Doug Russell’s first day as Kalispell’s new city manager began at 7 a.m., June 18. He had a full schedule lined up, beginning with visiting every department and shaking hands with every city employee he could. Twelve hours later he was inside City Hall for a council meeting, listening and jotting down notes for three hours.
“What’s always interesting is to see the similarities between municipalities,” he said from inside his new office the next day. “I’m really excited to see what’s going on in Kalispell and to hear not only what’s happened in the past but what’s currently happening, and what people’s ideas are for the future.”
After six months of being in a state of flux, Kalispell’s municipal government appears to be settling into place. And to say Russell is happy to be here appears to be an understatement. Becoming the city’s new chief administrative officer signifies a personal mission accomplished for the 38-year-old Wyoming native. Northwest Montana felt like home before it ever was. Russell graduated from Montana State University. His wife Lara’s family lives in Great Falls. For years his family reunions were held at Flathead Lake.
“Quite honestly, one of the opportunities we were looking at was coming back to Montana at some point,” Russell said.
He emerged from an applicant pool of 44 during Kalispell’s hiring process after Jane Howington resigned in January to take the city manager job in Rhode Island. Right away Russell stood out during the interview process with two other finalists. Although he was the youngest applicant he still had a considerable amount of experience in city government, having already worked in three different municipal governments.
In conversation, Russell describes his career assent in similar terms to how he believes a city can best develop: through reinvestment and seized opportunities.
“I’ve been blessed with organizations that have reinvested in me from a professional standpoint,” he said. “You just continue developing and take advantage of opportunities that emerge.”
Russell moved to Colorado after college where he started his first job working for city and county government. While in Denver, Russell returned to school and earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Colorado at Denver. From there he moved around to Kansas, Wyoming and South Dakota, where he served as the city manager in Yankton for the last four years.
When Russell stepped down from his position in Yankton, the best word to describe the widespread feeling was “concern,” according to Al Viereck, the finance officer and acting city manager in Yankton.
“We were sad to see him go,” Viereck said. “I think (Kalispell is) going to do well with Doug.”
Viereck, who’s served in Yankton’s city government since 1998, said Russell was a consummate professional and remained level headed through adversity. He negotiated union contracts and spurred significant commercial growth during the last four years.
“Doug was also instrumental in landing a huge box store (Menards). Our retail in general the last year and a half has been incredible,” Viereck said. “For what it’s worth, Doug is probably the sole reason. A lot of people worked together but it was Doug’s initiative.”
The timing of Russell’s arrival in Kalispell is rather fortuitous. The city is in the midst of establishing next year’s fiscal budget while also confronting several fundamental issues, like annexation and development.
Russell said his timing allows him to immediately immerse himself in the big issues. He understands Kalispell has gone through tough times during the recession but he hopes his work can help steer his new home in the right direction.
“During these stressful times it really allows new methodologies and new technologies to play a forerunner in terms of how we deliver services,” he said. “It definitely creates some stress, but it also is an exciting time to see new developments and new processes fit into government operation, and new innovations and new ways of looking at things.”
Russell does believe Kalispell has been through the worst of it already. He sees the national economy picking back up, and that means cities may reap the benefits.
“I’m very eager to see where the community will be 10 years from now,” he said. “Those communities that are prepared, I think you’re going to see those are the first ones that progress gravitates toward, however that progress is defined. Kalispell is pretty well situated for that.”
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