by rejecting the joint use agreement again, saying it was a hassle. She asked him to take a step back and look at other ways that they were already working together – looking at the broader context. After about an hour, he completely changed his attitude, she said. He recognized that there were things he hadn’t considered, she said, and that frankly, the parks department had more cards in the game. They ended up renewing their agreement, she said.
Oppenheim cited another example from L.A. concerning a facility that the recreation & parks department acquired. It was in a hilly area that the environmental community thought should be preserved as it was. But a mountain biking group wanted to use it for trails. The two groups were ready to kill each other, Oppenheim said, but during about six months of meetings, she and her staff managed to moderate the discussions and carve out a reasonable plan that ultimately both sides could live with. In the end, both groups felt that their general principles were honored, she said.
During Tuesday’s interviews, Oppenheim gave other examples of working with others in the community. At the RSCVA, some of her staff urged her to take the board on a retreat to write the strategic plan, Oppenheim said, rather than do community outreach. But that approach wouldn’t result in community ownership of the plan, she said. It wouldn’t have any “stick-to-it-iveness” – to get that requires input from multiple groups, so that different parts of the community will buy into the plan.
Citing another example, Oppenheim said that part of her reorganization of the L.A. recreation & parks department evolved because of input from the golf advisory board. They explained to her that the courses were a multimillion-dollar system that was undervalued and under-resourced. She listened to those voices, and incorporated their ideas into her reorganization. She also talked to the golf staff – she said she’s a terrible golfer, but went out to play anyway to talk to staff. It’s important to keep your ear to the ground and listen in different kinds of settings.
Communities will increasingly expect and demand collaboration from government, Oppenheim said. As an example of her efforts in that area, when she joined RSCVA, there wasn’t much of a relationship between that entity and the Reno airport. She developed that relationship, and worked closely with the airport director to attract business and conventions to the area. They also worked together to try to persuade airlines to offer more flights to Reno. That resulted in increased flights and more business than they would otherwise have had, she said.
Oppenheim cited another example from her job in L.A., where she was point person working with school districts and crafting dozens of joint use agreements. Those agreements allowed the recreation & parks department to use school properties after school and on weekends for community park use – otherwise, those facilities would have been locked up after hours. In return, the recreation & parks department helped with maintenance and in some cases capital projects.
Residents don’t care if the city, county or state provides parks services, Oppenheim said – they just want the service. The burden will be on all governments to share services, to find opportunities for consolidation to achieve more efficiencies, and to take advantage of those in a positive way to make public tax dollars go further.
Coming to Ann Arbor
Councilmembers wanted to know why Oppenheim was interested in the city administrator’s job here.
Ann Arbor is a very appealing community, she said. She’s lived and worked in several university communities, and has two degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There’s a great quality of life – food, recreation, culture – that’s disproportionate to the size of Ann Arbor’s community.
She also wants to come back to city management as her primary focus, and this is the kind of quality community that attracts her. “I’m fussy,” she said, and this is the right job in the right place. The job would be challenging and fun, and this is the kind of community she’d enjoy living in. It’s fun to wrap her head around a new situation – it’s like a giant chess game.
So what three things would she do to hit the ground running? The city government is a healthy organization, Oppenheim said, and Ann Arbor is a fabulous community. It’s important to build relationships that are key to success, and to understand what the council views as priorities – how they like to communicate, and what they think is working or not. She doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so she needs to learn the lay of the land. What are the current issues that need to be addressed? She’d need to wrap her head around the budget and understand the tension points there, and what might lie ahead. She’d also use the first 90 days to get to know the city facilities.
Building bridges in the community is also important, including relationships with the chamber of commerce, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor SPARK, the downtown merchant associations, the library, the county and state elected officials. She’d go out and talk to any group that invites her. She said she understands university communities – that’s a lot of what makes Ann Arbor attractive to her. She’s the child of two academics, and she’s worked at Stanford and University of Wisconsin-Madison. She knows that university towns require a lot of community engagement. Everyone wants to be heard, and they should be.
The issue of her decision to apply for the Ann Arbor job also arose when she was asked about the most difficult decision she’s had to make in the last six months. It’s a mix of personal and professional decisions, Oppenheim said. Her mother became ill unexpectedly, and for the first time in Oppenheim’s life, her mother asked for her help. Earlier this year, Oppenheim said she decided she couldn’t do justice to the RSCVA job while taking care of her mother, so she resigned. Her mother is now doing very well and has relocated to New Jersey, where Oppenheim’s sister lives. That’s why she’s now looking for the next chapter in her life.
Oppenheim’s Questions for Councilmembers
In Tuesday’s three interview sessions with councilmembers and senior staff, Oppenheim asked two questions that reflected some of the themes of her own responses: (1) What are the top 2-3 challenges for the new city administrator? and (2) How will councilmembers measure the success for the next city administrator?
When Oppenheim asked how councilmembers would measure the success of the next city administrator, several councilmembers identified the budget as well as quality-of-life issues.
Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) said the city will face some tough choices in the coming year. The city administrator will need to help listen to the opinions in the community, and find ways to respect all those voices. Higgins hoped that they could start working early on the budget in collaboration, and communicate what’s being considered so that residents aren’t surprised when decisions are made.
Mayor John Hieftje noted that handling the budget is a performance measure that can’t be avoided. The city needs to hit its budget numbers, but minimize the impact on residents. Ann Arbor is more fortunate than most places in Michigan, he said, but it’s still difficult. The city has a great parks system, he said, but it requires a lot of maintenance. And the cost of public safety services is also increasing, now accounting for about half the budget. Oppenheim replied that in California, police services typically account for 65-70% of a municipal budget. Hieftje noted that Ann Arbor has made a decision that quality of life is important, too.
Quality of life is what attracted her to Ann Arbor, Oppenheim said. The good news, she said, is that the city hasn’t had to gut its services simply to save public safety – because the crime rate isn’t high. There will no doubt be tough choices, she said, and they’ll need to work with partners and look for different models. The library seems very successful, she said – about a half dozen people were lined up waiting for the downtown branch to open on Monday morning, she noted. That’s a different model – it’s not supported by the city. The economic downturn will be with us for a while, and even when the economy improves, the city shouldn’t go on a spending spree, she cautioned. It’s cyclical, and the city needs to build a buffer for future downturns.
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) said the measures of success for the next city administrator would depend on developing specific goals and metrics set in collaboration with the administrator and council. They’d need to identify key goals and priorities, and come to a mutual understanding on which to base the administrator’s future evaluation.
Oppenheim said she’d want to spend her first 90 days understanding the budget, looking at a five-year financial forecast – assuming the city has one – reviewing the status of city facilities, getting up to speed on bargaining agreements with unions, and familiarizing herself with the operation. Based on that, she’d come up with a game plan.
Regarding the top challenges for the city administrator, Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) cited managing change, and Barnett Jones – head of the city’s public safety services – added that both economic and structural change would need to be managed. As Oppenheim had noted, the city isn’t in a crisis, Jones said, but in the context of the state’s economy, the city does need restructuring and an evaluation of priorities.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) noted that the next city administrator will face ongoing financial challenges, and will need to address those.
Some of the challenges will also entail how the administrator works with elected officials in developing a vision for the future, Derezinski said, and how then to implement that vision. Because it’s a university community, there are a lot of strong, divergent views. How do you coalesce those views into a vision that people can at least live with?
Anglin pointed to the need to develop “umbrella concepts” to guide the city’s actions, as opposed to moving from task to task. Oppenheim suggested that they’d need to develop strategic goals, but not get too tied up in the tactics used to achieve those goals.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said the city has a problem with trust, both from its citizens and its staff. That’s a really difficult thing to work on. As the city has gone through transitions – especially financial changes – it’s been difficult to explain why cuts are necessary, and why previous opportunities are now restricted. People have a difficult time accepting that these things are inevitable. And that attitude influences people’s perceptions about whether the city’s leaders are telling the truth and being as transparent as they can be about their motives and intents, Briere said. Ann Arbor has historically been economically secure, but the city isn’t so secure now, she said. Yet some people doubt that’s true.
Another challenge, Briere said, is that people in Ann Arbor want to change in a positive direction – regarding transportation, new development, and bringing in a diverse set of employers. But the city is in Michigan – there’s only so much that Ann Arbor can do in isolation. The challenge is to collaborate, Briere said, not just to maximize the benefits for Ann Arbor, but for everyone.
Oppenheim responded by saying it sounds like the challenge is to help people understand the situation, and let them know how they can give input to solutions. Given that this is a university town, she’d expect many people would want to be engaged.
That’s an understatement, quipped Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2). The trick for the city administrator will be to reach out and secure the trust that has dissipated over the years, while also conveying the message that change is not inherently bad. For many people here, if it’s different, it’s wrong or bad, he said. They’re not looking to the future, and what future needs might be. Often when creative ideas are put forward, people assume that’s the final decision, he said – before you can explore an idea, it’s dead on arrival.
Briere mentioned that the city council has asked the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to create a plan and vision for developing city-owned lots in the downtown area. But there’s no consensus on that vision or plan, she said. Developing a community or even a council consensus will be a challenge.
Rapundalo noted that sometimes the community discussion drags on forever – rather than truly coming together and compromising, people talk about an idea until it’s killed.
He also identified economic development as another challenge. Though Ann Arbor is fortunate to have the university and the technology it fosters, he said, the city hasn’t set any policies or strategies regarding economic development. City officials haven’t sat down with Ann Arbor SPARK to talk about priorities, for example, or about how the city’s actions align with what SPARK is doing.
Rapundalo wrapped up the topic by saying, “There’s no shortage of things to work on.”
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