City Manager Search Expected to End this Week

By Beacon Staff

The search for the next Kalispell city manager is expected to conclude this week with one of three finalists being offered the position.

Charles Harball, the city attorney and acting city manager, was drawing up a contract on Monday. Harball said the city was in discussions with a candidate and would very likely make a job offer early this week.

After interviewing three finalists, the mayor and city council deliberated in a closed session about a preferred candidate and terms of a contract. An official decision would be made at a council meeting, possibly on April 9.

The three finalists — Doug Russell, John Sutherland and Tom Steele — each took turns sitting in the manager’s seat inside council chambers being interviewed for about an hour and a half on March 30.

The hope is that Kalispell’s new chief administrative officer will pick up where the last one left off.

“For me that is the scary part, the scariness of making the transition,” councilor Kari Gabriel said at one point during an interview.

The interview questions from council and the mayor were aimed at dissecting the candidates’ ideologies and strategies. How do you prioritize while juggling a lot of work at once? How do you promote healthy dialogue, both within city government and in the community? How should a city government operate during an economic downturn?

In answering the majority of interview questions, Russell, the youngest candidate at 38 and the current city manager in Yankton, S.D., emphasized the importance of a city’s reinvention after tough times. Cities that successfully emerge from bad economies build on their strengths and take advantage of opportunities when they arise, he said.

“The biggest thing you can do is continue to reinvest in what you have,” Russell said.

Councilor Jim Atkinson praised Russell’s ideas for managing Kalispell, and even joked about the candidate being too good to be true.

“You’ve got a lot of good ideas. Have you ever been accused of smoke and mirrors? Don’t answer that,” Atkinson said laughing.

Russell still responded by saying, “Most of what I’ve talked about and what I’ve been saying, these are things I’ve done, and things I’ve been part of.”

Sutherland, who most recently served as the county manager of Luna County in New Mexico from May 2009 to July 2011, leaned on his strong financial background during his interview. He said in the past he led initiatives that reduced a budget by 28 percent but was still able to increase staff salaries, leading councilor Tim Kluesner to ask, “How?”

“By squeezing the turnip, you soon find out there is slack in a budget,” Sutherland said. “I hate to say this but I almost guarantee there is slack in your budget.”

Steele, most recently the city manager in West Jordan, Utah, for almost two years and with 29 years of experience as a city manager and assistant manager of several cities, touted a philosophy centered on long-range planning.

“I think one of the great goals you have in policy setting and implementation in a city is sustainability,” he said. “Not just ecological sustainability, but I’m talking about fiscal and social sustainability of a city.”

The search began in late November after Jane Howington announced her resignation after just over two years. Over 40 applicants applied for the position and a six-person committee whittled the number down to four. The number dropped to three after a candidate withdrew because of a family emergency.