The Billings City Council has an important piece of old business on its agenda Monday night: Hiring a city administrator.
There are five crucial and obvious reasons why this “old” business must become “new”: Bill Cole, Frank Ewalt, Denise Joy, Penny Ronning and the person who will be appointed in February to finish Ryan Sullivan’s term. (Sullivan announced plans to resign after Tuesday's work session because he is moving to Texas for work.) Five of the 11 decision makers were not on the council when it failed to complete the hiring process as planned in December. It’s time to start over.
The city administrator position opened up with the retirement in September of Tina Volek, Billings’ longest-serving leader who worked in City Hall for 13 ½ years. Volek gave the council ample notice of her retirement plans in late 2016. Longtime assistant city administrator Bruce McCandless is serving ably as the interim city administrator, but has said he doesn’t want the permanent job. The city also has an interim finance director and interim fire chief with the “permanent” hires waiting on the appointment of the new administrator.
So there are reasons to act expeditiously, with some sense of urgency — but not with haste.
The first order of business is for the entire council to reach consensus on what skills, experience and background they want most in a city administrator. The council must find consensus on what they will offer their top candidate in a compensation package. They should be clear on what salary range they will consider so potential candidates will know what to expect. The 2017 search was unsuccessful largely because some council members on a five-member negotiating committee had a different view of what the advertised term “competitive” salary meant. They defined it differently from their own consultant’s research. Furthermore, the council that voted unanimously to negotiate a contract with Great Falls City Administrator Greg Doyon didn’t demonstrate that unanimity in subsequent negotiations.
The 2018 council can learn from last year’s experience. Rather than having five council members vetting a compensation offer before all 11 do, bring the discussion to the full council so all can participate equally in the decision. Rely on the city’s highly competent human resources director to assist in communications with candidates, search consultant and professional contract negotiator.
The importance of recruiting an excellent administrator for Billings can hardly be overstated. Under the Billings City Charter, the council is responsible for hiring the administrator, who hires and supervises all other city employees while running day-to-day operations of Montana’s largest city.
The council must get this decision right. Council members must unify to attract excellent candidates, seal a good deal with the best and provide a foundation for a positive working relationship.
We call on all council members — newbies and veterans — to start fresh and help recruit a highly qualified city administrator in 2018.