The Ann Arbor Chronicle » leadership change it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 AAATA Preps to Shift Gears Tue, 26 Aug 2014 16:59:56 +0000 Dave Askins Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (Aug. 21, 2014): The meeting began with CEO Michael Ford’s formal announcement of news that board members and the public had already heard – that he was leaving the AAATA in mid-October to take the job as CEO of the southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority. Ford had formally tendered his resignation that day. The four-county area of the RTA includes the counties of Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb and Oakland as well as the city of Detroit.

CEO Michael Ford listens to public commentary at the Aug. 21 meeting of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority Board. (Photos by the writer.)

CEO Michael Ford listens to public commentary at the Aug. 21 meeting of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board. (Photos by the writer.)

Two items on the board’s voting agenda related at least indirectly to the leadership transition that the AAATA will be making. First, the board approved a resolution authorizing board chair Charles Griffith to appoint an ad hoc subcommittee to conduct a search for Ford’s replacement. The resolution approved by the board at its Aug. 21 meeting also authorized $50,000 for consulting services to help with the search.

Griffith said he has asked board members Anya Dale, Gillian Ream Gainsley and Eric Mahler to serve with him on the search committee, citing a desire to have a mix of board experience and geographic diversity represented on that group.

Second, the board approved the AAATA’s FY 2015 work plan, which will provide the basis for the FY 2015 budget. The budget will appear on the board’s Sept. 25 agenda for approval. The AAATA’s fiscal year runs from October through September. At the Aug. 21 meeting, Sue Gott credited Ford with developing the work plan, saying it would be valuable as a blueprint for the transition in leadership.

A major decision on the choice of bus technology might be made after Ford departs the AAATA in mid-October. Although the board approved a 5-year bus procurement contract with Gillig, and authorized an order for the first 27 of up to 60 buses called for in the 5-year contract, the board left the choice of drive-train technology open – between hybrid electric technology and clean diesel. The upfront capital cost difference is $200,000 per bus more for the hybrid technology. That final choice of technology will need to be made by the November board meeting.

Also at its Aug. 21 meeting, the board amended its pension plan to recognize same-sex marriages, which stemmed from a Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and the IRS ruling that resulted from that decision.

The board chose to delay approval of new service standards, which are a required element of AAATA’s Title VI compliance. The board can meet the Federal Transit Administration deadlines for submission of its Title VI materials if it approves the new service standards at its September board meeting.

Board members also received an update on the progress being made in a Michigan Dept. of Transportation environmental assessment of a project that could implement active traffic management (ATM) of the US-23 corridor. The project includes the idea of allowing vehicles to use the median shoulder during peak demand periods. The MDOT presentation included a visit from former AAATA board member Paul Ajegba, who is region engineer for MDOT’s University Region – a 10-county area that includes Livingston and Washtenaw counties. If The Chronicle publishes coverage of that presentation, it will be in a separate report.

The Aug. 21 meeting was held in the boardroom at the AAATA headquarters on South Industrial, instead of the usual location, which is the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library. The downtown library on South Fifth Avenue was closed in connection with the repair of its public elevator.


Much of the meeting reflected the theme of transition, as it had been known for several weeks that Ford was likely to take the job that had been offered to him by the southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority. Ford will depart the AAATA in mid-October to take the post as the first CEO of the RTA. Ford formally tendered his resignation on Aug. 21, 2014.

Ford was picked for the job as CEO of the RTA three months ago, on May 21, 2014. The RTA board approved Ford’s contract on Aug. 20, 2014. Ford’s announcement as a finalist and his selection for the RTA job came amid the AAATA’s successful campaign for a new millage to fund additional transportation services in the geographic area of the member jurisdictions of the AAATA – the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. That millage was approved by voters on May 6, 2014.

The AAATA board had awarded Ford a raise at its June 10, 2014 meeting, based on a performance evaluation completed at its May 15, 2014 meeting, which came 11 days after the successful May 6 transit millage vote.

The RTA was established by the state legislature in late 2012, and includes Detroit and the four-county region of Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb and Oakland.

Ford was hired by the AAATA in 2009.

Transition: Aug. 21 Opening Remarks

Board chair Charles Griffith led off the meeting with the “communications and announcements” agenda item asking, “Does anybody have anything to say?” Michael Ford’s response was “I do!” That drew some laughs from around the board table.

Ford stated: “It’s probably no secret by now, it’s kind of the moment everybody has been waiting for – I am going to be accepting a position with the RTA as the CEO there… I appreciated my time here. We have done a lot. And I’m really honored and privileged to be, and to have been the CEO here. It’s been a big deal to me. We have done a lot in the community. I want to thank my board – you guys have been tremendous, helping guide us and get us where we are. … I would also like to thank the staff, my senior staff and others, the operators, the facility folks, the mechanics who make everything go every single day, a very important part of this organization and the face of this organization.”

Ford singled out administrative assistant Karen Wheeler for special thanks, calling her “the glue, my rock.” Ford’s remarks elicited applause from the board and staff.

Griffith responded to Ford’s remarks by telling him, “We are going to miss you terribly. We didn’t want you to go but if you were to go anywhere, the RTA was our top pick. So you’ll still be working with us.” Ford replied to Griffith by saying that he would not forget where he came from.

Griffith told Ford that the board would have a couple of months to get some more work out of him related to the transition.

Transition: Public Commentary

During public commentary time at the start of the meeting, Thomas Partridge introduced himself as an advocate for all of those riders who need the representation of a strong CEO and strong leadership of the AAATA administration in order to ameliorate longstanding policies that are adverse to providing the best possible service to seniors and disabled persons. He was there to compliment CEO Michael Ford and the work that Ford had done to achieve greater recognition for seniors and disabled persons, but Partridge stated that there was much work left to be done. So he was calling on the board to redouble its efforts during the interim – to provide the leadership necessary to remove problems associated with the use of the system by seniors and disabled persons – whether it is using the A-Ride paratransit system, the Good as Gold system for seniors, or simply riding the buses.

Transition: LAC

Cheryl Webber gave the report from the local advisory council (LAC) for Rebecca Burke, who’d sent along her regrets that she was unable to attend the meeting. LAC is a body that advises the AAATA on issues related to the disability community as well as seniors. Webber thanked Michael Ford for his service and his ability to empower the AAATA staff to go forward with the visions that are going to build the agency’s future.

Transition: AAATA Search Committee

The board considered a resolution authorizing board chair Charles Griffith to appoint an ad hoc subcommittee to conduct a search for a replacement for outgoing CEO Michael Ford.

The resolution considered by the board at its Aug. 21 meeting also approved $50,000 for consulting services to help with the search.

When the board reached the voting item on the agenda, Charles Griffith noted that the item had been recommended by the AAATA’s governance committee. He allowed that the board had been aware for quite some time of the possibility that Ford would be taking the new position with the RTA. So the resolution would allow him to establish a search committee.

Griffith said the governance committee thinks it’s a good idea to hire a search firm to assist, saying that it worked pretty well with the selection of Ford about five years ago. [The governance committee, under the AAATA bylaws, consists of the board chair, the CEO and the chairs of the other standing committees of the board. Roger Kerson is chair of the performance monitoring and external relations committee; and Sue Gott is chair of the planning and development committee.] Griffith said the board wanted to do this expeditiously, venturing it would probably take longer than the 60 days that Ford had left working for the AAATA.

Gott thanked Griffith as chair for the amount of time that he put in to position the AAATA to make the transition. Susan Baskett asked if there was an estimated timeframe or desired timeframe for making an offer saying, “We’ve got to shoot for something.”

Griffith ventured that the search firm would help the AAATA figure that out. He said the board had taken more time with Ford’s selection than it had actually been comfortable with. That’s why they wanted to address this in as expedited a way as possible. The search firm needed to be brought on board in order to come up with a realistic timeframe. He hoped that it would not take longer than three months, but he was not yet confident that’s the answer that the board would get from the search firm.

Baskett asked if the specifications for a search firm had been prepared by the search committee. Griffith understood the question to be about the composition of the search committee – and said he was prepared to appoint members to the committee. He said he was looking for a balance of experience on the board and geographic diversity from the membership. Later in the meeting, Anya Dale, Eric Mahler and Gillian Ream Gainsley were named by Griffith as the other board members beside himself that he had asked to serve on the search committee.

When Baskett clarified her question, Griffith noted that the Federal Transit Administration had strict guidelines, and one of the first jobs that the committee would have with the search firm that’s selected would be to come up with the criteria for the new CEO. But he was not sure that there had been any specific criteria applied to the RFP (request for proposals) for the search firm – except that the firm needed to have experience with transit and experience specifically with executive management.

There had been a list with 17 different firms that the AAATA had use the last time it conducted this process, Griffith said. His recollection was that five or six bids come back from that RFP. The AAATA was pretty happy with the firm that it eventually selected.

Roger Kerson ventured that it’s important that the process be expeditious, but getting it right was also very important. It’s not something the board wanted to do every year, he quipped. He wanted the process to be speedy but also deliberate.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to authorize the board chair to form a search committee and hire a search firm.

Transition: FY 2015 Work Plan

Appearing on the board’s Aug. 21 agenda was approval of the 2015 work plan. [2015 AAATA work plan]

Highlights of new items include measurements of service performance – an initiative that comes in the context of additional transportation services to be offered starting Aug. 24. Those services will be funded with proceeds from a new millage that voters approved on May 6, 2014.

Another highlight is the construction of a walkway across the block between Fourth Avenue and Fifth Avenue – on the north side of the parcel where the new Blake Transit Center has been constructed. The reorientation of the new transit center to the south side of the parcel makes it possible to contemplate the walkway along the north side, which abuts the Federal Building. According to CEO Michael Ford’s regular written report to the board for August, he has made a funding request from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to pay for construction of the pedestrian walkway.

When the board reached the item on its voting agenda, Ford noted that the green-highlighted text reflected changes from the previous year’s work plan. He ventured that the plan had been dealt with fairly thoroughly. He told the board he could answer any questions, noting that the FY 2015 budget would need to support the work plan. [The FY 2015 budget will appear on the board's September agenda. The AAATA's fiscal year runs from October through September.]

Sue Gott asked Ford to give a one-minute set of highlights from the work plan. Putting the new service on the street now and for the rest of the year was really important, Ford replied. In connection with the board’s discussion about the choice of drive-train technology – clean diesel or hybrid electric – Ford noted that the work plan includes an item that would have the AAATA develop an environment policy. The AAATA had just constructed a new LEED-compliant transit center and has hybrids in its fleet, but did not have an overall environmental strategy, so the work plan was meant to address that.

Ford also highlighted in the work plan a possible redesign of the Ypsilanti Transit Center to increase lobby space and improve the bathrooms. Space needs were another highlight for the AAATA’s work plan. Ford noted that the AAATA was hiring additional drivers, and would need to have space for them. Some runs might need to be started out of Ypsilanti in the near future, he ventured.

Service performance standards were another item in the work plan highlighted by Ford. Following the work plan had been a good guide for the AAATA, Ford ventured. He credited the board and board member Sue Gott for helping the AAATA achieve the work plan.

Gott said she wanted to credit Ford with the work plan, and the reason she wanted to highlight it was this: Despite the transition in leadership, Ford was leaving the board with a very solid blueprint. The work plan was tremendous work that Ford and the staff had created, Gott said. It would be key to helping the board have a smooth transition.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the FY 2015 work plan.

Transition: Board Officers

Board chair Charles Griffith also noted that under the AAATA board bylaws, board officers needed to be voted on at the September board meeting. He indicated that he would be asking some board member or possibly board members to act as the nominating committee for board officers for this year. He invited board members to contact him if they had any interest in doing that. The other two current officers are: Eli Cooper (treasurer); and Anya Dale (secretary). Roger Kerson is chair of the performance monitoring and external relations committee; and Sue Gott is chair of the planning and development committee.

The AAATA’s typical pattern is to elect the same chair for at least two years and then rotate to a different board member. Griffith is winding up his second year as chair.

Bus Procurement

On the board’s agenda were two items related to procurement of up to 60 new buses – a 5-year contract for purchase of the buses from Gillig LLC, and an order for the first 27 buses. The total cost of each bus will be between $444,000 and $662,500, depending on the length, drive system and options. That puts the total value of the contract with Gillig at a figure between $26.6 million and $39.7 million.

Of the 60 buses, 20 would be new, additional buses that are needed for the expansion of services the AAATA is offering as of Aug. 24. Those services will be funded with proceeds from a new millage authorized by voters on May 6, 2014. The other buses will replace existing buses that are nearing the end of their useful life.

The large spread between the minimum and maximum cost per bus is due to the incremental price difference between a hybrid electric drive system and a conventional clean diesel drive, which is nearly $200,000. According to the minutes of the Aug. 12, 2014 meeting of the AAATA’s planning and development committee, the extra cost of a hybrid bus over the life of the bus is $138,604. That figure includes cost comparison data relating to the upfront capital and fuel costs of both technologies.

Of the AAATA’s existing 80 buses, 52 use hybrid technology. The ongoing debate among AAATA board members on the choice of technology is based in part on the AAATA’s own experience with hybrid buses. The 5-year warranty has expired on the AAATA’s oldest hybrids, which has required a contingency budget for their future repairs. And manufacturers have now shortened their warranty periods for new hybrid buses from five to two years. That shorter warranty period will translate into greater costs to the AAATA for repairs.

According to AAATA staff cited in the PDC meeting minutes, the hybrid buses’ lower emission levels are a benefit of hybrid technology. However, the Environmental Protection Agency’s ongoing emission reduction standards now ensure that all new transit buses – whether hybrid or conventional – have very low emissions. On average, hybrid buses run at a noise level of 72 dB(A) compared to 75 dB(A) for conventional buses.

So the AAATA board has not yet made a final decision on the choice between hybrid technology and conventional clean diesel. The order for the first 27 buses from Gillig – which was also given approval at the board’s Aug. 21 meeting – leaves open the decision on the choice of technology. Of the 27 that are being ordered, 14 are replacement buses and 13 are buses needed for the service expansion.

The board would need to act by November 2014 on choosing the technology for the bus order. The choice to order hybrid technology could be based on the identification of grants that might pay for the cost differential of that technology. Delivery of the buses is planned for October 2015.

Here’s how the bus acquisition schedule breaks down:

              OCT   FEB   JAN   JAN   OCT  
Purpose      2015  2016  2017  2018  2019  TOT
Rplcmt buses
(now elig)     4                             4                          
Rplcmt buses 
(elig 11/15)  10           5     4          19
Rplcmt buses
(elig 11/19)                           15   15 
5YTIP Svc Exp 
(8/2015)       4                             4
5YTIP Svc Exp        
(6/2016)             9                       9
5YTIP Svc Exp  
(8/2017)                   7                 7 
TOTAL                                       58


Bus Procurement: Aug. 21 Meeting Discussion

During public commentary at the start of the meeting, Jim Mogensen told the board he supported the staff analysis of the technology choice for the new buses – which was clean diesel.

Gillian Ream Gainsley gave the report from the planning and development committee. She described the meeting as “inspired.” The committee had discussed the clean diesel versus hybrid technology for the drivetrains for the new buses that are being ordered. She noted that of the 27 buses, 14 were replacing conventional diesel buses and the other 13 buses would be for the service expansion.

The committee had received a presentation from staff, she said. One thing the committee had learned was that the new lower-emission diesel buses are quite different from the conventional diesel buses that are currently in the AAATA’s fleet. Emissions are a lot lower than they used to be, and the noise levels are lower than they used to be, but they’re a bit higher than hybrid technology. The up-front purchase cost is roughly $200,000 greater, she noted, and that cost differential is not made up over the life of the bus in fuel savings. So the committee had a lengthy discussion about the pros and cons of those different options. She said the AAATA want to be environmentally responsible but they also want to be fiscally responsible.

The committee had asked staff in that discussion to come up with some projections about combinations of buses, possibly keeping a ratio of hybrid to conventional buses that is consistent with the ratio in the current fleet, Ream Gainsley said. The committee had put off a decision on technology, but she noted that the buses needed to be ordered. So the committee had approved an order to purchase buses, but had put off a decision on exactly what combination of hybrid and clean diesels.

There had been some discussion also about the bus procurement contract, Ream Gainsley said. The AAATA was limited by the fact that there are not many vendors in Michigan, so there was only one bid. She noted that there were two companies that were interested and one ended up declining to bid on the contract. As much as the AAATA would love to have more than one bid, when there are only two companies in the state that offer the product, that makes it difficult. So on that basis, the committee had recommended the procurement contract with Gillig.

In his report from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Roger Kerson said his take-away from the discussion of the bus technology was that the gap between performance for the clean diesel and the hybrid technology had diminished over the last few years. He identified as an issue the fact that other agencies are not buying many hybrids, so hybrids are not as prevalent in the industry – and that makes it harder to keep the hybrids in good repair.

CEO Michael Ford distributed a handout to board members on the topic of clean diesel and hybrid drive trains.

CEO Michael Ford distributed a handout to board members on the topic of clean diesel and hybrid drivetrains. In the foreground is board member Susan Baskett.

Kerson noted that AAATA manager of maintenance Terry Black was focused on those maintenance issues, saying the AAATA needs to have service available out of every bus, every hour, every day, and every month. His understanding of the resolution was that it approved the purchase of the buses – and then in December a decision on the drivetrain would be provided to Gillig. That meant that the decision would need to be made by the board in November, he thought. The board did not want to be in a situation where Gillig was waiting for the AAATA board’s December meeting to take place in order to start manufacturing the buses.

So Kerson wanted the board to focus its efforts. As board members they need to focus on the question: What do we still need to know to make this decision? And how can we get these requests in a timely manner to the staff so that the board is not sitting there in October and November and wondering what kind of factors need to be weighed.

During question time, CEO Michael Ford allowed that there had been a lot of discussion about hybrids versus conventional buses. He wanted any other questions or concerns addressed – and he hoped to have any additional feedback from the board by Aug. 31 so that the staff could work on getting those questions answered. He provided board members with a handout of the steps that the staff were working on so that board members’ memories might be jogged for other considerations that board members want staff consider.

Bus Procurement: Five-Year Contract – Board Deliberations

When the board reached the voting item on its agenda, board chair Charles Griffith reviewed how this item was a contract for a five-year plan to acquire additional buses. It was separate from the following resolution that was an actual bus order. He allowed there been some concern about the lack of other bidders, but noted that the AAATA was limited by the number of providers. Gillian Ream Gainsley said she appreciated Michelle Barney’s comment during public commentary about the need for Sunday service and feeder routes.

She said that those routes would eventually be reconfigured, and everyone was eager to see those things happen. The challenge is that the AAATA is limited by how fast buses can be manufactured. This resolution addresses that, she said. It’s a huge contract, and it’s the largest purchase that the agency makes, she noted. She appreciated the fact that staff was ready to get moving on it very quickly after the millage had passed. The board had been asking for a lot of information, because it’s a really big decision. So she appreciated the staff effort to move the process forward as fast as possible, so that the new service can get moving.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the bus procurement contract with Gillig.

Bus Procurement: 27 Buses – Board Deliberations

When the board reached the voting item on the agenda, Charles Griffith noted that the order would be for 27 buses – part of them replacement buses and part of them expansion buses. Griffith allowed that there’d been quite a bit of discussion about which kind of technology to use for the drivetrain. Staff would be doing some additional analysis to help the board with that decision. He felt that the board was committed to making that decision in a timely fashion.

CEO Michael Ford commented that the decision would need to be made by the board’s November meeting.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the bus order for 27 buses.

Same-Sex Pension Benefits

The board considered an amendment to the pension plan of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority – to recognize same-sex marriages and for the terms “spouse,” “husband and wife,” “husband” and “wife” to include a same-sex spouse.

The amendment was to bring the AAATA’s pension policy into compliance with Internal Revenue Service Ruling 2013-17 and IRS Notice 2014-19. Those IRS rulings give guidance on how to implement the U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, which declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 to be unconstitutional.

Reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Roger Kerson described the same-sex pension benefit item as stemming from the fact that the Supreme Court had overthrown the Defense of Marriage Act. Based on that, the Internal Revenue Service had issued a ruling saying that pension plans must recognize any legal same-sex marriage. That meant that the AAATA needed to “true up” its pension plan – otherwise people’s pension contributions would no longer be tax-deductible. And that would be very bad news for everybody in the plan, he said. He was very supportive of the idea that the AAATA would recognize marriage of any employee who had a legal same-sex marriage. He called it pretty much a “no-brainer.”

When the board reached the voting item on its agenda, board chair Charles Griffith echoed Kerson’s sentiment that it was a no-brainer.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to adopt the pension plan amendment.

Title VI Service Standards

The board considered adoption of new service standards as part of the AAATA’s compliance with Title VI. The civil rights legislation – in the context of public transportation – requires, among other things, proof that a service change has no adverse effect on disadvantaged populations. [.pdf of AAATA Title VI Service Standards]

The AAATA’s standards include items like a once-per-hour minimum frequency of fixed-route service and 90% of trips completed within 5 minutes of the scheduled time. Policies include items like bus shelters at bus stops with 50 or more boardings per day where there is no other shelter available and where a shelter is physically and legally feasible.

The required types of standards include:

  • Headway or frequency by mode. That is, either bus every x minutes or x buses/hour. There can be a minimum standard or different standards by time of day (peak vs. off-peak) or day of week.
  • On-time performance by mode. Can be either for each trip (i.e. at route endpoint), or for each timepoint along the route.
  • Service availability by mode. Can be either percent of population within a certain distance of service or maximum stop spacing. Can have different standards based on differences in population density.
  • Vehicle load. Expressed as ratio of riders to seats. Can vary by time of day (peak vs. offpeak) or day of week.

Required service policies include those on:

  • Distribution of bus stop amenities
    • Benches
    • Shelters
    • Customer information (printed and electronic)
    • Escalators/Elevators
    • Waste receptacles
  • Vehicle assignment
    • Age
    • Type (e.g. hybrid)
    • Can be by mode

Title VI Service Standards: Public Comment

During public commentary at the start of the meeting, Jim Mogensen told the board that when he was preparing his remarks that evening he was initially planning to address the bus procurement item – and he was planning to speak in favor of the staff analysis, which recommended clean diesel instead of hybrid technology. But with the addition of the Title VI issue, he felt that he needed to use his three minutes to speak on that particular issue. He did not believe that the standards were yet ready for adoption. He thought it was important for the board to keep in mind a couple of things.

First was the fact that the AAATA has been classified as a very large organization – and is therefore required to do a much more extensive analysis than a regular fixed-route provider on the Federal Transit Administration list. The AAATA was grouped with Flint, CATA and SMART, he said.

Mogensen’s second point was that when service changes are implemented, it assumes that everything is ok right now, which might not be the case. As an example, one of the standards is the headway (time between buses). The AAATA’s standard says that there will be a minimum headway of 60 minutes, he noted. But for a very long time that has been the minimum headway, he noted – for all of the bus routes. That doesn’t address the issue of differences between minority routes and non-minority routes with respect to that standard. Mogensen felt that those issues had not quite been addressed. He knew that the purchase of service agreement (POSA) had just recently been put in place for Superior Township, and he had not had a chance to examine that agreement. But from his point of view, AAATA’s service as a whole is all of the fixed-route service.

Mogensen did not believe that the board should approve the service standards that evening. He told the board they should wait until the next meeting in September – and he told them that he would try to do a more formal analysis before that meeting. He encouraged the board to ask staff about the need to have much more formal data collection.

Michelle Barney introduced herself as a member of Partners for Transit. She had done an awful lot of bus riding and talking to people about the transit millage earlier in the year – mostly in Ypsilanti. She’d also done some phone banking, she told the board. She wanted to talk to the board about how equity issues are seen by people on the street. She talked about racial justice on the north side and the south side of Ypsilanti. When she had talked to several members of the board on the phone in the last couple of weeks, they told her that the AAATA has to give more service to Ypsilanti Township – because the township is a new member of the AAATA. Further, Ypsilanti Township and the city of Ann Arbor were paying more money for the buses, she’d heard board members say, so Ypsilanti Township and the city of Ann Arbor are demanding more service – because they are paying more money for the buses.

But Barney noted that those jurisdictions are paying more money because their property values are higher. They do not pay a greater percent – pointing out that everyone pays the same percent under the AAATA’s new millage, which is 0.7 mills. The city of Ypsilanti is entitled to the same level of service, she said. The issue of Title VI and whether the AAATA will get money from the federal government is very important. She said she hated to use the word but she had decided to do it and that word was “Ferguson.” What does Ferguson have to do with it? she asked rhetorically. It is not a threat, she stated, but Ferguson has woken up the country to the fact that prejudiced behavior doesn’t just happen in New York, in Harlem – it also happens in the heartland of America. People are waking up, she said. Barney also commented on the new Route 46, indicating that the AAATA needed to have routes that fed people to the downtown where that route departed, otherwise that new route was useless.

Title VI Service Standards: Board Discussion

Roger Kerson quipped that the performance monitoring and external relations committee had also had an “inspired” meeting just like the planning and development committee – because he was the only board member in attendance. Reporting out from that committee, Kerson said that in examining the Title VI standards – perhaps because he’d met as a committee of one – he did not have the wisdom of his colleagues to which he could appeal. So he hadn’t considered some of the concerns that Jim Mogensen had raised during his public commentary.

Kerson ventured that those issues needed to be examined to determine whether the resolution was ripe for consideration or whether it perhaps needed another look. What Kerson had focused on was the question of whether it would change anything that the AAATA is doing now. And what he heard from staff was that they would be looking at things like maximum loads more closely. Based on the information the board had heard during public commentary, they might want to decide to delay, he said: “Let’s have more than just me think about it,” he said.

Board members engaged in a 20-minute back-and-forth on the topic and eventually concluded that they should postpone consideration until the next meeting in September. AAATA manager service development Chris White indicated that there was room in the timeline for the board to delay action until its next board meeting – but after that, paperwork was due to the FTA on Oct. 1, 2014.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to postpone consideration of the Title VI service standards until its September meeting.

Title VI Service Standards: More Public Commentary

During public commentary time at the end of the meeting, Jim Mogensen thanked the board for delaying their vote on the service centers. He said he would do his best to provide as much input as he could under the deadlines. He noted that the regulations say that once you adopt standards for the three-year plan, you are not allowed to change them during those three years. He also mentioned that before he became disabled, in his professional life he did regulatory analysis in Washington DC for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the EPA, and for the Small Business Administration. So he had some understanding of how some of these things operate, he said, and he would try to help.

Mogensen has had an ongoing concern about the issue of AAATA’s commuter service versus mobility service in the middle of the day. When you look at the loading factors, most of that occurs during the commuter service and you can envision a situation where there is a very high peak time service and a much lower service in the middle of the day. And that causes difficulties for those like Mogensen, who primarily use the AAATA to get around during the day. Even though it makes sense why the AAATA would be doing that, there are some important issues related to how that dynamic plays out.

Also during public commentary time at the end of the meeting, Michelle Barney told the board that she not been there in a while because she’d had some health issues, but she told the board that she would now be there more often. Title VI was very complicated, she allowed. She had tried reading it and she tried printing it off the web, but she didn’t have enough money because it costs $.10 a page to print. But she had made requests of the area’s Washington DC legislators and of the NAACP in trying to reach a local ACLU attorney – to find out if there’s anything published that is a valid summary of Title VI. She wanted something she could read, maybe 30 pages instead of 130.

Title VI Service Standards: On-Time Performance

One of the Title VI service standards is on-time performance – which the AAATA establishes at 90% of trips being completed within five minutes of the scheduled time. During his report to the board, Michael Ford noted that on-time performance was currently suffering due to the widespread construction that’s being undertaken on various roads and streets in the area. AAATA is spending about $6,000 a week primarily on trying to back-fill to keep buses on schedule, he said.

Half of the $6,000 is being spent on the Pontiac Trail route. The other half of the $6,000 has gone into supporting Packard, Carpenter, Jackson Avenue and Ann Arbor-Saline Road. The AAATA was doing its best to keep this service on time, but was encountering some problems with that, he allowed. With the University of Michigan’s student move-in week coming up, traffic would increase and that would exacerbate the problem, he ventured.

Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary

At its Aug. 21 meeting, the board entertained various communications, including its usual reports from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the planning and development committee, as well as from CEO Michael Ford. The board also heard commentary from the public. In addition to the communications and commentary reported earlier in this article, here are some highlights.

Comm/Comm: Access, Website

During public commentary time at the start of the meeting, after making complimentary remarks about Michael Ford’s efforts to give greater recognition to seniors and those with disabilities, Thomas Partridge said there was more work that needed to be done. He called on the board to adopt new priorities to put the most vulnerable riders first, and remove discriminatory practices of the current system, including the contract with the SelectRide company. No one should call a cab in the A-Ride system and have a vehicle appear that has 450,000 miles on it, Partridge said. It’s not good practice to provide people rides in vehicles with that kind of high mileage, he said. There are also vehicles that are not kept in good repair, he contended.

During his report from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Roger Kerson noted that more of the AAATA’s website work was being taken in-house with the hire of someone to handle that work. [At the board's August meeting, it was announced that Preston Stewart had been hired for the position.] The board needs to continue to address the concerns of accessibility of the website, he said.

Reporting out from the local advisory council, Cheryl Webber said the longest discussion at the LAC meeting was about the AAATA website. They’d discussed the accessibility and user-friendliness to people who look there for information. She had not really thought about it before then, but her experiences were that the website was not useful enough to her to consult it. “And that’s really sad,” she said, because a lot of work went into it. It looked pretty, she allowed, but she found herself going to Google maps and choosing the bus routing option for directions from point A to point B. She said she was looking forward to improvements being made to the website.

During public commentary time at the end of the meeting, Partridge said it was important that throughout all of the proceedings of the AAATA, priority should be given to concerns of the most vulnerable ridership – which includes not only low-income ridership but also ridership that is handicapped or that has senior citizen status. Related to the selection process for the CEO, Partridge said it was very important that Ford leave the AAATA with a CEO selection process underway with criteria that would give emphasis to candidates that have quality experience with senior ride and handicapped ride programs.

Comm/Comm: Police on Buses

During public commentary time at the end of the meeting, Jim Mogensen responded to a comment in Michael Ford’s written report that mentioned a meeting he’d had with state representative David Rutledge and Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton in the context of the Eastern Washtenaw Safety Alliance. One of the potential suggestions was to have police officers or members of law enforcement ride the buses. Mogensen thought the AAATA board needed to give careful consideration to how that might be implemented and how that might be seen in terms of surveillance – as another way of going undercover to find out what’s going on in neighborhoods and monitoring people’s behavior.

Comm/Comm: Financial Reports

With respect to the financial reports that the performance monitoring and external relations committee had heard, Roger Kerson said that AAATA had received the first cut of the new millage money – which was about $4.5 million.

From left: AAATA board members Eric Mahler and Larry Krieg.

From left: AAATA board members Eric Mahler and Larry Krieg.

Of that, $3.8 million had been programmed for activities in the next year, including some capital expenditures and things that need to be done to get up and running. There is a $600,000 surplus in the budget, he said. As he understood it, that money is going to be used for service in the “out years.”

During question time, Larry Krieg said that in reading the budget reports, he was a little bit concerned about how much money was being saved by having people out on disability. He wondered if there was any particular reason why the AAATA had more people out on disability than usual.

AAATA head of human resources Ed Robertson told Krieg that the AAATA would prefer to have no people out on disability and currently he thought there were two. He thought there had been more people out on disability during the winter.

Comm/Comm: New Service

During communications time, Michael Ford noted that the new extended services to be provided by the AAATA – funded by the millage approved by voters on May 6, 2014 – would start the following Sunday, Aug. 24. He also noted that there would be a celebration held at the Ypsilanti Transit Center on August 25. It would include a media tour of Route 46 followed by a press conference at the Ypsilanti Transit Center, to be hosted by Partners for Transit, he said.

Comm/Comm: Response to Suggestions

Ford noted that the AAATA had responded to suggestions made at the previous month’s board meeting – to make information about the Aug. 24 service changes easier to find on the AAATA’s website – by placing a prominent link on the homepage. The board had also heard a suggestion to make clear to passengers how they can make compliments. That would be included in the RideGuide as well as on the website, Ford reported.

Present: Charles Griffith, Eric Mahler, Susan Baskett, Sue Gott, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale, Gillian Ream Gainsley, Larry Krieg.

Absent: Eli Cooper, Jack Bernard.

Next regular meeting: Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]

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A2: Community Foundation Thu, 13 Feb 2014 23:05:15 +0000 Chronicle Staff The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation has announced that its CEO and president, Cheryl Elliott, will be retiring at the end of 2014. She has served in that position since 2001, and has worked for AAACF since 1992. According to a press release, the AAACF’s chair and vice chair – Bhushan Kulkarni and Michelle Crumm – will oversee the search for a new CEO, working with a search committee and search firm. The goal is to hire a replacement by this fall. [Source]

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UM: Presidential Search Sun, 12 Jan 2014 16:48:05 +0000 Chronicle Staff The Detroit Free Press interviews former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt and former interim president Joseph White about the qualifications and skills needed to lead the university, as regents search for the next president to replace Mary Sue Coleman. The article quotes Duderstadt: “I’ll be very surprised if the person selected isn’t well-known to people in higher education. It’s like selecting a pope. We’re just waiting for the white smoke.” [Source]

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Leadership Changes Set at Trial Court Thu, 24 Oct 2013 18:48:08 +0000 Chronicle Staff David S. Swartz has been named chief judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court, effective Jan. 1, 2014. The appointment was made by the Michigan Supreme Court and announced in a press release issued on Oct. 24 by court administrator Dan Dwyer.

Swartz will replace current chief judge Donald Shelton, who has served in that position for four years. Because of his age, Shelton will be ineligible for re-election when his term ends next year. The state constitution requires that judicial candidates at the time of election must be younger than 70 years old. According to the press release, as of Jan. 1 Shelton will be presiding judge of of the trial court’s civil/criminal division through the end of 2014, when his term expires. He will also oversee the implementation of a new case management software system and the roll-out of e-filing.

Swartz has served as a trial court judge since 1997 and was chief judge from 2008-2009. He is currently chief judge pro tempore, a role that will be taken over by judge Carol Kuhnke on Jan. 1. She will also serve as presiding judge of the family division. That position is currently held by judge Archie Brown.

Other trial court judges are Timothy Connors, Darlene A. O’Brien, and Nancy Wheeler, who is on medical leave. Earlier this month, the court announced that retired judge Charles Nelson would be serving as a full-time visiting judge, taking on Wheeler’s docket.

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Washtenaw United Way Leader to Retire Wed, 16 May 2012 21:41:05 +0000 Chronicle Staff Sandra Rupp, who has served as president and CEO of the United Way of Washtenaw County since late 2004, is retiring at the end of the summer. The news was announced Wednesday, May 16 by board chair Kristen Holt. According to a press release issued by the nonprofit, a search committee has been formed to select the next president, and Rupp will work with the board during this transition.

Rupp has led the organization during a period of economic challenges, including the departure of major employers in the county like Pfizer and the closing of local auto manufacturing plants. The nonprofit’s highest fundraising campaign (in 2000) raised $8.8 million. The 2011 campaign brought in $5.57 million.

One of the most significant changes during Rupp’s tenure is United Way’s participation in a relatively new countywide initiative to coordinate the funding of local human services nonprofits. Partners include the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Washtenaw County, Washtenaw Urban County, and the city of Ann Arbor. Coordinated funding is administered by the office of community and economic development, a joint county/city of Ann Arbor department.

Rupp joined the local United Way in December of 2004. She was the organization’s first female president and only the fourth president since it was founded in 1971. She previously served as chief professional officer of the United Way of Lincoln and Lancaster County (Nebraska). She also held executive positions with United Ways in Laramie County, Wyoming; Youngstown, Ohio; and Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

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Finalists Selected for Housing Director Mon, 17 Oct 2011 14:49:48 +0000 Mary Morgan At a special meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011, board members of the Ann Arbor housing commission deliberated on four finalists for the job of executive director. The position would oversee the city’s public housing and Section 8 programs, at a time of uncertain federal funding and increasing need. Board president Marta Manildi described it as perhaps the most important decision the board will make.

Andy LaBarre, Ronald Woods

From left: Ann Arbor housing commissioners Andy LaBarre and Ronald Woods at the Oct. 12 special meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners praised all four candidates, but Jennifer L. Hall emerged as the leading choice. Four of the five housing commissioners selected her as their first choice in a straw poll at the beginning of the meeting. Hall currently serves as housing manager for the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community development. In advocating for Hall, board member Leigh Greden – a former city councilmember – noted that her knowledge of the local community is a strong asset.

But after about 90 minutes of discussion, commissioners decided to move ahead with three of the four finalists: Hall, Damon Duncan and Bill Ward. Both Duncan and Ward have more extensive public housing experience than Hall, primarily with the Detroit housing commission. The other finalist, Nick Coquillard, has served as deputy director of the Ann Arbor housing commission and is now interim director.

During the meeting, much of the discussion focused on the vision, leadership and management styles of the candidates, and how those styles would fit the existing staff focus on teamwork and customer service. As a backdrop to the discussion, the housing commission has seen some dramatic leadership changes over the past two years – including dissolution of the previous board in 2010, and a previous change in executive directors.

At the beginning of the meeting, Ronald Woods, the only commissioner who did not indicate a preference for Hall, asked whether it would be possible to conduct some of their discussion in closed session. He felt it would allow for a more candid exchange of opinions. But Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s office informed the board that this was a public hiring process, and needed to be held in public view.

The executive director of the housing commission is one of only four positions in city government that is required to have a public hiring process, McDonald told the board. The other positions are city administrator, city attorney, and executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

The board will take up the hiring decision again at their regular meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 19. The meeting is open to the public and starts at 6 p.m. at Baker Commons, 106 Packard (the corner of Packard and Main) – a housing commission property. It’s possible that commissioners will make a final decision then, or continue the discussion at a later date.

Housing Commission: Some Background

The Ann Arbor housing commission (AAHC) oversees the city’s public housing units, as well as the Section 8 program for Washtenaw, Monroe, and western Wayne counties. Section 8 provides vouchers that subsidize rent for low-income residents living in privately-owned properties. The commission’s public housing units are located throughout the city of Ann Arbor and include Miller Manor, Baker Commons, North Maple Estates, Hikone and Hillside Manor, among several other properties. Much of the funding for these programs comes from the federal U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development (HUD).

The housing commission has gone through some dramatic leadership changes over the past few years. The most recent executive director, Marge Novak, resigned effective July 29, 2011 to take a position with an affordable housing investment firm. She had been hired for the permanent job in May 2010 after serving as interim for 10 months.

Novak’s hire came less than two months after the city council voted, at its March 15, 2010 meeting, to dissolve the housing commission board and appoint new members. Among other issues, the city administration had been dissatisfied with that board’s progress towards hiring an executive director. [For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "Housing Commission Set to Hire Director"]

Marta Manildi is the only current board member who was part of the previously dissolved board. She is an attorney with Hooper Hathaway, the same law firm that employs Ann Arbor city councilmember Christopher Taylor. Other current housing commission board members include former city councilmember Leigh Greden; Andy LaBarre, a former aide to Congressman John Dingell and current vice president of government relations and administration at the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce; Ronald Woods, an Eastern Michigan University professor who’s married to former Ann Arbor city councimember Wendy Woods; and Gloria Black, a representative for residents of housing commission properties.

There was little communication with the general public about the more recent leadership change at the housing commission, aside from postings on the commission’s website. The Chronicle has not observed any mention of this transition at public meetings of the Ann Arbor city council, for example. The city council’s liaison to the AAHC through this period was Tony Derezinski (Ward 2). He recently stepped down as liaison in order to serve on the city’s public art commission. Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), who had previously served as council liaison to AAHC, publicly offered to replace Derezinski, but mayor John Hieftje instead nominated Margie Teall (Ward 4) to that position, instead of Kunselman.

The June 2011 AAHC board minutes record that Novak had tendered her resignation by that commission meeting, with AAHC deputy director Nick Coquillard appointed as interim at the July 2011 AAHC board meeting. The job opening was posted in August, and four candidates were selected to be interviewed: Coquillard; Damon Duncan, a housing consultant who previously worked at the Detroit Housing Commission; Jennifer L. Hall, housing manager for the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community development; and Bill Ward of the Detroit Housing Commission.

Interviews for the four candidates were held on Friday afternoon, Oct. 7, in a public meeting. The Chronicle requested resumés and other application materials for the candidates, but was informed that the information would be released only in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. That request has been filed. Update: Oct. 21, 2011 application materials were provided to The Chronicle. [.pdf of AAHC applicant materials]

Hiring Process: Open Meetings Act

At the start of Wednesday’s special meeting of the housing commission board, Ronald Woods asked whether the state’s Open Meetings Act allowed commissioners to hold any of their discussion in a closed session. In his experience, discussions in closed session result in a degree of frankness that’s not possible in public. It’s not about being secretive, he said, but rather about sensitivity toward the candidates. He also wondered whether confidentiality would be extended to the candidates’ references.

Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s office told the board that there are only a narrow set of circumstances that would allow the commission to enter into a closed session. It might be uncomfortable, he said, but the candidate names have been disclosed and the hiring process for this position is public. It’s one of only four such positions in the city that has this kind of public hiring process, he noted. Others include the city administrator, city attorney, and executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to open up this kind of process to the public, McDonald said. He told commissioners they just needed to accept it and move forward, even if it’s uncomfortable.

Initial Preferences: Hall Emerges as Lead Candidate

Marta Manildi, who serves as president of the board, proposed taking a straw poll to see where commissioners fell in terms of their initial preferences. She began by saying her first choice would be Jennifer L. Hall, followed by Bill Ward.

Jennifer L. Hall

Chronicle file photo of Jennifer L. Hall, taken at a 2010 meeting of the Washtenaw Urban County executive committee.

Andy LaBarre also picked Hall has his No. 1 choice, followed by Damon Duncan.

Leigh Greden said his initial assessment was based on breadth of experience, supervisory experience, staff input and the candidate’s local knowledge. For him, Hall came in first, followed by Ward.

Gloria Black also chose Hall as her first choice, then Duncan.

Ronald Woods was the only commissioner who did not select Hall for either of this top two candidates. His first choice was Duncan, followed by Ward.

Commissioners then elaborated on their preferences.

LaBarre described Nick Coquillard, the housing commission’s interim director, as a tremendous asset, and said that he would best serve the organization in his position as deputy director. Ward was impressive, LaBarre said, with great technical knowledge – he’d be a great problem-solver, but not the kind of person to lead the organization.

Duncan gave a terrific presentation, with a strong vision for the housing commission, LaBarre said, but it needed more specifics. Finally, Hall – his first choice – combined the best qualities of the other candidates, LaBarre said, including technical knowledge and leadership. What tipped it for him, though, was her knowledge of the local community, who the players are, and a sense that she’d be able to quickly jump-start the ability of the housing commission to secure new funding.

Woods spoke next, noting that Duncan – his No. 1 candidate – had a strong track record on redevelopment issues and finding alternative funding streams. Duncan is also extremely well-versed in HUD operations, he said, with a diversity of experience in virtually all aspects of public housing. Woods believes that Duncan would be able to develop strong relationships with critical partners, and that he has the vision to take the housing commission to the next level. He has the capacity to develop the Ann Arbor housing commission into one of the exemplary public housing systems in the state, Woods said.

Ward has many of the same qualities as Duncan, Woods said, and he’d also be a strong leader. Coquillard and Hall would be capable, he added. In Coquillard’s case, there would be some growth needed in executive leadership skills. For Hall, her learning curve about public housing issues would be steeper, Woods said.

Manildi began by saying they didn’t have a bad choice – it was comforting to know that any of the four candidates would do a good job. She agreed with the strengths that other commissioners had cited for the candidates, and said she started by looking at her reservations about them. One concern is that Ward, while extremely capable, didn’t articulate a clear long-term vision, especially as compared to Duncan and Hall.

Regarding Duncan, Manildi said her concern is more intuitive. Staff reaction toward him was mixed, as was hers. His forward-looking view seemed too general and philosophical, not grounded in concrete things that the housing commission must deal with. The other question Manildi had related to Duncan’s leadership style, and whether it would be a good fit for the organization. During his interview, she recalled, he’d made a comment that the hierarchy of the staff needs to be respected. To her, that seemed to indicate a view that differs from the organization’s team-building approach. On the other hand, she allowed, it might indicate a good management style. But these concerns caused her to rank Ward above Duncan.

As for Hall, it’s true that she doesn’t know the regulatory framework in rich detail, Manildi said. But she has enough surrounding knowledge and personal capacity that would allow her to fill in the gaps quickly. Hall also had a good manner, Manildi said, and a tremendous amount of useful knowledge.

Greden said he agreed with what everyone had said. He noted that he worked with Hall for many years – Greden is a former Ann Arbor city councilmember – and his experiences were very positive with her work. The housing commission staff and people who spoke during public commentary at the interviews also were positive toward Hall, he said. She’s extremely passionate about affordable housing. She has a vision, and in the past he’s seen her execute her visions time and again.

Greden said that Hall shares the housing commission’s model for client services, its team approach, and its style of working directly with residents of public housing. One concern is that she doesn’t have as much public housing experience. But she does have a lot of HUD experience, Greden said. He didn’t believe that the previous executive director, Marge Novak, had a lot of public housing experience, either. Yet Novak was wonderful, he said. Hall’s other attributes can overcome that lack of experience. Another positive attribute is that she’s local, Greden said. She knows people in the county and city, knows the properties, and knows staff. She’d hit the ground running, he said.

As for his second choice, Greden said he struggled between Ward or Duncan. Staff input caused him to give Ward the edge.

Gloria Black

Ann Arbor housing commissioner Gloria Black.

Gloria Black praised all four candidates. Coquillard has dedication and drive. Ward has lots of experience with HUD and public housing. Duncan gave a spot-on presentation, and forced Black out of her comfort zone to look in a different direction – moving away from HUD toward other funding sources. But she questioned his commitment, saying it’s not clear if he’s in it for the long haul.

Hall doesn’t have a lot of HUD public housing experience, Black said, but maybe that’s a good thing. It will be important to make finding non-HUD funding a priority, she said.

Returning to Black’s point about Duncan being in it for the long haul, LaBarre recalled that during the interviews each candidate was asked a question to gauge their long-term commitment to the housing commission. Hall gave the best answer, in his view – she wants to retire from the position. That’s good for the stability of the organization, and other candidates weren’t so firm and definitive.

No doubt Hall would be a capable administrator, Woods replied. His comments are not about being negative toward her, he said. But he challenged his fellow commissioners to separate their familiarity with her, and to place all candidates on an equal plane. They need to look at her as if she’s coming from the outside, just like the other candidates.

As for Hall’s willingness to retire from the position, it might indicate stability and commitment, but you could also look at it as a statement about her eagerness to meet new challenges, he said. Woods again expressed concern about the public setting in which they were discussing these candidates, saying that some things aren’t negatives but might be perceived that way.

Woods felt that Ward and Duncan were equal in terms of staff responses – both had positive and negative comments.

Initial Preferences: Leadership, Vision

Much of the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting focused on leadership styles, and candidates’ vision for the housing commission.

Woods responded to comments from other commissioners about Duncan’s lack of specifics in his interview presentation. To Woods, Duncan seemed like he could be a transformative leader. Based on Duncan’s experience in the public housing sector, he used his presentation to elevate above specifics, Woods said. Woods understood Duncan to be saying that if the housing commission didn’t have a transformative vision for its future, it would never achieve dramatic change.

The other candidates didn’t strike Woods as having that same kind of vision and leadership. And he acknowledged that transformative leaders can get into trouble – not that Duncan would, he added. But often members of an organization aren’t interested in change initially, and it can be difficult to deal with that.

On the issue of Duncan’s description of staff hierarchy, Woods saw that as a positive – he was talking about delegating responsibility.

Black agreed in part with Woods’ assessment. She said she didn’t know any of the candidates personally, so she didn’t view Hall as an insider. What she liked about Hall was her “humanness.” While Duncan comes across as extremely powerful, knowledgeable and a visionary, Black wasn’t sure that fit with the housing commission’s customer-service focus.

Duncan’s presentation was sophisticated, but that wasn’t necessarily a positive. Hall, on the other hand, was ready to admit when she didn’t know something, Black said. That’s what an executive should be – someone who doesn’t walk in thinking they know it all, but who’s willing to grow and learn, she said.

As for Ward, Black didn’t find him genuine and she questioned his commitment to the housing commission. It seemed like he was just looking for a job closer to his home, she said. That gave her some reservations.

Manildi responded by saying that she was satisfied that all four candidates would be committed to the work. Ward had noted that he’s worked for seven years to get the Detroit housing commission out of receivership, and she could understand why he’s ready for a change. [Ward has served as director of compliance for the Detroit housing commission.]

However, this discussion was leading her to reconsider her second-choice preference, Manildi said, switching it from Ward to Duncan. She agreed that the housing commission needs someone with vision, and she liked Woods’ characterization of transformative vision. The board has chafed at the constraints of the housing commission’s dependence on HUD, she noted, but it will be years before they can move away from that funding. In the meantime, they’ll need to continue to work with that agency.

Duncan was impressive and able to clearly articulate a vision for the housing commission, Manildi said. But Hall also had a vision, though it was expressed in a quiet way. Hall was able to move back and forth between concrete details and her vision for the future, which suggested to Manildi that Hall has the ability to keep her eye on the long-term goals while engaging in the day-to-day details necessary to reach those goals.

Marta Manildi, Leigh Greden

Members of the Ann Arbor housing commission board: Marta Manildi and Leigh Greden.

Manildi wanted to hear from other commissioners about management styles for the candidates. She noted that when she first started her service on the board, the commission was at the end of a period with “terrible problems,” in no small part because of staffing issues related to low morale, poor organization and bad relationships between staff and residents – lots of management-level problems.

After Marge Novak was hired as director and Nick Coquillard as deputy director, Manildi said, there had been a huge improvement. There’s been a building-up of approach and process, she said, and a sense of cohesiveness and teamwork. Her sense was that this environment would be a natural fit for Hall, and that Hall would immediately begin to work well with staff. ”I have concerns about whether Mr. Duncan can do that,” she said.

Manildi acknowledged that she had known Hall previously – the two were in a Leadership Ann Arbor class years ago – and Manildi had a favorable impression of Hall. But she hasn’t worked with Hall, and felt that she’d have the same kind of favorable impressions of Hall even if they hadn’t met prior to the interview. Manildi also didn’t feel it was a bad thing to bring previous knowledge of a person to bear on the decision. She cited Marge Novak as an example – the board knows Novak well, and based on that, they’d likely hire her again if she applied.

LaBarre said he felt that Hall had a solid vision for the housing commission, though it might have been overshadowed by Duncan’s strong vision for bolder action and change. LaBarre said he hated to use dumb analogies, but he felt Duncan presented the chance for a home run, while Hall was more of a solid double. She’d be a strong and safe choice, he said, while Duncan was bolder and more of a chance for greater change. LaBarre said he wasn’t sure if the housing commission at this point needs something big and bold, which also presents a risk if it doesn’t succeed. He’s inclined to err on the side of strong and certain.

Black noted that she’s not familiar with baseball.

Public Commentary

Public commentary is typically held at the start and conclusion of each meeting. But midway through Wednesday’s meeting, a staff member – noting that she needed to return to work – asked if she could address the board. At that request, Marta Manildi, the board’s president, opened the meeting to public commentary.

Three people spoke during public commentary. Weneshia Brand, Section 8 housing manager, noted that she had met with each of the four candidates, and they were all very good – she was glad she didn’t have to make the hiring decision. From the staff’s perspective, it’s very difficult to support a new manager who doesn’t have public housing experience, she said. It means that the staff has to provide a lot of education and take on more responsibilities. Without specifying anyone by name, Brand said she’d lean toward a candidate with public housing experience or who has the skill to come in and quickly educate themselves. Specifically, the staff doesn’t have the experience to support a director in making grant applications, she noted – that’s a factor.

Another staff member addressed the board, saying that if staff could make their comments anonymously, they’d be more candid. She said she wouldn’t feel comfortable giving her opinion in front of her co-workers.

Suzette Leininger told commissioners that her preferences were for Hall and Duncan. Hall made her feel very comfortable, Leininger said, and if there was a problem, it seemed that Hall would be confident enough to handle it.

Public Commentary: Commissioner Response

Several commissioners responded to the public comments. Black said she gleaned from Brand’s remarks that the new executive director will need to multi-task, and that staff will need support to step outside the box in pursuing a vision for the housing commission. But they will still need to operate with HUD’s rules and regulations, she noted.

LaBarre said he’d like to get more staff input, especially since it seemed that the board wouldn’t be making a decision at the current meeting. Manildi wondered if there was a way for staff to speak confidentially to the board about the candidates, rather than the anonymous comments that had been collected so far.

Woods felt that staff had sufficient opportunity for input – they could always contact human resources if they had additional comments, he said. Greden agreed with that observation. Black wondered why the staff couldn’t simply send commissioners written commentary.

Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s office said that if the board wanted additional staff input, he could work with the human resources staff to figure out a way to get it. He wasn’t sure at this point exactly how to do it, but they could work on it before the board’s next meeting.

Manildi said she’d leave it up to the attorneys to decide on a method, but she wanted to extend the time to get staff comments. This didn’t imply that the board will defer to staff, she noted. But staff have a distinct and, in some ways, better-informed perspective, and it was important to get their input, Manildi said.

Next Steps

Initially the board seemed inclined to narrow the candidate list to two: Duncan and Hall. But commissioners ultimately decided to include Ward among the finalists as well, based in large part on his public housing experience, in light of Brand’s public commentary.

Manildi floated the possibility of scheduling another special meeting to continue their discussion. But the consensus was to add the item to the agenda for the board’s next regular meeting, on Wednesday, Oct. 19. That meeting begins at 6 p.m. at Baker Commons, 106 Packard (the corner of Packard and Main). Baker Commons is one of the housing commission’s properties.

Sharie Sell of the city’s human resources department said she could check references on the three finalists and report back to the board. She will also work on collecting more staff input.

It’s possible – but not certain – that the board will make a final decision at that Oct. 19 meeting. The meeting is open to the public and will include opportunities for public commentary.

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Search Concluding for Ann Arbor City Admin Thu, 14 Jul 2011 04:23:51 +0000 Mary Morgan The two Ann Arbor city administrator finalists – Ellie Oppenheim and Steve Powers – wrapped up their two days of interviews in Ann Arbor with a Wednesday morning session that included presentations by both candidates and questions from city councilmembers.

Sabra Briere, Stephen Rapundalo, Marcia Higgins

From left: Ann Arbor city councilmembers Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) at the July 13 interviews with two finalists for the city administrator job. Higgins is chair of the council search committee.

For their 10-minute presentations, Oppenheim and Powers had been asked to talk about what they’d try to accomplish in their first 90 days on the job. They covered much of the same ground that they’d discussed during Tuesday’s round-robin interviews with councilmembers and senior staff, talking about how they’d familiarize themselves with the organization and the community of Ann Arbor. [See detailed Chronicle coverage of those Tuesday sessions for Powers and Oppenheim.]

When asked during the Q&A to describe the most challenging part of their presentation, both joked that it was handling PowerPoint – Oppenheim had difficulty advancing the slides and eventually enlisted the aid of a city staffer, and Powers’ presentation included a blank slide, because he couldn’t figure out how to insert the image he wanted to use. Powers also noted that it was difficult to know how much of his sense of humor to show in this context – his wife, for example, had advised him to delete some slides that he’d included.

Seven of the 11 councilmembers were on hand for the presentations and follow-up questions: Mayor John Hieftje, Mike Anglin (Ward 5), Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Steve Kunselman (Ward 3), Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1). The other four councilmembers are expected to watch a video of the session prior to Monday’s council meeting. There will be a resolution on the July 18 agenda to nominate a candidate, but no name will be added to the resolution until the evening of the meeting.

Higgins, who’s chair of the search committee, told her council colleagues that on Monday a candidate will be nominated, a discussion of that nomination will take place, and hopefully the council will arrive at a consensus, she said. Or it’s possible that councilmembers will decide they don’t yet have an acceptable candidate, she added, and the process will continue.

However, based on a nearly hour-long discussion on Wednesday among councilmembers, it seems that a consensus is coalescing in favor of Powers – though both finalists were praised. Powers’ management style and familiarity with Michigan’s economy and governance structure were among the reasons cited by those councilmembers who are leaning toward hiring him.

This report briefly summarizes the presentations of Powers and Oppenheim, as well as the questions they were asked on Wednesday morning. The discussion among councilmembers at the end of the session is reported in detail.

Candidate Presentations, Questions

The two finalists gave their presentations and answered questions separately – Steve Powers went first, followed an hour later by Ellie Oppenheim. Per the council’s request, the presentations focused on what the candidates would do during their first 90 days on the job. The sessions were held in the council chambers at city hall, and were broadcast live on Community Television Network (CTN).

Candidate Presentations: Steve Powers

Powers spoke about his desire to familiarize himself with the organization and the community, saying he would immerse himself in that task. He said he knows that the community values process and transparency, and that people have strong opinions – he’d learn to appreciate and understand that. Acknowledging the city’s assets and quality of life, Powers described some of the challenges that Ann Arbor is facing – declining revenues, fewer staff resources, higher costs for health care and pensions, and aging infrastructure, among other things. Showing an image of a duck swimming in water, Powers asked whether the city is like that – calm on the surface, but paddling like crazy underneath.

Powers told councilmembers that he wouldn’t come in with his guns blazing – the “ready, fire, aim” approach isn’t effective, he said. Rather, he’ll talk with councilmembers and others in the community and listen to what their priorities are. For example, he’d likely start in the fall, so his first 90 days would put him into the heart of the next budget cycle – labor negotiations and understanding the needs of employees and management would be critical. His approach would be to “communicate, communicate, communicate” – he’s found that to be successful over the years in Marquette County, where he currently serves as county administrator. Ann Arbor is too complex to assume he could understand those complexities quickly, he said.

“My actions in the first 90 days would confirm that you made the best choice for city administrator,” Powers said, “and that choice is me.”

Candidate Presentations: Ellie Oppenheim

Oppenheim identified five priorities for her first 90 days. First, she’d start fostering important relationships – with councilmembers and staff, but also with community leaders from the university, library, Ann Arbor SPARK, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, merchant groups and others. That would set the foundation for future relationships. Secondly, she’d learn the lay of the land within the organization, including budget forecasts, memorandums of understanding with labor, infrastructure needs, and any emerging issues.

Community engagement would be important, too. She’d make herself as accessible as possible – for example, attending a game at Michigan Stadium with 109,900 of her “new friends,” she said as she held up a University of Michigan T-shirt. She’d visit the surrounding communities of Saline, Dexter and Chelsea, and would be a frequent customer at local businesses and restaurants. Her fourth priority would be to foster collaboration, building bridges to maximize connections at the county, state and federal levels.

Finally, Oppenheim said all those things would accelerate her learning curve, giving her a framework to meet the council’s expectations and the community’s needs. At the same time, she’d stay personally grounded by her two pillars of stress management: getting regular exercise, and planning her next vacation – she looked forward to a trip at Thanksgiving to visit her family. She thanked councilmembers for their consideration.

Candidate Presentations: Questions from Council

Following their presentations, each finalist was asked the same set of nine questions by councilmembers. Several of the questions related to the presentations – what had been most challenging about preparing them, for example – and more broadly about whether the candidates were comfortable speaking in public, or publicly discussing controversial topics. Questions also covered other types of communication, eliciting details about the ways in which Powers and Oppenheim would seek input and convey information in different contexts.

Many of the candidates’ responses repeated themes and examples that they had provided during round-robin interviews on Tuesday morning. Readers can find detailed Chronicle accounts of those interviews here: Steve Powers; Ellie Oppenheim.

Consultant Feedback, Council Discussion

After hearing from the candidates, councilmembers were debriefed by Scott Reilly of Affion Public, the consultants hired to help conduct the search. Councilmembers then discussed the two candidates for about a half hour before adourning.

Reilly said he’d met with the city’s executive staff – including city attorney Stephen Postema and Barnett Jones, head of public safety services, who both had participated in Tuesday’s interviews – to get feedback on the candidates. Reilly summarized key strengths identified by the executive staff for each candidate.

Ellie Oppenheim, Scott Reilly

Ellie Oppenheim, a finalist for Ann Arbor city administrator, talks with Scott Reilly, a consultant with Affion Public, the firm hired by city council to help conduct the job search.

The executive staff found that Oppenheim was very articulate, and a good communicator. They liked that she has diverse experience in large organizations – that’s a valuable asset that she could bring to the city. She also has high energy. “She was described as a pistol,” Reilly said. The executive staff felt that Oppenheim was results-oriented, and seemed comfortable in a leadership role.

For Powers, the executive staff liked the fact that he gave very specific examples in response to behavioral questions, Reilly reported. They felt his responses were very thoughtful and down to earth, and that he was candid and straightforward. They liked his answers about how he communicates. Stylistically, that way of communication seemed natural for him – it wasn’t something he learned in a book.

The executive staff also appreciated Powers’ management style and approach, which would be good for team-building. Though running a county is different than being a city administrator, the county board of commissioners is similar in size to the city council, and Powers’ experience collaborating with department heads would be an asset. Lastly, his specific experience with finance and economic development in Michigan’s current climate was something the executive staff valued as well, Reilly said.

In addition to this feedback, Reilly said the candidates were holding a meet-and-greet for city staff that morning. He planned to collect input from that, as well as from the councilmembers.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) asked if the staff had raised any alarms about either candidate. Reilly replied that the executive staff recognized there wouldn’t be a perfect candidate – there never is. The two candidates had different styles, and would be different in their approach to getting things done. The staff recognizes that there’s going to be a change, regardless of who’s hired, Reilly said.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) asked Reilly to review the search process so far. [The council voted to hire Affion in April 2011, based on a recommendation from the search committee led by Marcia Higgins (Ward 4). The firm is being paid a fee of $18,000.]

Reilly described how he and other Affion staff had spent several days in Ann Arbor meeting with the council and staff, and holding public forums to get input on the qualities that the community wanted in its next city administrator. The consultants then went through the recruiting process – proactively contacting people who might be a good fit but who weren’t actively seeking jobs, as well as getting responses to a job posting that was up for about 50 days.

Affion interviewed all candidates who met the minimum qualifications, then scheduled formal interviews with a subset of that group. The candidates were asked for written responses to questions, including why they were interested in this job, what experiences they’ve had in building community consensus, and how they’ve handled finances in a tight economy. There was another round of interviews based on the written responses, then a fourth round with Reilly, who said he was looking to see if candidates would be a good fit for the Ann Arbor community and the organization. The firm also conducted criminal, educational and media background checks, and checked references. From about 60 applicants, Affion winnowed the pool down to 8-10, from which councilmembers chose two finalists. The rest of the process has been public, he said.

Council Discussion – Process

After Reilly’s summary, Higgins told her colleagues that they’d discuss the rating sheets that each councilmember filled out, but they wouldn’t make a nomination at that point. There will be a resolution on the council’s July 18 agenda to nominate a candidate, she said, but no name would be added to the resolution until that meeting. This will give councilmembers who didn’t participate in the interviews time to watch the tape of Wednesday’s presentations, she said. [Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) did not attend the candidate interview sessions on Tuesday or Wednesday.]

At Monday’s council meeting, a candidate will be nominated, a discussion of that nomination will take place, and hopefully councilmembers will arrive at a consensus, Higgins said. Or it’s possible that they’ll decide they don’t yet have an acceptable candidate, she added, and the process will continue.

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) wondered how appropriate it was to put forward a candidate’s name, if in the end the council can’t reach consensus. He said he was looking at it both from the applicants’ perspective as well as a procedural perspective. What message does that convey to the public?

Higgins said that was the point of this discussion. Councilmembers would either see one of the candidates clearly rising and consensus building around that person, “or we won’t.” It’s difficult for candidates and councilmembers to hold this evaluation in a public forum, she said. Not every candidate will have only positive attributes, but councilmembers need to be respectful in their discussion, and make their views known in as positive a way as possible. Which candidate has the better qualities?

Mayor John Hieftje clarified that the rating sheets were only used to evaluate two aspects – the candidate’s presentation, and the interview.

For the purposes of this report, comments from Wednesday’s discussion are organized by councilmember.

Council Discussion – Impressions of Candidates: Sabra Briere

Briere noted that these two candidates are very different in style, and in their ability to answer questions quickly and thoroughly. She had asked a question about which previous positions they had held that related most closely to the city administrator’s position, and why. Both candidates gave thorough answers, Briere said, but Powers drilled down to precise examples quickly, without much prompting. And in a later conversation, he had grasped some of the challenges that Ann Arbor is facing now, and saw those not just as challenges, but as opportunities. That’s a positive thing for her, Briere said.

John Hieftje, Ellie Oppenheim

Mayor John Hieftje talks with Ellie Oppenheim, a finalist for the Ann Arbor city administrator job.

It was clear that he’s not as comfortable giving a public presentation, and not as polished as a public speaker, Briere observed. But she thought his ability to communicate was better in small groups and one-on-one. When he relaxed, he was clearly very knowledgeable and comfortable.

Briere also liked the fact that he’s data driven. He can look at situations from a high level, but also identify practical steps to take. She felt that Oppenheim would be a more dynamic leader, and more open to the challenges of implementing innovation and change. But she gave Powers slightly higher marks. It was hard, because both candidates got high marks, she said.

Both Powers and Oppenheim worked hard to understand Ann Arbor, Briere said. She was impressed with Oppenheim’s presentation, with very specific information about Ann Arbor. That showed Briere that Oppenheim had spent time doing her homework. Powers had looked at Ann Arbor’s economy, and understood the pressures on it. Both candidates recognized that they need to engage the community in a variety of ways, Briere said. In an earlier conversation, Powers had brought up the fact that economic development doesn’t currently have a coherent focus within the city government, and he asked if councilmembers wanted that effort more in the hands of the city. That was an interesting question to bring forward, Briere said.

Council Discussion – Impressions of Candidates: Marcia Higgins

Higgins agreed with Briere’s observations, especially regarding public speaking. When Powers shared that he only makes formal presentations about six times a year, that helped her understand why he might feel uncomfortable. He’s very knowledgeable, and when he is focused on one person, Higgins said, his communication skills amplify considerably.

She said she enjoyed being able to choose between two highly qualified candidates. They had two very different ways of presenting publicly. To her, it’s a question of who fits best with the community. “And that’s a decision we’ll be making Monday night.”

Higgins reported that both candidates were very close in her ratings. Powers ranked just a little higher. That has a lot to do with the trust he talks about – building trust with elected officials and department heads, working collaboratively, and owning up to his failures. She was impressed when he acknowledged a shortcoming, and that he could clearly articulate what he’d learned from his mistakes. Higgins said she also appreciated that Oppenheim could think quickly on her feet – that trait was evident from situations that Oppenheim described during Tuesday’s interviews, she said.

Council Discussion – Impressions of Candidates: Stephen Rapundalo

Rapundalo felt that Powers made his points much more quickly, and answered questions more directly. Powers engaged people well in formal and informal settings – he wore his role and his background on his sleeve. Yes, he was less polished, Rapundalo said, but “what you see is what you get.” His ability to transcend various types of people seemed more apparent, more natural in terms of his style. What the city lacked in the past was someone who could really engage in the community, Rapundalo said. Powers would bring that as an asset.

Rapundalo indicated that the candidates were very close, but in the end, he said he’d give Powers the nod. The fact that Powers is data driven is “near and dear to my heart,” Rapundalo said, though it could be done to a fault “as some people keep reminding me.” Reilly had mentioned that the executive staff likes Powers’ financial background, Rapundalo noted, but his human resources background is also important, especially in contract negotiations. That’s a clear asset, Rapundalo said.

It’s not that Oppenheim didn’t have that experience too, Rapundalo added, but the expertise was more apparent with Powers. His knowledge about Michigan’s economic landscape is also important, Rapundalo said. It’s not the only reason to hire Powers, but it’s an advantage. Different dynamics are at play in the state and in Ann Arbor, and the city administrator will need to maneuver in that environment. It takes quite a learning curve to do that, Rapundalo said – it’s not something you can pick up in 90 days, or even a year.

He recalled Powers saying that once the council makes the policy decision, the city administrator will execute it – and it should be done in a unified manner. That’s key, Rapundalo said, and he hadn’t heard that stated before. It’s a thoughtful approach for managing and communicating – something that the council places high value on.

Council Discussion – Impressions of Candidates: Mike Anglin

Both candidates were very close in their ability to express who they are, Anglin said, and there are very clear differences between them. They have different leadership styles, and the scale they’ve worked at was different – one of them, for example, worked at large organizations, where there weren’t major budget constraints. The question is who would fit best in Ann Arbor.

Steve Powers, Mike Anglin

Steve Powers, left, a finalist for the Ann Arbor city administrator job, talks with Ward 5 councilmember Mike Anglin in the city council chambers on Wednesday.

Powers made a point that he’d only worked in situations where an organization was contracting, Anglin said, and that made an impression. That’s where Ann Arbor finds itself. Yet Powers spoke to what the city has to offer – Powers was very buoyant, Anglin said. Ann Arbor residents view themselves as far from defeated, and Powers understands that.

Powers also spoke about driving down decision-making – everyone is important to the organization, including front line employees. Powers has experience in government, staying with an organization over a long period. He helped turn around the local economy when many said it wasn’t possible, Anglin noted. Overall, Anglin found the match for Ann Arbor was stronger in Powers.

Regarding their presentations to councilmembers, Anglin said he rated both candidates evenly. Both currently have jobs that require them to be good comunicators. Anglin said there were certain words that the candidates used that influenced him. With Powers, it was the “ready, fire, aim” concept – describing a common approach that Powers felt should be avoided. Both candidates worked in university communities, both presented a code of ethics, and both said they could take orders and implement decisions, Anglin noted – that was terrific to hear. The fit is close, Anglin concluded, but he’s leaning toward Powers.

Council Discussion – Impressions of Candidates: John Hieftje

Hieftje said he was pleased that either candidate could do the job. That’s always a good sign. There were striking differences in background and decision-making – two completely different styles. Hieftje said he saw very narrow differences between the two, and it was a close call. He wanted to think about those styles over the next few days, and think about what would be a good fit. “I still have a lot of thinking to do over the weekend,” he said.

He reminded his council colleagues that it was their job to make policy decisions. The important decisions for a city administrator will have a lot to do with staff, he said, and that will be determined by small group or one-on-one communication and assessment. That’s a big part of the administrator’s role. It’s harder for councilmembers to assess that one-on-one style, but it’s very important, as is the ability to lead a competent staff.

Regarding Wednesday’s presentations, Hieftje said that one candidate had better presentation skills – he didn’t mention which candidate – but that his scoring of their skills was very close.

Council Discussion – Impressions of Candidates: Stephen Kunselman

Like his council colleagues, Kunselman observed that both candidates are qualified. A lot of people from the West Coast live in Ann Arbor, he observed, as do people originally from northern Michigan. [Most of Oppenheim's previous experience has been in California and Nevada, while Powers has spent the past 15 years in Marquette – in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.] The thing that struck Kunselman most was when Powers said he had the trust and respect of his board, which has four of the original nine county commissioners who hired him. That’s telling, Kunselman said, when you can gain the trust and respect of officials who didn’t hire you. It shows an ability to truly work with the community and elected officials that have divergent constituencies.

Continuity in government is very important, Kunselman said. Things don’t get accomplished in a short period. The question about Oppenheim is whether she has the ability to work long-term with elected officials.

Kunselman was also impressed that Powers took a risk of not having notes for his presentation. [Powers told councilmembers that he'd left his notes at the hotel, and had decided not to retrieve them.] It showed Powers’ ability to think on his feet – we all find ourselves in that position, Kunselman said. For her part, Oppenheim was very informative, and had a different style, Kunselman said, but her presentation was more scripted. Both worked well, Kunselman said, but personally he thought the candidate who took a risk was the person who impressed him.

Council Discussion – Impressions of Candidates: Tony Derezinski

These two candidates presented classic alternatives, Derezinski said. One candidate had worked for larger entities, but never led one. [Oppenheim has worked in significantly larger organizations than Powers has. Most recently she was CEO of Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority – the top leadership role for that organization.] The other candidate is a person who’s been with an organization for long period, who’s the person where the buck stopped, Derezinski said. A lot of Oppenheim’s experiences are very valuable, he said, especially in an academic community. But Marquette – where Powers works – is also an academic community, he noted.

Looking at the two presentations, Derezinski noted that one style covered a lot of different points (Oppenheim), while the other was minimalist (Powers). But listening is important – given those two styles, in which style is listening more important? That’s critical, Derezinski said, because you can learn so much more from listening than from speaking. Is there a dialogue? That’s critical in terms of picking up nuances of what others are saying, and working that into your decision-making. Derezinski indicated that there were a lot of issues to weigh as he considered these candidates.

Next Steps

Four councilmembers – Sandi Smith (Ward 1), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) – did not participate in the interviews on Tuesday or Wednesday, though Hohnke attended a Tuesday evening reception for the candidates. As the Wednesday morning discussion wrapped up, mayor John Hieftje said the four who didn’t attend had good reasons for not participating. Hieftje did not elaborate on that, but said the four absent councilmembers would be able to watch the video of Wednesday’s presentations and discussion prior to Monday’s council meeting.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said she’d been in touch with Smith to brief her as much as possible – hopefully everyone was trying to do that for the councilmembers who didn’t attend, she said. [Smith is recovering from surgery.] Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) noted that everyone had received the same materials on the candidates, even if they hadn’t attended the interviews.

Wednesday morning’s session will be replayed several times on Community Television Network (CTN) Channel 16 prior to Monday evening’s council meeting:

  • Friday, July 15 at 1:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, July 16 at 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, July 17 at 5 p.m.
  • Monday, July 18 at 10 a.m.

The session will also be available from CTN’s video on demand service.

The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public organizations like the city of Ann Arbor government. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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City Admin Finalist: Steve Powers Wed, 13 Jul 2011 10:34:45 +0000 Dave Askins On Tuesday morning, Ann Arbor chief of police Barnett Jones received an update suggesting that his patrol officers are enforcing the law uniformly across all vehicles. A taxicab carrying the two finalists for the Ann Arbor city administrator’s position – Ellie Oppenheim and Steve Powers – had executed a rolling stop, and was pulled over. Powers reported that the officer was professional and matter-of-fact.

The cab was driving the two finalists to city hall, where they were interviewed by city councilmembers and senior staff – including Jones – 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.

Steve Powers Ann Arbor city administrator finalist

Steve Powers, one of two finalists for the Ann Arbor city administrator job, during an interview with city councilmembers on July 12.

In addition to Jones, 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, and city attorney Stephen Postema.

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 Powers. A separate article describes how Oppenheim responded to the interview questions. Because candidates often offered similar examples as answers to different sets of questions, their responses are summarized thematically.

Participatory Management Style? (Question from Candidate)

Towards the end of each of the three interview sessions, time was allotted for candidates to ask questions of the panel. Powers asked all three panels a question about the management style the city of Ann Arbor is seeking. He told them if a county administrator like him was on their short list – he’s been the county administrator of Marquette County, Mich., since 1996 – then that suggested to him councilmembers were looking for someone who had a more participatory, facilitative management style as opposed to a more a strong, CEO-type style.

Participatory Management Style: Background

By way of background, the connection of a county administrator to that management style is related to the nature of county governments as set forth in Michigan state statutes.

As Powers brought out during his interviews, county administrators in Michigan lead organizations that have several department heads who are elected officials, and who are accountable first to voters, not to the county administrator. In Marquette County, those include: the prosecuting attorney; sheriff; clerk; treasurer; register of deeds; drain commissioner, mine inspector; and district court judges. “They don’t have to do what I say,” explained Powers. “They have to be respectful at budget time, but they can do what they want.” In Michigan, county administrators are not strong CEO-types – simply by dint of the statutory structure – even if someone had that type of personality, said Powers.

For that reason, he said, a county administrator has to use a style of persuasion and logic as opposed to “do it because I say so.” Powers described how he had worked to build and maintain trust of the county department heads who are elected officials and the county board. He’d achieved that through respecting boundaries and recognizing the statutory authority of the elected officials. Building and maintaining that trust was something that Powers offered, when asked by the panel to name his “greatest career achievement to date.”

Also related to participatory management style, Powers described how over the last seven to eight years of his 15-year tenure, he has brought his management team into the budget process. “My budget is their recommended budget as well,” he said. The management team is also given “decision shares” on how to move forward.

Participatory Management Style: Council Response

What did councilmembers have to say in response to the question from Powers? Were they looking for a participatory and facilitative management style? Was that the current management culture at the city?

Mayor John Hieftje responded by saying that the process by which the city’s budget is developed has changed, which is indicative of overall changes in the culture, he said. The city administrator previously would just drop the budget in the council’s lap, he said. Now it’s a much longer interaction with the council. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) added that this year the council is already starting to talk about the next budget.

Responding to remarks by Hieftje and Higgins about the budget, Powers said he’d started paying attention to Ann Arbor in 2009, and using some of the strategies that then-city administrator Roger Fraser had implemented.

On a different panel from Hieftje, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) responded to the question from Powers about the management style that the council is looking for, by saying, “Oh, that’s not easy! There are 11 of us. Each of us will have our own vision.” She told Powers that the council did not collaborate on their vision for a management style, even though they’d put together a job description for city administrator to be posted. There are also 114,000 residents to be considered, she said, or at least 85,000 – even if students aren’t included in the statistic.

Briere told Powers she’s looking for excellent communication skills from top to bottom, with the staff and with the public. The person the council chooses needs to be able to provide background so that the council can make a reasoned decision. The council has tried to talk about setting priorities for the budget, but she allowed: “We’re not there, yet.” However, she cautioned that this doesn’t mean councilmembers want a weak administrator. They’re looking for someone who is strong.

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) agreed with Briere. The council is looking for someone with a strong chief executive background, but who can use other qualities as the circumstance requires – someone who has “people skills.” Every day the job will require something a little different, Rapundalo ventured. For someone to come in and say, “This is how we’re going to do it,” Rapundalo told Powers that would not work – “Not in this town!”

Powers followed up Rapundalo’s statement by saying that based on his background study, he had the impression that Ann Arbor city residents value process and transparency. Briere and Rapundalo agreed that was true. Briere joked that if Powers could be made of glass, with every thought, motive and concept completely visible, there are people who would still question whether everything he had done was transparent. Rapundalo also said there are times when you can only take transparency so far, due to other constraints. But he said Briere was right. Briere added it would be good to have the skill to change that dynamic, to create that trust – within the organization and in the community. That would be extraordinarily desirable, she said. Powers replied that it would be a great goal to strive for.

On the third panel, Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) said that Ann Arbor is at a critical threshhold time, though it’s in good shape compared to other cities. Ann Arbor is in a process of change, so it needs “someone who can enhance change and get it going.” Derezinski advised that the new city administrator needs to be able to take some risks: “Not all your decisions will be popular.” The city has had good leadership, he said, but times change and the new administrator needs to help the city manage change.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) responded by saying that he liked what Powers had to say about driving down decision-making to lower levels of the organization. It’s middle management that really runs any good organization, Anglin said. You have to respect staff enough to let them do their jobs. Anglin said he commended Powers, because that’s the approach Powers had expressed to the panel.

Motivation for Ann Arbor Job

A range of questions led to discussion of Powers’ motivation for wanting the specific job of Ann Arbor city administrator.

Motivation for Ann Arbor Job: Timing

Responding to a questions about why he’s interested in this particular position, Powers said he’d promised his youngest daughter that he wouldn’t disrupt her middle school and high school years with a move. She graduated from high school this year, so he’d met that promise. It’s a good time for him to be looking. He pointed to the long tenure of former Ann Arbor city administrator Roger Fraser and said he felt Ann Arbor would be a great place to live for him and his family.

Motivation for Ann Arbor Job: Leaving

The decision to look for other opportunities besides his current position in Marquette was the one Powers named as the most difficult decision he’d made in the last six months – he’d be leaving a good situation.

He said he was very fortunate – on the nine-person county board of commissioners, four were on the board that hired him. The former chair, he would consider a good friend. He has a lot of respect for the people he works with. It would be difficult to leave what he helped to build, especially the professional and personal relationships he had there. And Marquette County is actually looking at a promising economic and budget future – there’s a valuable deposit of nickel there, and Rio Tinto [a mining company] is a few months away from drilling it. That alone could increase the tax base by 50%, he said.

Motivation for Ann Arbor Job: Professional Growth

Powers called the Ann Arbor job an opportunity to grow. He said when he was 20 years old he decided he wanted to be a city manger and he’d attended the best school for that to earn his masters of public administration – University of Kansas. He’s been working in local government for 25 years, so he’s looking at the next challenge – he’s still striving. He told the panel he is 48 years old, so he doesn’t have too many more spots left. He’d always figured he would bounce around staying 4-5 years in a spot, climbing the ladder, but it hadn’t turned out that way, he said.

Motivation for Ann Arbor Job: Ann Arbor Is Ann Arbor

Powers told the panel he knows Michigan, knows the head of the Michigan Municipal League, and knows his way to Lansing. Given that he’d gone to school to be a city manager, “Flopping over to the city side [from the county] has always been of interest to me,” he said. It would be a way to continue to strive and challenge himself and to “recharge my professional batteries.”

He told the panel that Ann Arbor is attractive to him “because it’s Ann Arbor.” Ann Arbor is one of five areas that have done relatively well economically, he said, the others being Marquette, Traverse City, Midland, and Grand Rapids. So while Ann Arbor has challenges, it has opportunities and advantages, too. He pointed to the University of Michigan as a key. He pointed to running out of downtown office space, a problem Ann Arbor reportedly faces, as a great problem to have. To be able to take Ann Arbor forward would be a great professional opportunity, he said.

Motivation for Ann Arbor Job: Ann Arbor Is Not Minnesota

The geography of Powers’ career history also came up in the context of the position he held in Minnesota as coordinator for Martin County, Minn., from 1994-1996. He learned humility at that job, he said. His first task was find his own office – there was no physical office space. He realized he had to do all those things himself. He said when he accepted the job in Minnesota, he was losing his job in Oregon due to reduced funding, which was ultimately related to federal prohibitions on logging in the spotted owl habitat. [From 1987-1994, Powers served as the assistant county administrator and assistant to the county administrator for Jackson County, Oregon. His responsibilities there included managing human resources, labor relations, risk management, and organizational development and training.]

His boss was working with him to give him time to find other work, Powers said. The Minnesota position turned out to be a smaller job and the community was smaller than he’d realized. That’s why he was there only two years. He’d learned to balance urgency and doing his homework, he said. He related the description of his tenure in Minnesota partly due to a remark from Ann Arbor police chief Barnett Jones, who ventured: “Everyone has done something that doesn’t turn out to be right.”

Previous Experience: Parallels to Ann Arbor

In response to a question about how his previous positions related to the Ann Arbor city administrator job, Powers said all of his career stops helped, but the most pertinent was his current one as Marquette County administrator. Despite the smaller size of the community there, he cited the similar community characteristics: (1) a university plays a large role [Northern Michigan University for Marquette, and University of Michigan for Ann Arbor]; and (2) the region lost a major employer [K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Marquette, and Pfizer in Ann Arbor].

Previous Experience: K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base – Morale

Kenneth Ingalls Sawyer was a former Marquette County road commissioner who originally proposed an airport for the area, about 20 miles south of the city of Marquette. K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base was used as part of the strategic nuclear deterrent and in fighter-interceptor defense during the cold war era. It was closed in 1995. It previously employed around 10,000 Air Force personnel.

In the course of his responses to several of the questions posed by the interview panels, Powers cited issues related to Marquette County’s involvement with the economic redevelopment of K.I. Sawyer. He described how the county board of commissioners had decided – about a month before he was hired – that the county would play a role in the redevelopment of the base.

It was a controversial decision, he said, with some board members adamantly opposed to the idea that this was part of the appropriate function of a county government. But the board was under extreme pressure to do something. As a result of that decision, there were concerns about financial obligations that would be stretched.

He gave that situation as an example when asked to describe a time when morale was poor and what he did to handle it. He also cited the base redevelopment to illustrate how he kept his direct reports motivated. Morale was low for many county staff due to the extra financial burden and the fact that some felt that air base redevelopment was not part of a traditional county government structure. If morale was not low, Powers said, then staff were not enthusiastic.

What he did, he said, was to say to his staff: This was a decision of the county board and here’s the reasons the board thinks this will help the community if we implement this successfully. He told the staff that he knew the county could implement it successfully, because there was a good team in place. The state was involved for a short period of time, and there were some state staff involved for a while, but ultimately it was county staff who had to step up – the county’s attorney, planner, finance staff and the administrator’s office.

So the first thing to establish was that the policy decision was already made, and it had been made by elected policymakers. Whining and complaining wouldn’t change that. He told his staff that he had confidence in them that they could implement the decision and he would support them, with additional resources or a change in resources. But he told them he expected they’d have to work hard to accomplish it.

It caused some staff to grumble, Powers allowed. But he appealed to a higher calling: Don’t you want to be a part of the biggest challenge this community might ever face and do what you went to school to do? Overall that worked well, he said. But he allowed that a couple of people left.

As the project went along, he said he shared the success with the staff and they saw it was an opportunity for them to grow, a chance to do something different and challenging and to be recognized for the accomplishment. It became an award-winning project and helped the county budget.

Part of the base conversion was to move the county airport out to the location of the base, eliminating county general fund support for the airport. Powers said ultimately he felt like good decisions and recommendations to the county board were made on the reuse of the base – on utilities and housing and the role of the county in redevelopment of the base. More people are working there now than when it was announced for closure, he said. There’s better air service. He concluded: It’s been a successful project. He summarized the approach toward maintaining morale by saying: Tell ‘em why, tell ‘em this is the reality, and keep pushing towards the goals.

Previous Experience: K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base – Unexpected Challenge

Powers also cited the K.I. Sawyer base conversion when asked to give an example of something that was unexpected as far as the scope of challenges. He said his initial thought was: I’ll show these Yoopers how to do an Air Force base conversion! He quipped that he had his International City/County Management Association (ICMA) air base reuse handbook, and brought it to his office and plopped it down. He realized it was bigger and much more complex than he was expecting. He said he learned a better appreciation for knowing what he didn’t know and when to ask those who do know. He learned not to be afraid to look at how other people are doing something, he said.

Previous Experience: K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base – Personal Challenge

Powers also gave the K.I. Sawyer base conversion as the answer to a question about his biggest challenge in his current position. “It was a huge presence,” he said, with its 10,000 active military personnel. And part of the challenge was in handling the dissent from those who did not think the county’s role in the base’s redevelopment was appropriate. The challenge was to get everyone – including elected department officials – to work together on that, he said. It was a multi-year project that consumed most of his time, he said. The county’s probate judge, who is one of the stronger personalities in the community, at one point made the comment that the county was on auto-pilot, because all the focus was on Sawyer, Powers said.

That was a judge who was not supportive of the county’s involvement with Sawyer – he felt the county should have stuck to its knitting. The judge was tired of seeing nothing on the county board’s agenda except the airport. The judge went to the board chair and said Powers should be fired. Obviously, Powers said, he and that judge didn’t see eye-to-eye.

But Powers said that he would talk to that judge and respect his statutory authority. The judge was very data driven and Powers said he tried to relate to him on that level, and on the judge’s interest in the juvenile justice system. Now, 10-15 years later, Powers said he talks to that judge about the budget. Last Friday, the two had met and he shared with Powers what he was planning to say at the budget meeting that Powers was missing to interview for the Ann Arbor job. And Powers shared with him what he would have said if he could have attended.

Previous Experience: Northern Michigan University

Powers was asked about the university’s role in the community. Powers said the president of Northern Michigan University is one of his references – he’s in the Rotary Club with the president. They weren’t linked elbow to elbow, he said, but the two work together on the economic development organization – Lake Superior Community Partnership.

The president of NMU initiated meetings of the mayor, city manager, county board chair, Powers and some of the president’s leadership team to talk about town and gown issues. Powers said he works more closely with some of the university’s leadership team than with the president. The university is active in helping the county with the K.I. Sawyer base conversion.

NMU is looking at moving its aircraft maintenance program out to K.I. Sawyer. There’s a small aircraft maintenance company, a part of American Eagle, that hires every graduate of the NMU aircraft maintenance program. It’s small, but a nice program for getting students placed. One of the retired provosts is active in efforts to promote “green aviation.” There’s been cooperation with the airports in Houghton and in Escanaba on a privately-led effort to develop green aviation industries, and the retired provost is a part of that.

Long before he arrived, Powers said, NMU was established as a successful public safety academy. The sheriff, police and prosecutor are instructors at the public safety academy, Powers said. Powers is an adjunct professor in public administration, and uses interns from the political science, public administration department.

Lack of Communication: Rehiring Retired Employees

Asked to provide an example of a situation when he felt he did not communicate well, Powers described a decision to rehire employees who had previously retired. He gave the same example when invited to describe a time when he had to make a decision, but didn’t have the benefit of plans and policies or complete information.

His recommendation to the county board (which it followed) was to enact a policy of allowing the rehiring of retired employees – back in 2004, when the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (MERS) dropped its earnings limitation. The county’s HR director came to him, Powers said, and explained that allowing retired employees to be rehired was a way the county could save some money – if a previously retired employee had started drawing their pension, the county didn’t have to make a contribution. Based on that, he recommended the policy to the board. In hindsight, Powers said, he should have taken the time to do additional due diligence. He should also have recognized that he needed to communicate earlier with a stronger effort. Just because he was tired of talking about it, did not mean that it didn’t need to be talked about, he said.

The decision had resulted in a change on the county board and was an issue in the county prosecutor’s race. Asked what the urgency was to make that decision before gathering more information, Powers explained it was the context of needing to get the savings for the 2005 budget. It’s still having repercussions seven years later, Powers said, and it was a decision made without complete understanding that he should have had as the board’s chief policy advisor.

Sense of Urgency, Excitement, Creativity

Asked to describe a time when he had a greater sense of urgency than those around him and what he did about it, Powers described a decision he made to eliminate the position of a department head who oversaw three key departments: building codes, facilities, planning. He said that despite the talk when he’d been hired about the difficult budget situation, he didn’t see evidence of much action on tough budgets.

So when the department head retired, he made the strategic decision to eliminate the position immediately – he didn’t wait until budget time. Because that department head was a good manager, he said, the three lower level administrators of those departments were ready for more responsibility and were ready to step up. Powers described it as driving decisions down to the lowest levels in the organization.

Asked what the immediate reaction was, Powers said it was positive, but allowed that there was some pushback. Sometimes he gets pushback from one of the three department heads. But the decision was certainly positive with the rest of the organization, Powers said, because people saw that he was going to do what he’s said he was going to do when he interviewed for the job.

Asked for an example of a situation where he created excitement about a repetitive routine, Powers described how his basic approach to repetitive routines is to ask: Do we really have to do this? Maybe we don’t have to do it at all, or maybe we can automate it.

But as an example, he said the task of performing inspections for compliance to building codes was perceived as mundane and repetitive by staff. Contractors felt that the county was unresponsive and bureaucratic, he said. There was not an excitement about helping the customer, he allowed. So the board created a task force to look at building codes and see how the county could be more responsive. The recommendation of the task force was to establish 72 hours as a turnaround time. The building codes management was working with the information systems (IS) department to get a new software package, which was exciting for IS. And the 72-hour turnaround time generated excitement for inspectors because they had standards to meet.

Asked for an example of a creative idea that he implemented and its impact on the bottom line, Powers described how he was now collaborating with another county with tax appraisals. There are fewer and fewer people with the necessary formal accounting certification to sign off on the equalization for the county, he explained. About seven years ago, when the equalization director retired, he decided that the county would try to find a retired assessor with the appropriate certification, and offer essentially to pay that person $30,000 a year for their signature. The alternative, he said, was to pay a $120,000 salary with benefits. So that’s what Marquette County did.

Then that person left, and he looked again to obtain the same kind of services. It turned out that the person who fit retired from neighboring Delta County. That left Delta County in the same situation. So Marquette and Delta counties both share the same assessor, both paying essentially for a signature.

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City Admin Finalist: Ellie Oppenheim Wed, 13 Jul 2011 03:17:46 +0000 Mary Morgan 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.

Ellie Oppenheim

Ellie Oppenheim, one of two finalists for the Ann Arbor city administrator job, during an interview with city councilmembers on July 12.

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.

Brief Background

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.

Building Relationships

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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Transitions for Washtenaw County Staff Tue, 14 Jun 2011 16:19:07 +0000 Mary Morgan Over the past two months, more than a half dozen people holding key positions in Washtenaw County government have left or announced plans to leave their jobs, for a variety of reasons. Most notably, the county’s deputy administrator, Bill Reynolds – who’s been on medical leave since April – has turned in his resignation, effective June 17.

Wes Prater, Bill Reynolds

In this Chronicle file photo from May 2010, Bill Reynolds, right, talks with Washtenaw County commissioner Wes Prater. Reynolds was interviewing for the deputy county administrator job – he was hired for that position in June 2010, but has been on medical leave since April. He recently resigned, effective June 17.

Two other departures were announced at the June 1 board of commissioners meeting and June 2 working session: Joanna Bidlack, who has served as support staff for the board for several years; and Anya Dale, with the county’s economic development and energy department, who has been taking the lead in a Washtenaw Avenue corridor improvement project.

Dale has accepted a job at the University of Michigan’s Office of Campus Sustainability. She also serves as a board member of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) – that position is appointed by the city of Ann Arbor’s mayor, and Dale says she plans to remain on the AATA board. Bidlack, who recently completed a master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University, has taken a job at General Electric’s operation in Van Buren Township.

Reynolds, who was hired as the county’s No. 2 administrator a year ago, began paid medical leave in early April, citing post-military issues. [He was hired at a salary of $138,000.] On Tuesday, county administrator Verna McDaniel told The Chronicle that Reynolds turned in his resignation in late May, effective June 17. He has been interviewing for county administrator jobs elsewhere, and had been one of three finalists for the county administrator job in St. Croix County, Wisc. When The Chronicle has pressed for additional details about Reynolds’ leave of absence, county officials have characterized it as a personnel matter and declined further comment.

The staff changes come a year after the May 2010 retirement of county administrator Bob Guenzel, who had worked for the county for 37 years. Now under the leadership of McDaniel – herself a long-time county employee – the county is also addressing a roughly $17 million deficit for 2012 and 2013, and is undertaking some departmental reorganizations in part as a response to declining property tax revenues. The county employs 1,331 people, including elected officials and 1,090 employees who are represented by unions.

In interviews this week with The Chronicle, both McDaniel and Conan Smith – chair of the board of commissioners – said this kind of turnover has been anticipated, in light of the county’s financial situation and the overall economy. There’s an understanding among employees that the workforce will be shrinking, Smith said, and that if someone finds an opportunity elsewhere, they’re taking it.

McDaniel said there is no mass exodus of employees, but acknowledged that there will be additional departures – including retirements – before the end of the year. She’s developing recommendations regarding her administrative team, in light of the recent departures, and plans to update the board at their Thursday, June 16 working session.

Transition from the Top Down

Smith said he wasn’t overly concerned with the transition. It’s to be expected in the current economic climate. He noted that the county is taking a double hit – with the retirement of long-time, experienced employees with deep institutional knowledge, and the departure of young talent that might, under different conditions, be expected to stay and eventually take leadership roles within county government.

In addition to Guenzel, two other top county managers retired about a year ago. Peter Ballios, the county’s finance director, and Trenda Rusher, director of the county’s large employment training and community services department (ETCS), retired at the end of 2009. Rusher had been with the county nearly 30 years, while Ballios had logged more than 37 years as a county employee.

All three of those positions were filled with internal promotions. McDaniel, who’d been deputy administrator under Guenzel and before that was executive director of human resources, was the only candidate interviewed for county administrator, and was promoted in May 2010.

Ballios was replaced by Kelly Belknap, who was promoted to finance director in August 2010. She is now serving as interim deputy county administrator.

While the retirements of Guenzel, Ballios and Rusher were anticipated, more recent departures are coming from the county’s younger managers and staff, and are likely tied – at least in part – to the county’s financial uncertainty and expected reorganization.

In addition to Bidlack and Dale, other recently announced departures include:

  • James McFarlane, who led the county’s information technology department, has taken a job in Lansing, where he’ll work for the state’s department of technology, management and budget. One of the top executives in that department – David Behen, the state’s chief information officer – is himself a former Washtenaw deputy county administrator, who left that job in 2009. McFarlane’s last day with the county was June 10.
  • Jennifer Watson, the county’s budget manager, has resigned to take a finance job with the University of Michigan – her last day is June 24. Watson’s job at the county was being eliminated as part of a reorganization in the financial department.
  • Diana Torres-Burgos, the county’s public health medical director, is leaving later this month – at their June 1 meeting, the county board approved hiring her replacement, Monique Reeves.
  • Dave Wilson, who works in the information technology department and has been with the county more than 30 years, is retiring this month.

McDaniel praised the employees who are leaving, including Reynolds, describing them as high-performing, highly marketable individuals. County employees know that the organization is working to align expenditures with revenues, she said, which means there will be a retooling of departments and jobs. As opportunities arise elsewhere, McDaniel said she doesn’t blame people for taking advantage of them. In several cases, they’ll be making significantly more than the county is paying, she said.

Reynolds had been hired with the expectation that he’d play a major role in developing the budget and in working with labor. McDaniel said he laid some solid groundwork before leaving, just as the formal budget process got underway. Belknap took over as interim and “we didn’t skip a beat,” McDaniel said. They’ve planned expedited labor negotiations, and nine meetings are planned with union leaders in the coming weeks, she said, most of them full-day discussions.

The county has targeted $8 million in labor concessions to address the projected 2012-2013 deficit. They’re on course to wrap up union talks by mid-July, McDaniel said. Caryette Fenner – president of the AFSCME local 2733, the largest union representing county employees – could not be reached for comment for this report.

McDaniel said the organization, including labor, needs to get in front of changes that are occurring at the state level, which will impact the county. Specifically, she cited proposed 80/20 legislation that has already been approved by the Michigan state Senate, and is being considered by the House – it would essentially require public employees to pay 20% of their health care costs effective Jan. 1, 2012. The county is also trying to ensure it won’t hit any of the financial triggers that would result in the state appointing an emergency financial manager to take over. Other counties are facing deeper revenue declines, McDaniel noted, but Washtenaw County needs to work hard to make sure its financial situation is stable.

Rolland Sizemore Jr., former board chair who’s now chair of the board’s ways and means committee, told The Chronicle he believes that the budget process is going better this time than in 2009. [The county plans its budget in two-year cycles.] He said he isn’t concerned about the recent departures, adding it provides an opportunity for others in the organizations to advance, or brings in new people who’ll contribute a fresh perspective.

Sizemore also pointed out that even if people weren’t leaving, the organization would be changing anyway, as the result of significant reorganizations that are underway. Another $8 million in savings is expected from departmental reductions and consolidations.

Reorganizations: Community Development, Health Services

Additional departures will result from the reorganization of three county departments into a new office of community & economic development. The merger involves the office of community development (OCD)ETCS (the employment training and community services department) and the economic development & energy department.

At their May 5 working session, county commissioners were briefed by Mary Jo Callan, the current OCD director who is expected to lead the new office. She told the board that the goal is to provide a more coherent approach to the broad spectrum of community development, from providing for basic needs to helping people get jobs. Callan also said the move is intended to cut costs and eliminate duplication of efforts, while making it easier for residents to get the services they need.

In total, the departments employ nearly 60 people with a combined budget of about $16 million. While the leaders of ETCS and the economic development & energy department – Patricia Denig and Tony VanDerworp – are expected to take management jobs in the newly formed unit, other staff cuts are expected to result from the change.

County board chair Conan Smith said 10 positions will likely be eliminated after the reorganization. The job loss would likely have been more draconian without the consolidation of these departments, Smith said. If left as a standalone entity, for example, the economic development and energy department – with a staff of four, including Dale – would almost certainly have been eliminated, he said. Now, it’s likely they’ll find positions for those staff members within the combined department.

The board is expected to consider a proposal for initial approval of the merger at its July 6 meeting. The proposal had been planned for the board’s June 1 meeting, but it was postponed to allow for more talks with union leaders.

Another major restructuring is in the works for the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO), the Washtenaw Health Plan and the county’s Community Support & Treatment Services (CSTS) department. There are many overlapping services among those three entities, Smith said, and WCHO is “driving the boat” on the proposed reorganization. WCHO is a partnership between the county and the University of Michigan that provides services for people with developmental disabilities, emotional problems, mental illness or substance abuse.

The end result of the restructuring, Smith said, will likely be diminished responsibilities for CSTS. Because WCHO is formed through an intergovernmental agreement, the changes are being negotiated among partners – there are many moving parts, he said. The board will be updated on the consolidation at its July 7 working session.

Looking Ahead

Smith there are several things the county might do to make it more attractive for its younger workforce to stay.

For example, the county has taken a fairly traditional approach to setting compensation, with a bias toward rewarding longevity. Smith cited a change in the last budget cycle, when the county increased the number of years it takes before employees are vested in the pension plan. Employees are vested after eight years of service. However, Smith said that in general, the average job tenure for the “Millennial Generation” – also known as Generation Y, now in their 20s and 30s – is around six years. In that context, it’s hard for some young employees to see their place within the county government, he said.

One possibility would be to somehow increase the portability of retirement benefits, Smith said. Right now, the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (MERS) is portable if you move to certain other government entities – but not if you take a job in the private sector or at non-MERS institutions like the University of Michigan. That’s one place to look for reform, Smith said.

The county’s overall benefits structure is another area that might be addressed, Smith said. Now, non-union compensation is typically based on what’s negotiated with the unions – though non-union workers have no say in the negotiations, he noted. [Of the employees mentioned earlier in the article, only Dale and Wilson were represented by a union: AFSCME Local 2733 – Unit A.]

Professional development is another area to consider, he said. Because of budget constraints, spending on staff training and conferences has been cut back dramatically over the past few years. Although Smith noted that there’s a culture of providing leadership opportunities at the county, that needs to be highlighted and institutionalized, he said. Younger employees want to be engaged and part of the decision-making process, Smith said, and they need opportunities to do that.

Saying that Smith’s ideas are worth exploring, McDaniel acknowledged the need to ensure that the county attract and retain the best possible talent, including people with a passion for public service.  More leadership opportunities within the county will emerge soon, she said – it’s expected that additional retirements will be announced later this year.

“This is a time of change, and we must embrace it,” McDaniel said. Observing that it sounds cliché, she added: ”We have to reinvent government.”

Smith said McDaniel has done an impressive job at a difficult time, going through this transition with fewer financial resources and less institutional expertise, because of retirements. Dealing with the projected $17.5 million deficit requires fundamental change, he said, and will make many people unhappy, upset and confused. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride, unfortunately.”

There’s also a cultural change underway, Smith noted. In the past, Guenzel would develop a budget with his staff and present it to the board in the fall. Now, the board has changed the rules of the game, he said, and is asking for more input in the budget process. Smith said that creates more stress and work for the administration during a time of upheaval. In addition to board budget retreats held earlier this year, they’ve recently scheduled five new working sessions focused on the budget: on June 16, July 21, Aug. 18, Sept. 15 and Oct. 13.

“Times are different now,” Smith said. “We’re adjusting to a new reality.”

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