Brainerd City Council: 2 finalists remain for city administrator post
The Brainerd City Council has narrowed the field to two finalists for the city administrator post. After several hours of interviews and deliberations Friday night, the council is inviting Mark Sievert and Patrick Christopherson back to city hall...
The Brainerd City Council has narrowed the field to two finalists for the city administrator post.
After several hours of interviews and deliberations Friday night, the council is inviting Mark Sievert and Patrick Christopherson back to city hall for a second round of interviews in two weeks. Both candidates indicated intentions of staying in the position for the long term, a characteristic the council said was a priority after the city has seen three different administrators in the past three years.
The position became available following a retirement announcement from current city administrator Patrick Wussow in February. Wussow served as city administrator a little more than a year before the announcement of his planned departure June 6.
The city is working with Springsted, the same public sector advisory company that helped select Wussow, to fill the position.
The two were selected from a group of four interviewed Friday of an original five finalists. One of the finalists, Lake Elmo Administrator Dean Zuleger, withdrew his name from consideration prior to interviews. The two finalists eliminated from contention are Lake City Administrator Alan Lanning and Moose Lake Administrator/HRA Executive Director Pat Oman.
The interviews were open to the public, although the only person who attended was former council member Dolly Matten.
Sievert has experience in similar city
Sievert is currently city administrator in Fergus Falls, where he's served since 2000. He earned his bachelor's degree at St. Cloud State University and his master's degree in urban and regional studies from Minnesota State University in Mankato.
Brainerd is the second city in which Sievert has interviewed for an administrator position in as many months, although he told the city council Friday this year is the first time he's sought a new job since he began his service in Fergus Falls. The other city was Bemidji.
His previous work experience at Lake Country Power in Grand Rapids is one reason he applied for the position in Brainerd. Sievert said he and his wife, who sat in on Sievert's interview, loved living in this part of the state and would like to do so again.
"I've always tried to make at least a five-plus year commitment wherever I go," Sievert said. "If it's a good ride, I'll stay longer than that."
Sievert said he does not like to micromanage departments and trusts the skills and expertise of department heads while ensuring they participate in discussions of city business.
"You give them an opportunity to succeed and you support them," Sievert said. "You take the blame when they fail and you give them the rewards, and I think that creates an environment to really motivate people."
Sievert said the the most important issues he sees Brainerd needing to address are similar to those facing Fergus Falls, which he sees as a regional center as well.
"I think economic development is probably one of our biggest issues," Sievert said. "We are an employment draw. We also have that responsibility to provide a good mix of services for people."
Sievert said for the past six to eight years, the city council in Fergus Falls has operated under very fiscally conservative policies.
"They're OK with the levy going up, but they don't want to see the tax rate go up," Sievert said. "If our community is growing and we're growing the tax base, then we have the capacity to levy more taxes. If the tax base isn't growing, then they're very reluctant and very conservative with that levy."
Sievert said one of the most difficult financial situations he's faced as a city administrator were various cuts to local government aid. He said he worked with department heads on their budgets, establishing theoretical targets of what might happen should a certain percentage need to be cut all the way to cutting the entire department.
"We needed to demonstrate the severity of it," Sievert said. "I felt really good that we were able to get through those situations without losing employees. ... We didn't lay people off."
The council asked how he'd handled a situation where he was the center of media attention. Sievert explained during the last election he and the city clerk filed election violations complaints against one individual and a shopper newspaper, alleging failure to properly file necessary documentation on campaign spending. The complaints were dropped after he sat down with the parties seeking resolution and the documentation was submitted, although Sievert said he "took a real beating in the media" for supposedly choosing sides in the races.
In discussions after the interviews, council member Chip Borkenhagen said he felt Sievert seemed to be an "honest, down-to-earth, hardworking guy."
Council member Gabe Johnson said he felt Sievert's experience in a town with many similarities to Brainerd would give him an advantage should he be selected.
"Especially with a town the exact same size, very similar character, a lot of the same issues, he could come in and know exactly what he's doing," Johnson said.
One concern raised about Sievert was whether he was seeking a new job because he did not get along with some of the newly elected council members in Fergus Falls.
Christopherson says he is vocal, outgoing
Christopherson has been the county coordinator/personnel director for Kanabec County since 2012. Previously, he worked as the city administrator in Jackson from 2010-12. He earned his bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a master's degree in political science/diplomacy from Norwich University in Northfield, Vt.
Most recently, he was a candidate for Steele County administrator and was a finalist for Bemidji city manager.
Christopherson described his management style as focused on consensus building and constant communication, seeking "buy in" to city policies from top to bottom.
"Department heads in particular and elected officials as well have a vested interest in success of a policy," Christopherson said.
He said his number one priority as an administrator is to save his board from being surprised about anything.
To do that, he said, he is utilizing his "ability to communicate with city officials as well as the public and staff every step of the way, every day of the week."
Christopherson said his financial strategy focuses on master planning rather than addressing things in a stop-gap manner.
"Some administrators have been known to have that five-year plan to say that they did it," he said. "I'd like to have that as a map for us to follow."
He cited an example of what he felt was poor financial planning by the previous city administrator in Jackson, a strategy that looked good on paper but was not addressing capital needs properly. The city had $15 million in reserves, but meanwhile the water and sewer infrastructure in the city was crumbling, Christopherson said. With several hundred people looking to move into town to work at a new industrial facility, he said his staff needed to address that immediately.
"That's great, that's good PR, it makes everybody feel happy," Christopherson said. "But it left us with a lot of work to do and in my mind it was poor financial management."
When he left Jackson, Christopherson said his own prudence left $13 million in the reserves while several needed projects were completed.
A demonstration of his consensus building in working with other organizations can be seen in the development of a community health board in partnership with Pine County. Kanabec and Pine counties have a historically difficult relationship, he said, so "the very fact that we are at the table right now is amazing." Philosophically, Christopherson said anytime a partnership can lead to increased efficiency, it makes sense.
The council asked Christopherson how long he sees himself remaining in Brainerd, particularly in light of his history of changing jobs. Before assuming the post in Jackson, Christopherson worked as city administrator for 19 days in Mahnomen and the two years prior in Wanamingo.
Christopherson said his moves previously were motivated by his wife's education and job changes, and now with two small children, they are seeking a place to settle down and raise their family.
"I see this is a retirement gig," he said. "As long as this council would deem me worthy to fulfill their obligations, we're here for 16, 17, 18 years."
Christopherson told the council if they were looking for an administrator would be "in the shadows count(ing) money," he is not the right candidate for them.
"I'm outgoing. I love to be involved in recreation projects. I love to be involved in the community. I don't like to sit back and just count my days from 8 to 4:30 and leave," Christopherson said.
Following interviews, every council member except Council President Gary Scheeler listed Christopherson as one of their two final choices. Scheeler said he was not convinced Christopherson would stay in the position as long as the council was hoping.
"The best thing he's done in the last 10 years is interviews, so that's why he sounds so damn good when he sits there," Scheeler said.
Second round set for May 15
The council will bring back Sievert and Christopherson on May 15. The two finalists will have the opportunity to meet with department heads, who will in turn be able to express a preference to the council. The council decided to ask that each finalist give a presentation on their vision for moving Brainerd forward.
The presentation and second interviews will begin at 4 p.m. and the council intends to make a final selection that day.
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or email@example.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .