How embarrassing. The Billings City Council’s months-long administrator search process ended Friday in failure.
The council set a tight timetable, determined to hire Tina Volek’s successor before a new mayor and three new ward representatives take office on Jan. 2. The council’s last scheduled meeting of 2017 is tonight, and the hiring of a new city administrator is on the agenda.
But the candidate that council members unanimously voted to hire withdrew from consideration after the subcommittee of five council members refused to budge in salary negotiations. Greg Doyon asked for a starting annual salary of $170,000, which is the low end of the salary range for the top job in western cities of 100,000 to 250,000 population. The council countered with an offer of $155,000. Doyon came down to $165,000. The council stuck with $155,000. Doyon said no. Doyon initially asked for six weeks of vacation, and then cut the ask to four weeks. The council subcommittee didn't negotiate.
Doyon’s emailed letter, which Karla Stanton, city human resource director, received at the Friday morning council subcommittee meeting, was polite, professional and clear. The Great Falls City administrator quoted the council’s own recruitment brochure, which says: “The starting annual salary for the City Administrator position for the City of Billings will be market competitive depending upon the qualifications and experience of the selected candidate. The current administrator is paid $155,000.”
The subcommittee failed to offer a competitive salary. The subcommittee also had split on what to recommend to the full council Monday night. The tentative plan was to leave the salary figure blank to be filled in at the Monday meeting.
That lack of consensus among the subcommittee members gave Doyon concern that there wouldn’t be agreement at the full council either.
“I am truly grateful for the offer to lead Billings as its next city administrator, but I am not in a position to accept an overall compensation package that is less than market competitive,” Doyon wrote, continuing: “When deciding whether to take a new city management position, it is about more than just the compensation package. For the candidate, it is also about observing how the elected officials who he/she will work for, recruit and retain leadership. While the Council made a unanimous decision to offer me the job, I have not seen that support translate into an employment agreement appropriate for this position.”
The council should consider Doyon’s words very seriously, because other candidates for Billings city administrator will have similar concerns.
Councilman Larry Brewster, who chaired the administrator search process, reacted to Doyon’s letter by saying: “He expected to be paid based on the market, but Billings is notorious for ignoring the market.”
Underpaying our top city employee isn’t the kind of reputation that will help our city grow and thrive. Generally, we get what we pay for. The city was fortunate that Volek liked living in Billings and chose to retire here, accepting a salary in recent years that was known to be below market.
The city should expect to pay more to get an excellent new administrator — to change jobs and move his or her family to Billings.
As its last act of 2017, the Billings City Council should make a belated, but sincere, offer to Doyon — an offer that includes a market competitive salary. Doyon should know that many people in Billings, including a majority of the council, really do want an excellent new city administrator and will support that person.
Next month, Bill Cole will be mayor and Denise Joy, Frank Ewalt and Penny Ronning will join the council. They will be in office before the new city administrator starts work. If a majority of the 2017 city council votes Monday to move on the subcommittee's offer, maybe Doyon will reconsider, and just maybe the 2018 council won't have to repeat the city administrator search. A new search certainly will cost more than the $10,000 salary difference between Doyon and the subcommittee.