McDaniel Pledges To Lead Washtenaw

County commissioners voice support during job interview
Verna McDaniel answers questions during her interview on Thursday night with the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. (Photos by the writer.)

Verna McDaniel answers questions during her interview on Thursday night with the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. (Photos by the writer.)

In an interview that included moments of emotion, gravity and humor, Verna McDaniel fielded questions from the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners on Thursday as a candidate to replace retiring county administrator Bob Guenzel.

McDaniel, currently the deputy county administrator and the only internal candidate for the job, was interviewed during the board’s working session, which was attended by several of the county’s department heads. After the meeting, Jessica Ping – one of three commissioners leading the search – said there are no plans to interview any of the dozen or so external candidates. The board is expected to vote on hiring McDaniel at its Feb. 3 meeting.

McDaniel has worked for the county since 1982, a tenure that included 18 years as executive director of human resources. In a formal presentation to the board, McDaniel pledged to be a strong and effective leader. “I’ve worked for 28 years in this county,” she said, “and I love it.”

For the most part, interview questions were scripted “to avoid any possible HR mishaps,” Ping said. But several commissioners voiced support for McDaniel in their remarks. Wes Prater thanked her for stepping up to the job, and said he believed she could do it. “But we need to go through a process,” he said.

First 100 Days and Beyond

Before answering questions from commissioners, McDaniel made a case for her candidacy, saying she could provide leadership, management and coaching skills for the organization. She told the board that she brings strong financial and governmental accounting knowledge, citing her work as HR director and as deputy administrator. [.pdf file of Verna McDaniel bio]

In her current role, she was tasked with negotiating the budget reductions needed to overcome a projected $30 million deficit. “Now the heavy lifting begins,” she said. It will be important to closely monitor revenues in the coming year, she added, to implement cuts that were approved by commissioners for the 2010-2011 budget and to adjust again in April when the county’s equalization report reveals whether tax revenues are on track with projections.

In looking at the county administrator’s job description, McDaniel said the thing that jumped out to her was the job’s duties as controller:

Fulfills all statutory requirements of the County Controller; delegates such responsibilities as necessary to ensure the proper financial accountability of every county office and program.

“That’s pretty darn compelling,” she said. “That’s a big job and I realize that. I take it very seriously.”

McDaniel said she feels strongly that she can bring the organization together to face its current financial challenges, adding that her vision is to align the county’s work with the needs and expectations of this community.

She then laid out her plans for the job in three stages: The first 100 days, the first year and the first five years.

Initial Steps

McDaniel stressed the importance of putting together a strong management team. Critical hires include the replacement for finance director Peter Ballios, who retired at the end of 2009 but is continuing to work on an interim basis for up to 90 days this year. She also would fill the job of deputy county administrator, though it might be structured differently, she said. Looking at the management structure and span of control – the number of supervisors and the positions they oversee – would be another early task, she said.

Closely monitoring the budget would be another priority from the start of her tenure, she said.

First Year

McDaniel outlined several goals for her first year, if hired as county administrator.

  • Jail staffing: As Guenzel has done, McDaniel said she’d negotiate with sheriff Jerry Clayton to determine the number of employees necessary to staff the expanded county jail. Saying she has respect for Clayton and believes that he respects her, too, McDaniel said she’s also tough enough to take a stance if they disagree on funding levels.
  • Police services: The cost of police services is a big issue, she said, and would be a priority to address in her first year. [The sheriff's department provides deputy patrols on a contract basis to several townships in the county. The price that's charged for those patrols – and the actual cost to the county – has been a contentious issue for years. Current contracts expire at the end of 2011.]
  • Building assets: Many of the county’s buildings have great value, she said. The county needs a strategic plan to determine what to do with them.
  • Jail/court construction: The jail expansion and new building for the 14A-1 District Court are under construction, and McDaniel said it’s important to finish those projects on budget this year.
  • Juvenile court: Plans to relocate the juvenile court to the downtown courthouse need to go smoothly, McDaniel said. She said she has a great relationship with the courts and would work with officials to make that transition.
  • Internal consolidations: McDaniel said she plans to identify ways to consolidate programs and operations, if necessary.
  • County/city of Ann Arbor collaboration: The county is already closely collaborating with the city of Ann Arbor on its information technology work, she said, adding that she’d like to see more comprehensive discussions about how the two entities can work together.
  • Major reorganization: There are opportunities for significant restructuring in the organization, McDaniel said. She cited several areas where that might happen, including administration, finance/budget, Employment Training & Community Services (ETCS), and the Michigan State University extension program. Other opportunities are with the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) and the county’s Community Support & Treatment Services (CSTS) department.

Next Five Years

Longer-term, McDaniel identified several areas as priorities. She said she hopes to develop a new revenue-trending model based on the “new norms” of 2010 through 2015. They can’t use the past to predict the future, she said, and maintaining a balanced budget and ensuring fiscal stability are key.

Jessica Ping is chair of the board's working session and oversaw the interview with Verna McDaniel.

Jessica Ping is chair of the board's working session and ran the meeting that focused on interview questions for Verna McDaniel.

Labor negotiations would be another priority, McDaniel said. Union concessions that were recently negotiated to eliminate a projected deficit will expire at the end of 2011. The next two years will be planning years to prepare for the next contract, she said, with an eye toward making it a win-win for both employees and the financial stability of the county.

Finally, McDaniel cited the need to enhance customer access to services by making better use of technology and organizational efficiencies. Just because the county faces declining revenues doesn’t mean that services should decline.

To reach all of these goals, McDaniel said she would engage a wide range of stakeholders, including elected and appointed officials, management, union leaders and employees. Community partners would also play an important role, and she would reach out to nonprofits, economic development agencies, other local municipalities, faith-based groups and others.

In wrapping up, McDaniel talked about how much she had learned from Bob Guenzel – he would be a tough act to follow, she said. But she knows the organization well, she continued, and loves it. She pledged to be a strong and effective leader.

Questions, Comments from Commissioners

Jessica Ping, chair of the working session, reminded commissioners that they’d been given questions to read that were vetted by the human resources staff, and she asked them to stick to those questions closely “to avoid any possible HR mishaps.”

Commissioner Ken Schwartz, right, kicked off questioning

Commissioner Ken Schwartz, right, kicked off questioning of Verna McDaniel. Next to Schwartz is Ronnie Peterson, who passed when it was his turn to ask an interview question.

Ken Schwartz did not initially follow Ping’s directive. He told McDaniel that he was impressed by her resumé and background, and that he thought her priorities for the first year as administrator were the correct ones. And the next county administrator, he said, needs a strong HR background.

He asked McDaniel whether she believed the county had a role in economic development and other non-traditional areas, like neighborhood stabilization. “I certainly do,” she said, adding that economic development is necessary for creating jobs and building the tax base.

Schwartz said it was important to hire someone who was intellectually nimble and could respond to unanticipated situations. “I feel that you are very capable of doing that,” he said.

Ronnie Peterson, who was supposed to ask the next question, passed. He also later declined a second opportunity to ask a question, saying that he’d never followed a script, and he wasn’t about to start now.

Here’s a sampling of other questions, with summaries of McDaniel’s response:

Give an example of when you had to keep others apprised of progress about something you were working on. How did you communicate with them?

McDaniel described herself as the quarterback during recent efforts to reduce the county’s projected budget deficit. She worked with 35 departments, meeting with the department heads, going over their individual budgets and negotiating reductions. She then had to keep the administration’s budget team apprised of those efforts, she said. Though the department heads were very cooperative, she said, some of the negotiations were tough.

Give an example of a decision you made upholding policy that you knew would be unpopular with people in the organization more powerful than you. What did you do to prepare for the fallout?

McDaniel returned to her experience with the recent budget negotiations, saying it was “very unpopular” to deliver news about budget cuts. In talking with the staff and elected officials, and in working out deals, she said she tried to make sure she was fair and not dictatorial. Doing her homework and making sure she had sufficient information was crucial, she said. It was also valuable to bring her experience as HR director into play in terms of understanding staffing needs.

Give an example of a problem you had to solve that required you to determine its root cause. How did you go about doing that?

When she was HR director, McDaniel said she was puzzled by high workers compensation costs, and couldn’t understand why costs were increasing. She did a root cause analysis and brought in others with specific expertise in the area of workers comp, saying that it’s important to be able to draw in the right resources to solve a problem. What they found, she said, was that if someone is off the job for more than two weeks, it’s much more likely that they’ll be off for an extended period. That prompted her to start a return-to-work program, McDaniel said, to address the underlying cause of higher workers comp costs.

Conan Smith

Commissioner Conan Smith, during the county board's interview of Verna McDaniel on Thursday.

Describe a situation in which you lacked the resources you would have liked, but managed to get the job done anyway.

In May of 2009, McDaniel said, former deputy county administrator David Behen took a job elsewhere, and his position was eliminated. They had previously divided responsibility for the 35 departments within county government – suddenly, McDaniel said, she was responsible for them all: “When David moved on, it was overwhelming.” It helped that she already had relationships with most of the departments, because of her HR background. And she drew on the help of others in administration. McDaniel said she sometimes didn’t have the time she wanted to address all the issues that arose as thoroughly as she would have liked, adding “I had to rise to the occasion.”

Have you ever had to work with a board? How was that different from working with a traditional supervisor?

McDaniel said that since becoming deputy administrator in 2007, she’d been able to work with the board of commissioners much more closely than when she’d been HR director. If hired as administrator, she’d work with them even more closely, and always from an angle of respect, she said. All of the commissioners are different, she said, and it would be her job to get to know them and their priorities. She knows there would be disagreements, but she said she has the ability to disagree respectfully. She said she understands that they are the board and she works for them.

Describe a time when you were able to anticipate a problem before it occurred. What did you do to prevent it?

Going back to the budget negotiations, she recalled having to meet with the county prosecutor about cutting his budget. “If you don’t know Brian Mackie,” she joked, “that’s not a pretty scene.” She anticipated that he would argue forcefully in defense of his staff size, so she needed to make sure she was informed about his department. She attended a staff meeting, and talked to him about the department’s workload and staffing needs. She also looked at staffing levels for comparable departments elsewhere, while making sure, she said, that she was respectful of his own department’s caseloads. When she went in to negotiate, she said, it was a productive discussion and they agreed to cuts.

What is a government body’s responsibility to the citizens in regards to transparency?

“We have nothing to hide,” McDaniel said. As stewards of taxpayer dollars, the county has a duty to be transparent, she said, and as administrator, she would hold the county accountable. The county already provides a lot of information on its website, she said, but they can do more.

What’s Next?

After the meeting, Jessica Ping said she’d be talking with board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Conan Smith, chair of the board’s Ways & Means Committee, to discuss their next steps. The three commissioners are leading the search efforts to replace Guenzel. She said at this point there are no plans to interview other candidates.

It’s likely that the board will vote on a resolution to hire McDaniel at their Feb. 3 meeting, she said.