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Search for new city administrator slow

For now, its drawers are full.

But come the end of the month, the desk of City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs will be empty, and no one’s been selected to fill it.

“My worst case scenario would be the first of April,” said Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, asked when Briggs’ yet-to-be-determined successor might take over.

Briggs announced her resignation in July, citing ongoing strife between the mayor, City Council and staff, but delayed her actual departure until Jan. 31 to help ease the transition.

The search for her successor is under way; applications will be accepted through Jan. 11, with several phases of interviews set to happen once the field has been narrowed to a handful of candidates.

The hire itself won’t come until February, after Briggs is gone. Even then, the new hire will likely need some time to transition between jobs.

The original plan was to have a new administrator on board to start the year, so that he or she could benefit from Briggs’ tutelage. Instead, an interim administrator will be hired to handle the city’s everyday business until a permanent one is selected.

Kordonowy has a shortlist of candidates to fill the interim role, though she wouldn’t name them.

Councilors were told in August by the headhunter in charge of the hiring process that there could be a dearth of qualified candidates to succeed Briggs, but Kordonowy said that’s not the reason for the delay.

“It has nothing to do with a lack of candidates at all,” she said. “It was a practical decision.”

Kordonowy said she doesn’t know how many people had applied for the position.

Greg Prothman, a Seattle hiring consultant who is in charge of the search, couldn’t be reached for comment.

The process was slowed in the fall as discussions continued over the reason for Briggs’ departure. As the holidays neared, officials chose to push the process into this year, so the new City Council could be included in the decision.

“It’s very surprising,” said Councilman Bill Knobloch, of the fact that the city isn’t closer to a hire despite having six months to search. Still, Knobloch said he isn’t overly concerned. The city has had success with interim leaders in the past, including in the period between the departure of former City Administrator Lynn Nordby and Briggs.

Other councilors said the city should hire a different kind of interim administrator – one that could help the city transition to a new form of government.

“Whoever is coming in needs to understand that change may happen,” said Councilman Kjell Stoknes. “I think we’ve demonstrated enough flaws in this system that enough people are beginning to ask whether the city should explore the idea of professional management.”

That would mean eliminating the mayor and city administrator positions in favor of a city manager who reports directly to the council.

Such a change wouldn’t happen without a community discussion and a referendum, perhaps as early as this fall, Stoknes said.

But the possibility of a governmental restructuring could be a deterrent to candidates, Briggs said.

“It’s a significant concern,” she said. “The way the two positions operate is considerably different. It’s definitely something a candidate would want to talk through.”

In general, Briggs said, the city administration community is “tight-knit” and meets on a regular basis. She’s entertained a few inquiries about her position, and she’s responded with candor.

“I’ve said we’ve had difficulty in reaching cooperation and consensus,” she said. “But I’ve also said it’s the intent of the majority of the new council to operate in a different way.”

Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said the city needs to be clear about what it’s asking the next administrator to do.

“What is clear is that the city is in a state of flux,” she said. “It makes sense to look for an interim (administrator) until we’re stable financially and organizationally.”

Briggs said the final month of her tenure will be busy, as she transfers projects to others on the staff. She’s still “shopping” for her next job, but said it could be in the nonprofit sector.

“My next gig will be something different,” she said. “I’m at a good point in my life to make a change.”

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