The coming months will bring new faces to the top administrative spots in three Dakota County cities.
Burnsville, Eagan and Hastings will soon replace their longtime city administrators or city managers, a role often likened to a city’s CEO, because of resignations.
While it isn’t unusual for city managers to leave, the average tenure of service today “is a lot longer than it used to be,” said Kevin Frazell, director of member services for the League of Minnesota Cities.
In Eagan, the state’s longest-tenured city manager, Tom Hedges, retired after 36 years in February. In late March, Burnsville’s Craig Ebeling will trade his city manager post for retirement after a decade there. And in a case of municipal musical chairs, Hastings’ city administrator of 24 years, Dave Osberg, will move to Eagan, filling Hedges’ role.
In Hastings, “the piece that’s significant is that Dave’s been here so long,” said Melanie Mesko Lee, assistant city administrator. Though there will be a loss, “the consistency and longevity of the internal staff and elected officials” will balance that out, she said.
Plus, “he’s only a phone call away,” she said.
A fourth city, West St. Paul, will also move forward with plans to select a permanent city manager after John Remkus’ retirement nearly a year and a half ago. Last October, the city announced it had selected a candidate, but the deal fell apart when they couldn’t agree on a salary, according to Mayor John Zanmiller. For about a year, interim city manager Sherrie Le has held the role.
While the impending changes in the four cities’ highest nonelected role will bring new emphases and ways of doing things to each locale, the transition doesn’t have to be tumultuous, Ebeling said.
The city manager is “a person who has their fingers in a lot of things, but by and large there’s always a good, productive team in most well-run cities,” he said. “Changing one person doesn’t make too many problems.”
In fact, it’s in his job description to ensure a smooth transition, he said. Since a new city manager won’t be named in time for Ebeling’s last day, the council may choose an interim city manager for a month, he said.
But such a transition can also bring mixed reactions.
“[It’s] an exciting time for an organization but it can also be an anxious time,” said Dave Unmacht, director of organizational management at Springsted, the firm heading up Burnsville’s still-active search. “You can bring in someone who can look at things differently, can approach problem-solving differently.”
Both Burnsville, which is reviewing 20 to 30 applications received so far, and Eagan hired an executive search firm to assist in the process, which is a growing trend, Frazell said.
“At least in the metro area, it’s becoming more common than not to use a search firm for jurisdictions of a very large size,” Frazell said.
Cities hire firms for many reasons, including how time-consuming the process can be, said Richard Fursman, president of Brimeyer Fursman, the firm Eagan hired. A firm can also offer neutrality in a way the city’s human resources staff likely cannot, he said.
Meanwhile, both Hastings and West St. Paul have explored internal options. Hastings has chosen not to hire a firm, in part because council members are considering their current assistant city manager, Melanie Mesko Lee, as a candidate. She will be appointed interim city manager in late March.
Zanmiller said West St. Paul has chosen not to hire a firm, in part to save money, though it may revisit the idea. The City Council recently interviewed Le for the permanent position, Zanmiller said. Le withdrew her name from consideration earlier this week.
Unmacht estimates that the average cost of hiring a firm is about $15,000, varying slightly depending on a city’s size.
Having multiple cities in Dakota County looking for administrators or managers within six months of one another could have affected applicant pools, Fursman said.
“When there’s a lot of job openings, obviously the pool begins to shrink,” he said.
In fact, Frazell said that applicant pools for city managers and administrators have gotten smaller in recent years, in part because of baby boomers’ retirements.
“I think most of the jurisdictions are finding that they’re still getting good solid candidates applying, but they’re not getting as many of them,” he said.
Unmacht added that the average age of city managers has increased, meaning that more transitions are likely in store.
“Now, you could sit down around a coffee table and identify the likely people who are going to retire in the next one to three years,” Unmacht said. “I don’t think that really took place five to 10 years ago.”