Eau Claire has had a rough time of it finding a new city manager. The search is being rebooted, again, and the challenge remains. The city has to get it done this time.
Before we get too deep into the issue, let us take a moment to thank the city employees who have kept things going over what has to be one of the most trying periods of their careers. They’ve dealt with departures, delays, anticipation and illness. They have worked hard to keep the city’s government functioning without the position of city manager filled on a permanent basis.
What they have had instead is a very drawn-out search that has been complicated in any number of ways. Dale Peters delayed his departure to help guide the city through the first months of the pandemic. Dave Solberg has served diligently as the interim city manager, and deserves credit for holding that title far longer than anyone would have expected.
The city’s failure to find a permanent successor to Peters is not solely due to the council’s actions or inactions. In February we called the efforts “a case study in Murphy’s Law.” When the city had the field narrowed to two finalists last October, one of those two withdrew.
That happens. But the city then decided to review the pool of applicants and had eight candidates selected by early December. A month later it made a selection and began negotiations on a contract. That candidate then took another job. Again, that happens.
In the wake of that misfire, the city paused the search. That was disappointing, but somewhat understandable. The fact the city had twice reviewed the applicants at that time and, on both occasions, decided not to go with their second-choice finalist suggests the council was not confident in the remaining candidates when their first options went elsewhere.
The public isn’t in a position to properly evaluate that decision. The council also decided to hide the names of their finalists from the public. As we’ve said before, that decision ran counter to the requirements of the state’s open meetings and records laws. The council effectively asked the residents of Eau Claire to take the decision on good faith.
But now, with the position vacant nearly a year, the city simply must get it right. Asking people to take another miss on faith won’t hold up. Another failure will open the council to any number of questions, including why people who were apparently interested enough to open negotiations wound up walking away.
It is essential that the city get this right. We’ve said that before, for all the obvious reasons. There are few positions that can enhance the functioning of the city’s professional staff better than a good city manager. By that same token there are few positions that can harm that function more than a city manager who is a poor fit.
No business should fill a position simply to have a warm body in a chair. That’s a near-guarantee of eventually finding someone who is catastrophically wrong for the job. That might not be a huge problem for some positions, but having the top professional position in any organization go wrong is. It doesn’t matter whether the organization is public governance or private industry, that top spot has to have the right person.
Eau Claire has significant advantages that should make the position enticing. It’s a vibrant community with a strong business base and solid quality of life amenities. There’s a reason wage growth in the Chippewa Valley is outpacing the rest of Wisconsin, and why it’s expected to do so for the foreseeable future. This is a good place to live and work.
It’s in everyone’s best interests to have the city council come up with the right fit at the conclusion of a successful search. It’s in everyone’s interest to have this search be successful. There is definitely pressure on the council to do so.
What we would caution the council against is the temptation to swing for the fences in this situation. Eau Claire doesn’t need perfection. That’s probably not possible. It needs a good person to fill the role.
What we can’t have is another swing and a miss.