Council contemplates hiring process

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

With the departure of city manager Chris Volkers coming up Sunday, the Moorhead City Council devoted most of its biweekly meeting June 22 to considering the next step in finding her replacement.

Volkers, who has served as the city’s top executive since January 2017, announced six weeks ago that she has accepted the position of city administrator in Oakdale, Minnesota, a suburb of 28,000 on the east side of the Twin Cities.

At their meeting June 8, council members appointed Dan Mahli acting city manager. They began grappling with the question of whether or not to hire an interim city manager from outside the area while conducting a search for Volkers’ successor, as well as the scope of the search. They decided to depart from the process used last time around – declining to contract with the St. Paul-based executive search firm that was involved in Volkers’ hiring, at a cost savings of $23,000.

This week, they returned to the question of what to do next. Their main focus was whether to hire an interim manager to take the reins of the city during the search. He or she would typically be a semi-retired administrator with experience in another city. In 2016, the interim worked on contract two days a week.

Former mayor Del Rae Williams, whose term encompassed the previous search, addressed the group by telephone. “I think the interim person wasn’t the best idea in many ways,” she reflected. “If we had had someone ready to step in – and you do now in Dan Mahli – it would have worked out better. I encourage you to avoid going the interim route.”

Mayor Johnathan Judd, whose position involves voting only to break ties, generally agreed. After hearing from council members Heidi Durand and Chuck Hendrickson, both on board for the 2016 search, he endorsed the idea of Moorhead “growing its own” rather than looking far afield for the next manager. Stressing the need to incorporate the “equity and inclusion” piece into the search, he said, “If we have strong folks here who have grown with the city – and we have multiple city staff members who fit that – I suggest looking at those candidates first.”

After much discussion, the council ratified the idea of eliminating the hiring of an interim during their search. Instead, they gave acting manager Mahli – who has served as assistant city manager since October 2017 – the “full scope and authority” of the manager’s role as the search proceeds.

How far afield will that search extend? The group came to no decision. Advised by city attorney John Shockley that the council has broad discretion in deciding how to find the one city employee that works directly for them, they spent most of their time debating two alternatives – conducting an internal search, at least at first, or advertising the position throughout Minnesota and possibly North Dakota. (The possibility of a nationwide search was dismissed early on.)

At the suggestion of council member Phil Seljevold, they decided to schedule a “work session” next week to hammer out a plan. In the meantime, attorney Shockley was asked to develop the job description – likely much like the one created in 2016 – and lay out a skeleton plan of how the screening process will proceed. The question of whether the search will begin internally, with a broader scope if that process fails, or will be internal plus external from the start was not resolved.

Legislative update

Government affairs director Lisa Bode filled the council in on where the city’s priority projects stand after the truncated special session of the Minnesota Legislature, which was ended abruptly in the wee hours Saturday by the Republican-controlled Senate.

“The Legislature didn’t develop a distribution plan for CARES Act funding to cities and counties. They became embroiled in police reform and rebuilding damaged areas in Minneapolis,” she reported. Nor did legislators deal with the bonding bill. The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities summed it up well, Bode said, when she called it a “train wreck.”

Some positive notes emerged despite the failure to close the gap between the Republicans’ $1 billion bonding bill and Gov. Tim Walz’s support of $2.3 billion in statewide infrastructure projects. Bode pointed out that two of Moorhead’s top priorities – the requests for $8.5 million for a new Clay County Transfer Station and $62 million for the 11th Street railroad underpass – were part of both parties’ bills. The Republican bill, she said, included only $18 million for flood protection statewide, “falling far short of Moorhead’s needs.”

Moorhead would receive about $3 million from the CARES Act distribution. “The timing of that money’s release is important for developing our spending plan,” due by the end of 2020, she said. Critical extension of the Border Cities Enterprise Zone and its disparity reduction credits for Minnesota-based businesses also remains in limbo. The property tax credit amounts to $20-$25 million for Moorhead firms, and is meant to balance the disparity with lower taxes on the North Dakota side of the border.

Bode’s conclusion: “Basically, we’re optimistic.”

The council voted to extend the city’s contract with longtime former employee Scott Hutchins, who has aided Bode in lobbying efforts in St. Paul. Volkers emphasized his 30 years of advocacy for the city and his familiarity with the state political process. “He has been more influential than anyone else in our success with bonding bills,” she asserted, adding, “Scott is in a unique position to continue to give Lisa training as the city’s lobbyist.”

The council approved extending Hutchins’ contract for 18 months at the rate of $1,000 per month.

In other action

The council approved a number of matters as part of its consent agenda, which is ratified without discussion at each meeting. Among them:

Ti-Zack Concrete Inc. of Le Center, Minnesota, was awarded a contract for $750,000 to complete two miles of the Blue Goose Trail along the river in south Moorhead from Gooseberry Park to 40th Avenue South. It will eventually connect with Bluestem Center for the Arts.

City boards and commissions, which have been barred from all but critical meetings during the pandemic, are now permitted to hold online meetings on non-critical matters via the city’s virtual communication system. City offices remain closed under the emergency order.

A on-sale liquor license was approved for Casa Mexico of Moorhead, now doing business as El Torero’s. At the same time, the council renewed a variety of on- and off-sale liquor licenses for the rest of the city’s liquor establishments, all of which expire each year on June 30.

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