by CHRIS ROGERS
They aren’t elected and many citizens never know their names, but on a day-to-day basis, it’s administrators, not mayors or board chairs, who run local governments. Both the Winona County Board and the Winona City Council will face decisions in the near future about who their next top administrator should be.
Whatever choice they make will be an important one. Elected officials rely on administrators for the information they need to make decisions and to put those decisions into action. Administrators are the head budgeteers, the top managers, and often the public face of the organization. “That’s a lot — also being able to leap buildings in a single bound and being more powerful than a locomotive,” County Board member Marie Kovecsi joked.
“They are the CEO. They set the tone for the organization,” Winona Mayor Scott Sherman said. “They help convey messages from council to staff and back. So in those regards, I think the city manager position is extremely important.”
“I guess I’d liken it a little bit to a football team having a coach,” County Board member Steve Jacob said. “Could the team function without the coach for a game or two? Probably, but I think they would flounder without the coach there.”
After longtime County Administrator Ken Fritz announced in August that he plans to retire at the end of the year, Winona County Human Resources Director and Assistant Administrator Maureen Holte asked the County Board how they wanted to go about filling the position. The board ultimately agreed on Holte’s recommendation for an outside firm to lead a search process, and late last month, the County Board hired an executive search firm for $20,000 to handle advertising, headhunting, candidate screening, and negotiations.
The board aims to conduct final interviews in late December.
At city hall, former Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi parted ways with the city on Oct. 8. This Monday the City Council formally appointed Assistant City Manager and Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl to be interim city manager.
Ubl has spearheaded numerous major projects for the city, from the redesign of Levee Park to the restoration of the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre, and recently led the city’s successful effort to win millions in state funding for the Bluff Traverse hiking and mountain biking trail and a paved Riverfront Trail.
The City Council has not yet discussed what its plan for selecting a permanent city manager will be.
“We have literally had zero discussion on it,” Mayor Scott Sherman told the Post. “I’ve had zero discussion with staff other than if we’re going to do a search or if we’re going to stick with Chad.” He continued, “I think we’re all aware we’re going to have to make a decision at some point. I really don’t have a timeline or anything … I really want Chad to at least get emails figured out — just give him a week or two here. But Chad and I did say that in a week or two here, we’ll sit down and see what the next steps are.” Sherman added of city staff members, “I’ll have to follow their lead on what is normal procedure and what the timeline is.”
Ubl and Winona Human Resources Manager Deb Beckman said they do not have plans to raise with the City Council the issue of how to fill the position long-term or whether the council wants to conduct an external candidate search.
“It’s a City Council decision how long they want this designation to go,” Ubl said, referring to his new role. “And it’s really a City Council decision if they want to conduct a search.”
Sarvi’s departure was so recent, the city is not that far along yet, City Council member Michelle Alexander said in an interview. She expected at some point the council would discuss how it wanted to proceed. “We’re trying to wade our way through this and then we’ll figure out where we’re going,” she stated.
“Yes, we should talk about it,” City Council member Eileen Moeller told the Post. “Based on what I know of other high level positions, there should be a search.”
“I would expect to at least broach that subject at some point,” Sherman said. “I really don’t know when or how … Maybe we talk in a closed meeting or something like that. The decision either way, we’d have to be public about that.”
The Minnesota Open Meeting Law does not allow elected officials to meet in private to discuss hiring.
For now, Sherman praised the city’s experienced department heads for stepping up. “I’m pretty confident we won’t have any issues or hiccups or problems. I trust the staff there. We couldn’t have much more experience in terms of the successors or the next in line,” he said.
Jacob expressed similar confidence in Holte and the county staff, should the County Board not hire a new administrator by January. “I’m not nearly as concerned about doing this fast as much as I’m concerned about making sure the right candidate is available,” he said.