EAU CLAIRE — Usually home to an ambulance, a large garage stall in Eau Claire Fire Station No. 2 will be one site today where City Council members will informally meet the three finalists vying to become the next city manager.
The unusual setting for a meet-and-greet is part of the city’s precautions to prevent elected officials, job candidates and employees from catching COVID-19 while still conducting a thorough hiring process for Eau Claire’s top job.
“We had logistical problems figuring out how to do this,” city human resources director Victoria Seltun said.
At a work session last week, council members suggested holding the informal chat sessions outdoors to greatly reduce the chance of spreading germs between people. The potential for bad weather — today’s forecast does include snow — made the city steer away from that. Erecting a tent in a city parking lot had also been considered, Seltun said, but noise from heaters used to keep them warm could’ve drowned out conversation.
So to accommodate council members who are not comfortable meeting in an enclosed space during the coronavirus pandemic, the ambulance bay with its garage door open will be part of today’s planned meet-and-greets. Other council members who are OK meeting indoors will have the chance to speak with the finalists in the council chamber inside City Hall.
As multiple council members are expected to attend the informal one-on-one meetings with the candidates, the city did issue a public notice of the day’s events. While that does allow the general public to observe this afternoon’s events, the city isn’t actively encouraging that because of the precautions it is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re just trying not to advertise it widely for safety and health reasons,” Seltun said.
She consulted with public health officials, who still discourage large gatherings, when planning details of the meet-and-greets.
For both settings, council members will take turns talking to the finalists for a few minutes, keep a six-foot distance between people and wear face masks to limit contact between people.
Scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. today, the three candidates will rotate between the two different sites for meet-and-greets and each take a tour of City Hall guided by interim City Manager David Solberg.
The three finalists are current Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf, Mequon City Administrator Will Jones and Maquoketa, Iowa, City Manager Gerald Smith.
As of Wednesday afternoon, council President Terry Weld didn’t have a headcount of how many council members planning to attend today’s icebreaker conversations with the finalists. Aside from their part-time duties as elected city officials, members do have day jobs, but Weld but expected all would try to be at the meet-and-greets at some point in the afternoon.
The public notice states that no formal action will be taken this afternoon, but information council members gather during the event could be used in their decision-making.
To date all of the council’s discussions with candidates have been done over the internet, but city leaders felt it was important to meet face-to-face at some point.
“It just gives us a little more insight into the candidate,” Weld said.
For some council members, this will be their first time inside a city building since the pandemic began in mid-March and led public meetings to be conducted through online videoconferencing software.
This morning, the manager candidates will be in online interviews with city department directors and a panel of seven community members. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, those on the panel represent the Eau Claire school district, Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, UW-Eau Claire, the Eau Claire City-County Board of Health, Visit Eau Claire, the Black & Brown Women Power Coalition and the city’s retirees, Seltun said.
Video recordings of the job candidates’ responses to the panel will be posted to the city’s website for the public to watch.
In regular times, the city would’ve considered a forum where the general public would be encouraged to speak with the manager hopefuls. But with the ongoing pandemic, the interview videos and an online survey that residents can submit to the council are ways the city is providing for the public to participate in the hiring process.
“Without having a chance for a big meet-and-greet, this will be the next best thing,” Weld said.
Formal interviews continue Friday morning with a panel of rank-and-file city employees and finally the full City Council in the afternoon — all conducted via web-based videoconferencing.
The council is scheduling a meeting on Tuesday afternoon to begin its deliberations on hiring a candidate after reviewing comments provided by the interview panels and community surveys.
Seeking out a new city manager has taken nearly a year due to delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dale Peters first announced last February that he would retire in May, but then decided to continue serving as city manager while Eau Claire dealt with the pandemic. The city put its manager search on hold in mid-March, but then resumed in June. Peters announced in September that he would retire in October.