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Immediate search begins for next Bainbridge city manager

The City Council has decided to pursue a “change agent” who would begin as interim City Manager Lee Walton’s temporary replacement with the potential of being hired permanently.

“The priority is we have to make changes now,” Councilor Bill Knobloch said during a rare Sunday afternoon City Council meeting.

Walton’s contract is nearing its expiration, and he has told the council that it needs to find a replacement before the biennial budget process begins in the summer.

Walton said there is not enough time to search for, and hire, a permanent manager before the budget work begins because the process would take approximately six months.

The council said it will begin the search for an interim immediately by spreading the word – through Walton and his connections – that the city is looking for an interim manager for a period of a year or two that may become the permanent replacement to Mark Dombroski, who left the city last October.

Walton said he’s found replacements before, but searching for an interim who may want the permanent job is a new challenge.

“It’s unusual,” he said. “It’s a different animal than I’ve done before.”

This position represents a shift in thinking displayed at previous meetings, where the council appeared set on using a search firm.

A larger-scale search could come later, after the council deals with a number of issues over the next several months.

Those issues include the biennial budget process and negotiations on a new collective-bargaining agreement, which occurs once every three years.

Walton advised that his replacement should be hired sometime around the end of April to allow time for the candidate to prepare for those tasks.

Some council members worried that with the short turnaround and the bevy of issues to be resolved, the city won’t be able to get the “change agent” it desires.

“I think we’re trying to find the outstanding candidate and call him the interim in the hope that we can get him in the next one or two months,” said Councilor Barry Peters.

With the title of interim, even if it does have the possibility of turning into a permanent job, Walton said the pool of applicants will shrink. But he told the council he has a number of candidates in mind for the interim job, most of whom possess expertise in finance.

It seems improbable, several councilors said, that this offer will entice a current manager to leave his or her position to come to the island.

Walton said most likely such candidates will be either people like him who enjoy jumping from city to city, effecting change in a short time, or up-and-coming young assistant managers who want to make the jump.

“I don’t think you’re going to find a top-rated manager to leave his current position to take a one-year contract,” Walton said.

Walton said he will remain through the budget process if the council is unable to find a replacement in time, but he prefers a new manager being installed.

“You need to get someone in here more competent than I am to help you with a very difficult season coming up,” Walton said. “It’s going to be a tough year. I just don’t think I’m sufficiently capable of doing the job you need done.”

Since Walton joined the administration in November, he has solved a number of pressing issues. He and interim Deputy Manager Stan McNutt put the change of government in motion by changing council meeting structures and building a governance manual.

Walton helped free the city from a frustrating financial bind by brokering a partial settlement between the city and the Bainbridge Ratepayers Alliance.

The agreement allowed the city to secure bond funding to finish upgrades to the Waste Water Treatment Plant. Walton also oversaw the two-month-long budget process that resulted in the council authorizing more than $1 million in cuts to fund reserve accounts.

But many issues remain. A sense of distrust from the public, stemming from projects like Island Gateway and restoration of Strawberry Plant Park, has damaged the city’s credibility in the eyes of some members of the community.

It’s important that the next manager is quick to understand the pulse of this community, which councilors say wants to be fiscally responsible but also not give up its identity in favor of cutting all costs.

“This community has such a sense of place,” Peters said. “It’s not the kind of community that practices the theory that the only good government is the one you can drag to the bathtub and drown.”

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