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City Administrator Candidates

Chris Kukulski, second from left, answers questions during a press conference with the four Billings city administrator candidates on Tuesday. Kukulski was the city council's ultimate choice in their Wednesday meeting by an 11-0 vote.

The Billings City Council unanimously chose the former Bozeman and Kalispell city manager as Billings' next city administrator.

The council voted 11-0 during a special meeting Wednesday to offer the position to Chris Kukulski, 48.

Kukulski, now executive vice president for business development at Zoot Enterprises, was one of four finalists vying to succeed Billings city administrator Bruce McCandless, who’s retiring Nov. 16.

"I am genuinely excited, and I look forward to working with the community, elected officials and the staff," Kukulski said by telephone a few minutes after his selection.

He said he expects the contract negotiation to "go smoothly. Greg Doyon (the Great Falls city manager who could not come to terms to lead Billings after being selected in December 2017) is a dear friend of mine, and I think all sides learned something from the process."

"I think they want to be fair and equitable," Kukulski said of the city council. "We live in a market system, and I'm confident we can land in a place that's fair and reasonable."

The salary range for the next city administrator is $165,000-$190,000.

Kukulski and his wife, Nicole, a teacher at Heritage Christian School, live in Bozeman with their three daughters, ages 18, 16 and 11. He said he expects to move to Billings as he begins his new work.

“It’s not productive for a city administrator to live in another town,” he said.

Jeff Jones, assistant city manager in Mesquite, Texas, called city officials shortly before Wednesday’s special meeting began to withdraw from consideration.

Two council members, Denise Joy and Chris Friedel, spoke up on behalf of finalist Dan Chandler, assistant county administrator in Clackamas County, Oregon. When it came time to vote, they joined their colleagues in support of Kukulski.

Kevin Iffland, Billings’ assistant city administrator, said that after spending 90 minutes Tuesday with each candidate, department heads unanimously supported Kukulski.

Iffland said he and his colleagues credited Kukulski with “studying our organization,” having experience running two other large Montana cities, knowing how the Montana Legislature and the collective bargaining process works, “and he asked for our opinions. He’s personable and articulate.”

Eight of the 11 council members initially spoke in support of Kukulski.

His interview “provided certainty for me,” said Councilman Mike Yakawich. “I was looking for someone familiar with the state who was ready to start running.”

“He’s had a couple of hiccups along the way,” said Yakawich's colleague, Penny Ronning. “But who hasn’t?”

During his council interview Tuesday, Kukulski said his 2017 departure after 13 years leading Bozeman occurred because city commissioners there "wanted a change. I had told them (during last year's Billings city administrator search) that I intended to apply for this job, and they wanted to make that change sooner than later, and I respected that."

Larry Brewster said he was impressed with all four candidates. “That frankly made the decision hard,” he said.

Dick Clark said he’s seen Kukulski testify before legislative committees, “and I think he’ll do a good job.”

“Chris has a real desire to build relationships,” said Reg Gibbs. “He has strategic planning experience, and he spoke about accountability.”

“I learned a lot” during the selection process, said Councilman Frank Ewalt. “I hope I don’t have to use it again.”

For Shaun Brown, the difference was Kukulski’s experience leading “full-service cities,” with services ranging from airport to sewer and water.

No candidate "was perfect," Mayor Bill Cole said. "But I believe Chris is the best option. He really wants to be here."

Several council members praised city staff and Springsted-Waters, the executive search firm hired to help guide the process, with Wednesday's result. The special meeting lasted 35 minutes. 

Cole noted that the city doesn’t officially have a new administrator until Kukulski signs an employment agreement. A draft copy of the agreement includes job duties and authority, the pay range, benefits, moving and relocation expenses and severance pay, with that amount, as well as the salary, to be negotiated.

Staff “will have to fill in important numbers, including salary,” Cole said. “We want that process to move as expeditiously as possible.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.