City Admin Finalist: Steve Powers

Long-time service as Michigan county administrator

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 A third finalist, Harry Black, had withdrawn his name from consideration last weekend.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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  1. By Alan Goldsmith
    July 13, 2011 at 10:08 am | permalink

    “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.”

    Fraser didn’t live ‘in Ann Arbor’. Apparently he loved the lower township taxes.

  2. By Tom Whitaker
    July 13, 2011 at 12:10 pm | permalink

    @1: …And the vehicle allowance.

  3. July 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm | permalink

    I think that Powers is both from far enough away and close enough to our system of government to bring a good balance to his perspective. Having to operate a county government in the State of Michigan would make him acquainted with many of the vagueries of Michigan law and local government (home rule) practices. I like his apparent humility, too, and his emphasis on collaboration.

  4. By Rick Cronn
    July 13, 2011 at 1:54 pm | permalink

    I think that Powers shares more of our local and regional values and to his credit seems to have stuck it out in Marquette longer than most administrator types. He’s not a name dropper like Oppenheim nor is there much bureau-speak or many ear candy buzzwords. His county experience seems to respect collaboration and conciliation far more than recent Ann Arbor administrators and in these ways he presents a real change.

    The questions I have is will he not only work with council but stand up to them as well?

    Is he willing to say no to unnecessary projects instead of incurring long term public debt?

    Will he defend the Master Plan and zoning not seek favor with developers just for the sake of padding his resume or make career connections?

    Would he encourage us to work with the assets we already have and not remake Ann Arbor into what it isn’t just to “compete” with other municipalities?

    Will he live in the city and drive his own car or use one from the city motor pool?

    We need to see more candidates.