EAU CLAIRE — Standing in a circle inside an empty bay of Fire Station No. 2, Eau Claire City Council members took turns chatting with and listening to the three finalists for the city manager job.
Scheduled as an informal time for council members to talk face-to-face instead of over an online videoconference, the Thursday afternoon meet-and-greet sessions took place in the unusual setting as a precaution against the coronavirus.
With the large garage door open behind them, heaters warming up the cavernous space and snowflakes falling outside, the candidates would be ushered into the ambulance bay in turns to talk with the seven council members in attendance there.
First up was Gerald Smith, who currently works as the city manager for Maquoketa, a small Iowa city of about 6,000 people.
He sees the job of city manager as someone who doesn’t stay in an upper-floor office at City Hall, but instead gets out into the community to meet groups of people.
“That’s what my goal is — to be seen and heard,” he said.
Smith told the council members assembled in the fire station about the variety of communities he’s worked for — both affluent and working class, and encountering varying levels of diversity. Himself a Black man, Smith said minority city managers do face different experiences than others, including occasional inappropriate comments and letters from residents. But he said that civil service is his profession and life.
“It requires a strong intestinal fortitude, especially in this day and age,” Smith said.
Whereas Smith spent his half hour with the council sharing his background, experiences and philosophy for leading a city, the two other finalists each introduced themselves and then posed questions to their potential employers.
Kathryn Schauf, who has served as Eau Claire County administrator since 2015, didn’t require much introduction to council members she has met before, but noted that she hasn’t been in the same room with them since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you folks in person,” she said.
Schauf asked the council members what they see as the biggest challenge facing Eau Claire.
Most of the responses began with helping the community recover and move on from the pandemic, followed by efforts that council members have championed.
Councilwoman Jill Christopherson said that growing Eau Claire’s stock of affordable housing is important to her.
“It’s just not being built fast enough,” she said.
Schauf listened to their answers, occasionally asking for more details or interjecting knowledge she’s gained on the issues by working and living in the area.
She spoke favorably of Eau Claire’s growth in recent years, as well as the spirit of engagement in the community among higher education, businesses and the general public.
“There’s a lot of good ground to build on,” Schauf said.
The final interviewee of the afternoon was Will Jones, city administrator of Mequon, a city in southeastern Wisconsin with a population of over 24,000.
Outnumbering him 7-to-1, council members lightheartedly jested with Jones that they’d quiz him on their names. But Jones confidently took their challenge, pointing at each of them — every one of them bundled in winter coats and wearing masks — and correctly recited all of their first names.
He accepted their applause in response, but then said that’s the kind of research people do when seriously looking to land a job. In late December, he’d even made the 4½-hour drive to Eau Claire with his wife so they could stay overnight, learn more about local schools, check out the area’s amenities and even attend a church service.
“Eau Claire is a very full-service community,” he said, noting it is larger than other communities he’s served.
Like Schauf, Jones posed the council members questions about challenges facing the community, but also wanted to know their goals for the near future.
Council Vice President Catherine Emmanuelle said she is eager for a program she’s championed to move forward. That participatory budgeting program, which gives the public a larger voice in how some of the city’s projects funding is spent, was delayed last year because the city did not host in-person gatherings due to the pandemic.
Councilwoman Emily Berge also listed planning documents the city has drawn up in recent years on sustainable energy, transportation, parking and other subjects.
“We do have a lot of plans that were just kind of halted,” she said, adding that the next city manager would be responsible for moving those efforts forward.
Aside from Thursday afternoon’s meet-and-greet, the numerous interviews for the candidates are being done using online videoconferencing technology.
The City Council will conduct its formal interviews of the finalists this afternoon. Before that, a panel of rank-and-file city employees will pose questions to the three candidates this morning.
Prior to Thursday afternoon’s meet-and-greet, the candidates were interviewed by city department directors and a seven-person panel representing different community institutions and organizations.
Videos from the community panel interviews have been posted to the city’s website for the general public to view.
An online survey is available for residents to give their opinions on the three finalists for the council to consider. The survey will be open until noon Tuesday.
At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, the council is scheduled to begin deliberations on the three job candidates.
The new manager will follow Dale Peters, a longtime city employee who retired as manager in October. David Solberg, city engineer, has been serving as interim city manager since Peters’ retirement.
The new city manager would get a maximum salary of $175,000, according to the advertisement for the job. In Peters’ final year on the job, his salary was $158,787 plus $4,764 in deferred compensation and a $6,000 annual car allowance.