Bainbridge council picks Smith to lead city hall as interim manager

With wide support, and considerable debate, an unexpected development stunned the council chambers Wednesday as Morgan Smith was suddenly voted in as the city's interim city manager.

The topic occupied the council's discussion for more than an hour as they went back to square one on the issue of the interim city manager, opting not to hire Michael Caldwell, the previous top pick for the job.

Smith promised she would do her best in the temporary position.

"I will continue to do what I have been doing, not just in the last five weeks, but in the year-and-a-half since I got here, which is working as hard as I can to make this a successful city," Smith said.

"I live here too, and I intend to live here for a long time," she said.

The choice was supported outside and inside city hall.

Council members had been lobbied by citizens in the community to hire Caldwell, but city staff also sent the council their own letter — signed by 18 employees — asking them to choose Smith instead.

"There is an old Arab proverb that goes 'Be sure to keep your camels watered, for it is they who you must depend on to get you through the desert,'" the letter begins.

"Your city staff is your camel, and we would like to make a small request of you."

The employees said Smith, who has been serving as acting city manager since former manager Brenda Bauer was fired by the council in March, should step in as the interim city manager. She has the qualifications, city employees said, and their faith.

The letter also reminded the council of the stress that staff has endured in recent years; numerous mayors, city managers and attorneys, three rounds of layoffs and working under an old union contract.

"Please give us the stability of our current leadership, which has proven more than up to the task at hand. In this case you would very much be watering the camels that have gotten you through the desert and will continue to do so," the letter ends, along with a list of staff signatures.

The council's ad hoc committee for the city manager search —  Councilwoman Anne Blair, Councilman Steve Bonkowski and Councilman David Ward — had said they considered Smith for the interim position, but wanted Caldwell instead.

Smith had been favored for the interim post by Councilman Bob Scales and Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos, but the committee expressed concerns with her experience.

During Wednesday's discussion, the council began to shift from hiring Caldwell — including those on the committee who presented him.

A central concern with Caldwell's interview by many on the council was his statements against a "status quo" operation, and that if people need to be fired, he would do so.

The committee had said earlier they didn't want an interim manager to be a "change agent," but someone who could keep the city running "steady and stable."

The community agreed — and disagreed.

A slew of islanders spoke in favor Caldwell, but the support prompted an equal group of Smith's supporters to weigh in. During the public comment period, one-by-one community members continued to pop up and down providing yeas and nays on the two choices.

While the council still opted not to hire Caldwell, the committee initially maintained that seeking an outside interim manager was the best way to go, and said the city should keep looking for another candidate to interview.

Blair said her mind had been changed over the past week after hearing from the community and staff.

"I am very persuaded at this time that we will be in solid and capable hands with Morgan as our interim manager," Blair said.

Councilwoman Sarah Blossom also changed her tune. She previously sided with the committee's decision to seek an outside interim manager.

"I like the way Morgan works and I just see this dragging out," Blossom said.

Hytopoulos again noted that hiring Morgan instead of an outside manager would save the city considerable money.

"Even after Brenda Bauer was terminated and we are currently operated without a full-time city manager, things are running the city did not come to a halt," Scales added.

"In the few weeks that she (Morgan) has been assuming both roles as city manager and deputy manager, I haven't heard one criticism from council members," he said. "All I've heard is praise for the work she has done."

"This is clearly the right decision financially as well as for the good of the city, as well as for the community," Scales added.

The council voted 4-2 to hire Smith as the interim manager, with Bonkowski and Mayor Debbi Lester in the minority. Ward was absent from the meeting.

A standing ovation followed the vote.

The council then immediately passed another motion of unanimous support for Smith in her position as interim manager.

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