In Search of a City Leader

By Kellyn Brown

Just days after the city of Kalispell announced that it had narrowed to three its list of candidates for city manager, two of them withdrew from consideration. With just one man left standing, the council opted to push back a scheduled meet and greet and widen its search. Better that, I suppose, than making a hasty decision and giving the third finalist, Robert Stockwell of Riverton, Utah, the keys to the city.

What happened was David Johnston of Rantoul, Ill., dropped out of the running because he is considering taking another job and John “Jay” Krauss of Lewiston, Idaho, withdrew because he didn’t want to partake in a public interview. The latter excuse makes no sense at all, since forgoing the open screening would violate Montana law.

City officials will host a glad-handing session when another set of finalists is announced. It’s a good – even if it is required – first step in what should be a clean break from a former administration that struggled in several areas, but especially on the public relations front.

Stockton and his yet-to-be-announced competition should know exactly what they’re up against in Kalispell: a city at a critical juncture hit especially hard by a deep recession, with a populace that has often felt disconnected, or worse, from those leading the valley’s commercial hub. And as a new city manager reaches out to the council and general public, I selfishly ask them to reach out to us. Yes, the lowly media.

Whether through television, radio or newspapers, whoever is in charge should willingly use each avenue to become a public face in the city administration. While the next manager will be appointed by the council, rather than elected by its citizenship, he or she will have many of the same responsibilities as that of a strong executive mayor in any other city. And the winning candidate should act like one, by assuming not just the city’s day-to-day operations, but also that of its leader and an active partner to elected city councilors.

It’s no secret that the last year has been trying as the pace of growth fell off in Kalispell along with much of its tax revenue. Yet an economy that hurt both the public and private sectors was coupled with city management that often wasn’t forthcoming with its decisions.

A sampling: Kalispell built a new city hall that ran way over budget; its former fire chief departed under a cloud of secrecy following months of discord within the department; and job cuts proposed by the manager to city departments took, of all entities, the council by surprise.

In this office, as I’m sure happened elsewhere, we were often left in the dark. It was a constant struggle to get information on far-reaching decisions. Since Myrt Webb has taken the reigns as the interim manager, he has been accessible and refreshingly blunt about the direction of the city. And whoever serves as his permanent replacement should follow his lead.

The job ahead is daunting: Kalispell has little in the way of a cash reserve, just $171,700 projected as of January, when Webb has recommended that a city this size have more than $1 million in its coffers. The ramifications of the council passing traffic impact fees is still unclear and some commercial developers still don’t know what it will cost to break ground on their projects.

The job of Kalispell city manager is far different than what it would have been five years ago. The city is now gasping for breath after growing for years at a breakneck pace. Whoever is chosen to lead it should be unafraid to make difficult decisions, and do so in the public eye.