Search Concluding for Ann Arbor City Admin

Some councilmembers prefer Steve Powers; vote likely on July 18

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.

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One Comment

  1. By Jack Eaton
    July 18, 2011 at 2:22 pm | permalink

    Thank you Dave and Mary for all of the work you put into covering the City Administrator candidates. I particularly appreciated the quick turnaround on your coverage of the interviews.