First reactions to the Durham City Manager candidates forum -- and how you can watch
BOCC race: Following the money

City Manager finalists forum: Three strikes, you're in?

Monday night's City Manager finalists' forum was the public's opportunity to find out more about the three finalists for the most senior appointed position in Durham's city government. It was a forum for city employees, too -- and based on the questions from the audience, many of which dealt with employee accountability and department structures, seemed to come from that group.

The City didn't choose to release the names of the three finalists until Monday morning. Still, in this Internet day and age, it didn't take the media or local bloggers -- including those from some of the finalists' previous cities -- long to discover that all three had resigned, apparently under pressure, from their last engagements.

Naturally, the first reaction from Bull City watchers was likely a shared and collective groan. After all, experience is a prerequisite for the next city manager -- I doubt many folks hoped that experience would extend to the view a city manager sees on their way out the door.

And in fact, it's the case that the sun has set on Patrick Salerno's tenure over Sunrise, Fla.; that Randy Oliver no longer plays in Peoria; and that George Kalb is no longer the Wichita bottom-lineman. (OK, that last one was a stretch.)

Still, as one of the candidates pointed out during the forum, the election cycle is as far ahead as most municipalities tend to look, and in council-manager forms of government, where the city manager is about the only position under elected officials' control, they're often the first to go. One candidate pointed out that the average tenure of a city manager anywhere is only 4-5 years, a period that matches two of the finalists' staying power.

To my mind, a better question (and one which we can assume and hope the Council is asking of the Mercer Group) is whether this was a sufficiently deep pool to attract the right candidate for Durham. The Bull City search attracted 54 candidates, a far cry from the 120 that the Town of Chapel Hill drew two years back. And given that all three finalists in Durham's search are very recently separated from their last city, one wonders whether -- platitudes during the forum aside -- Durham is to these finalists an employer of opportunity, or an employer of choice.

Does that mean there aren't good candidates in the pool here? Not necessarily: just that understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each during the references process seems more important than ever.

We'll skip over for now a detailed look at the departures of each candidate from their last city... something we can expect our pro-jo friends at the H-S and N&O to be drilling into in the coming days. (Nothing screams newsworthy for the print pubs like irony mixed with past affairs.)

In a couple of days, we'll post our question-by-question notes on each candidate's answers to the questions. For now, some snap judgement and analysis:

For this observer's money, Randy Oliver seemed to stand out by a smidge as the candidate to beat in the pool. Oliver's been a close number-two in recent searches, and there's rumors on Peoria blogs that it was his nosing around for a new job that might have been one factor in his resignation. (During the press briefing after the forum, Oliver was eager to note he left on good terms -- even bringing with him a copy of his letter of recommendation from Peoria's city council and a proclamation from them thanking him for his good work.)

Oliver stood out for a few reasons. First, his educational background is unique among the pool; Oliver's a CPA (with professional Coopers & Lybrand experience), has a masters in civil engineering from MIT, and holds an MBA. Working for former C&L client Richmond, Va. -- Oliver is also unique in working for two municipalities with the nickname "River City" -- he claims to have been instrumental in that city's early downtown revitalization efforts (though he didn't note the colossal failure that became of the Sixth St. Marketplace he mentioned, though one can chalk that up to lessons learned from the 80s). The candidate, a Clemson grad who remembers Durham from his college days dating a Duke undergrad, also held the top job in Augusta, Ga. and Greenville, S.C.

More importantly, though, on question after question Oliver was able to show a depth in his answers by providing actual examples of programs he's implemented and their results. From a partnership with Bradley University to increase minority participation in construction projects, to the creation of a truancy assessment center where police could take kids who should be in school to triage them and connect them to resources, to the Vision 2020 program described in Peoria, Oliver probably gave more specific answers than any of the three finalists.

At least on the two-inch-square box afforded by streaming web video, Oliver seemed to come across as the most, well, clinical of the candidates -- a little dispassionate, a little cooler. His answer on implementing a ratings-based, salary-pooled pay-for-performance system was perfectly in line with best practices, but somehow you kind of get the sense it would be more motivating on paper than in actual reality.

On the flip side, Oliver noted his commitment in Peoria to attending neighborhood assocation meetings, with a goal of attending each one at least once per year. (Mr. Oliver should consider himself on record on this point in advance of any possible time in Durham -- with the number of such groups in the Bull City, we'd suggest his wife get accustomed to tagging along if she wants to spend any Q.T. with her cutie.)

George Kolb seemed a second choice in my book. The most troubling asterisk for this former Wichita, Kan. city manager lies in the reports that he's resigned due to "philosophical differences," presumably under pressure, from both Augusta and Wichita. (Worth noting that Oliver preceded Kolb in Augusta, and according to one report was also sent packing from that post.) Matt Dees also raised during the media Q&A session some allegations from past elected officials who've worked with Kolb that he's had difficulty communicating with city councils, a charge the veteran city manager disputed.

Past histories aside -- and lord knows, each candidate has one -- Kolb's answers generally showed some depth, and some were quite good, including his own track record encouraging minority business development, his understanding of economic development, and his awareness of Durham's history and revitalization. Generally speaking, he and Oliver tended to cover much the same ground in their answers; Oliver just seemed to demonstrate a little more analytical depth.

On the other hand, Kolb displayed what appeared to be a greater comfort at the politicking side of the job than Oliver. This had its amusing moments, such as when asked what the first thing he'd do if offered the job: "Other than finding the executive washroom?" he quipped. At the same time, though, Kolb seriously offered as one of his first priorities a desire to seek out "low-hanging fruit" so he could "pick that off and show some success." An accurate political statement, but something that sounded just a little too comfortable coming from someone who, like Oliver, has travelled quite a bit.

Still -- assuming the buzz out of Wichita is all sound and no fury -- Kolb seemed to display the level of awareness of government and governance befitting a mid-sized, diverse Southern city, and seemed qualified for the position.

To me, the forum didn't cast quite as strong a light on Patrick Salerno, the recently-resigned manager of Sunrise, Fla. Salerno went to great lengths to emphasize that he must have done something right to last eighteen years in one place, an eternity in city manager circles. (He further noted that his resignation came only after the election of new folks to city council, and he seems to count the mayor as a strong backer of his, something that has come across to date in media reports.)

Still, Sunrise isn't Durham, or Augusta or Wichita or Peoria for that matter; it's a 70%-white community that has been a "suburban bedroom community," in Salerno's words. When asked what about Durham that appealed to them to apply here, Salerno was the only candidate of the three to offer a generic "it's the right size" answer that revealed little about his understanding of the community (something Kolb and Oliver both showed a decent grasp of.)

More concerning to me was Salerno's answer on reaching out to youth. While both Kolb and Oliver demonstrated a grasp of partnerships with non-profits and other government agency and the importance of job-skills prep, Salerno steamed on about the large number of youth playing Little League and soccer in Sunrise, noting twice that Sunrise subsidized 80% of the cost of these programs while other communities tried to recover the full cost. Somehow, Salerno's answer gave the impression that he just wasn't used to dealing with the breadth of challenges of disconnected youth that a city of Durham's size has.

Not that he's ignorant of Durham's challenges: Salerno talked about his creation of a $20 million jobs and economic incentives fund in Sunrise, but cautioned that wouldn't work everywhere."I wouldn't say that that is a path that is appropriate at this stage in the development of Durham," Salerno said. "You have too many needs today for $20 million [to be spent on that approach.]"

Which brings up a second drawback to Salerno's presentation: the ease and comfort with which he talked about his last engagement. He noted that he could only spend that money in Sunrise because everything else was strong and stable in the community. According to Salerno, when Bill Bell asked him what the challenges and issues werein Sunrise, he had a simple answer: there weren't any. "If you're the manager of a community, and you've been there for almost eighteen years, and there are still real problems in your community, those should have already been taken care of."

I've never been to Sunrise, so I can't speak to the accuracy of the statement. But Salerno's answer to this question and the one on sustainability both gave an easy assurance that everything was great in his town -- something that's so unlikely as to be true as to raise eyebrows, not because one might think Salerno was exaggerating, but because one might wonder if he was in touch with the community.

In one of the night's few out-and-out differences, Salerno differed strongly with Kolb and Oliver's reliance on strategic planning programs; he claimed that strategic planning tends to be based too much on the past, instead of having scenario planning, what he called an "organized daydream" to consider what the future should be in one of several plot-lines. (Kolb rejoined, "I'm still old-fashioned, and I still believein strategic planning.")

Still, Salerno's underlying point -- that you must be doing something right to make it almost two decades as a city manager -- bears weight and consideration, something City Council is likely to give to that qualification in the coming days and weeks.



One also wonders if a Y chromosome was a prerequisite for the job.


Yeah, i'd be curious to see some details on the 50 some applicants. Perhaps council could put forward a statistical analysis of who applied for the job without compromising anyone's confidentiality.

speaking of which, it was kind of disappointing to read in the N&O that two applicants were asked to join the pool of finalists, but declined because they didn't want to risk "upsetting their current employers." I can't imagine, for example, that Mike Krzyzewski or anyone at Duke athletics is upset that Johnny Dawkins is going to Stanford to be the new head coach of the men's basketball program. Assistant city manager is a stepping stone position, and you should expect, after a certain amount of time on the job, that your assistants are going to be looking for their own program to manage. It's time for municipal governments to grow up a little bit.

Tar Heelz

The tough reality for all of us to face is that "City Manager of Durham" is not a highly sought post. There is no reason to suspect that the Mercer Group has recommended anything but the very best of what was likely a less than star-studded lineup of prospects.

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