Chuck Stearns originally came to Whitefish for the same reason many do – to ski. Now he’s returning this winter for a far different reason – to run the city.
And he arrives at a time of intense growth and significant transition.
Stearns was selected by the city council earlier this month to replace Gary Marks as city manager. Marks left in July to take the top administrative job in Ketchum, Idaho. Sixty-five candidates applied for the Whitefish job, which pays $110,000. Stearns begins work on Dec. 1 and will have little time to gain his bearings. That night he’ll attend his first city council meeting. He moves to the Flathead with his girlfriend, Rita Braun, and has no children.
According to census figures, Whitefish is the fastest-growing city in Montana, a reality not lost on Stearns. While acknowledging he has a lot on his plate, he said in a recent interview that “it’s not daunting,” as he’s overseen cities in similar situations before, most notably in Mount Crested Butte, Colo., as the town administrator and Missoula in the early 1990s as the city’s finance officer. Mount Crested Butte is also a resort town with heavy tourism.
Having dealt first-hand with the challenges presented by rapid growth, he said he feels comfortable stepping into the head Whitefish job, particularly with matters related to finances and personnel, perhaps the two most fundamental responsibilities of a city manager. With an economic slowdown and an accompanying lull in activity, Stearns said city officials have time to sit down and plot out the future.
“When you’re growing it’s always hard to keep up and deal with staff,” Stearns said, “and then things slow down like now, and people can catch their breath and catch up on the things we’ve been trying to do for awhile.”
Stearns studied finance and small business administration at the University of Colorado in the late 1970s and then received his master of public administration degree, with an emphasis on budgeting and finance, at the University of Montana in 1985. Between undergraduate and graduate school, he packed up his 1964 Volkswagen bug and headed to Whitefish to ski bum for a couple years.
After taking a series of finance jobs in Kalispell and Missoula, he became the head finance officer in Missoula in 1987. He held that job until 1994 before taking on the top administrative positions in Mount Crested Butte and most recently Georgetown, Colo.
Daniel Kemmis, Missoula’s mayor in the early 1990s, worked closely with Stearns when he was the city’s finance director. Kemmis said Stearns brought not only astute financial knowledge to Missoula’s city government, but also an ability to extend beyond economic matters and play a major factor in the city’s other important operations. Kemmis pointed out that growth was the central issue in Missoula at the time, as it is in Whitefish currently.
“We were very fortunate to have his broader perspective,” Kemmis said. “He loves to be busy. He’s a very hard worker and extremely productive.”
Alec Hansen, who has been the executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns for 26 years, said Stearns impressed him with his knowledge of the state’s municipal laws, particularly economic, as the finance officer of Missoula. Hansen said Stearns often gave detailed and persuasive presentations at the Legislature, laying the groundwork for a variety of bills that supported cities and towns.
“He’s a really friendly guy and he’s sincere,” Hansen said. “He doesn’t act like a big shot and people like that.”
Hansen believes Stearns’ experience during Missoula’s boom days, as well as in the resort environment of Mount Crested Butte, has prepared him for the Whitefish position.
“I think Chuck has the background and experience that will work out really well up there,” Hansen said. “He really knows what he’s talking about.”
Among the most significant issues Stearns will face in his first year in Whitefish is overseeing the transition into a new 24/7 emergency services center, which is currently in the design and planning stages. Also, Stearns will be working with recently hired Fire Chief Tom Kennelly, giving the city newcomers in two of its highest positions. The city is also expected to see construction begin on two big downtown projects: a new parking lot and a sweeping reconstruction of Central Avenue and side streets between Third and Railway.
Stearns is well aware of the planning “doughnut” controversy that has been a central topic in the valley over the past year. The county and Whitefish have been trying to come to an agreement over which entity has jurisdiction over a two-mile radius surrounding Whitefish. The city filed a lawsuit against the county earlier this year. Also, arguing that Whitefish wasn’t upholding its side of the dealings, county officials recently disbanded the city-county transition team.
Stearns concedes there are always “philosophical and constituent differences that can’t be overcome,” but feels that sincere and open discussions will get cooperative efforts going again. Stearns also said he wants to make a focused effort to reach out to other municipal governments in surrounding cities, as well as the county.
“Nobody has a solution that works great for both sides, or it would have already occurred,” Stearns said. “Continued communication in many respects is the answer. You have to build trust.”
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