Search Begins for Next Kalispell City Manager

By Beacon Staff

The search is underway for the next city manager in Kalispell, starting with the appointment of a selection committee and interviews with interim candidates.

Current City Manager Jane Howington recently announced she is resigning at the end of December after two years to take the same position in Newport, R.I.

Mayor Tammi Fisher anticipates the search and hiring process for Howington’s successor will take six months or longer. An official job posting was first advertised on Nov. 21.

“We hope to have a new city manager on board by the beginning of May,” she said in a press release, “but we are determined to take as much time as necessary to find the right person for the position.”

Fisher will appoint a six-person committee this week for the initial review of applications. Committee members have not been identified at this time.

Fisher said interviews with interim candidates began Nov. 21 and the city hopes to select someone within the next two weeks to take over temporarily after Howington leaves next month.

Kalispell voters first decided in the fall of 1989 to appoint a city manager to act as the city’s chief administrative officer. Since then five people have filled the position — Bruce Williams (Oct. 1990-March 1996), Clarence Krepps (Aug. 1996-May 1998), Chris Kukulski (May 1999-Aug. 2004), Jim Patrick (Nov. 2004-Oct. 2008) and Howington (Aug. 2009-Dec. 2011).

Before a city manager was in place, Kalispell had a strong mayor form of government. The mayor was still a part-time position but had more day-to-day duties than he or she does currently. The change came about when, as longtime city councilor Duane Larson remembers it, “the people felt that changing would provide a professional to head the city,” and created the position through a vote.

Most larger cities across the state, like Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and Helena, have a similarly run municipal government, with an elected mayor involved with a city council in decision-making and an appointed city manager the person who carries out those decisions. Both Whitefish and Columbia Falls have city managers. Missoula has a strong mayor form of government, but still has a “chief administrative officer” who works with the mayor and helps direct department operations.

The city manager is typically one of the highest paid city employees. That’s the case in Kalispell where Howington is making $112,500 a year, more than any other public employee in the city. The Newport City Council will vote on Howington’s new contract on Dec. 14. She was offered a three-year deal worth $135,000 a year.

The length of the position’s contract was a deal breaker in the last search. Matt McKillip, a former mayor of Kokomo, Ind., was the city’s top choice in 2009 after Patrick was fired, but he turned down the job after the city declined to give him a five-year contract. Howington, the city’s second choice, signed a rolling contract, meaning it didn’t have a set end date and rolled from year to year.

Howington’s successor could come from inside the state, something Fisher and others would like to see. But history has shown that the search tends to end up drawing from a national pool.

Larson, who has been involved with the hiring of all five city managers, said in the past the city has received over 100 applications every time the position becomes vacant. A local applicant, as far as he knows, has never been a finalist for the position because of a lack of previous experience as a manager or the lack of a required educational background, two of the city’s priorities in previous searches.

Howington was the best person for the job in the position’s 21-year history, Larson said.

“She was the best one we had. She’s done an excellent job,” he said. “She’s been really responsive to the council’s needs and the community’s needs. She was truly a manager in the strictest sense of the word.”

City councilor Bob Hafferman complimented Howington in her management of the city during her tenure, saying she was an improvement over her predecessor. But he emphasized that future city managers should not get ahead of the city council and its electorate when making changes.

“Quite frankly I’m dissatisfied that we’re not giving the manager better direction. We’re asking the city manager to lead the way,” he said. “Well for goodness sakes what (is the city council) here for then?”

Hafferman understands that Howington’s replacement might not be found in Montana, but he hopes whoever becomes the next manager is familiar with the unique “workings of Montana government.”

“We ought to look for people who understand and have had experience in either Montana or states that are similar to Montana,” he said. “You have to have a feeling of what you’re representing.”

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