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City Council looks to firm in its search for Schmit's replacement

Willmar City Administrator Michael Schmit, left, reads paperwork during a Finance Committee meeting in Willmar. Schmit says the city could survive a short delay of several weeks or maybe a little longer in receiving the first of two local government aid payments in the event of a shutdown. Also pictured is City Finance Director Steve Okins. Tribune photo

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council on Wednesday voted 4-3 to hire Springsted Inc. of St. Paul to assist the council in the search for a candidate to replace long-time City Administrator Michael Schmit. Schmit will retire on July 31 after serving 36 years with the city including 20 as administrator.

Voting in favor were Doug Reese, Denis Anderson, Tim Johnson and Steve Ah-mann. Voting ag-ainst were Ron Chr-istianson, Rick Fa-gerlie and Jim Dok-ken. Bruce DeBlieck was not present.

During a nearly 90-minute special session, council members discussed the merits of Springsted, which is the city's bond consultant and is familiar with city finances, and Brimeyer Fursman of Maplewood.

Representatives of both firms were interviewed by the council during a Dec. 8 work session. Springsted and Brimeyer Fursman were the only two firms that responded to the city's request for executive search proposals.

Springsted's fee will be about $16,300, while Brimeyer Fursman's fee was about $20,000. Springsted's extensive work schedule will begin with council member interviews on Jan. 24 and will end with approval of an agreement with a candidate on May 23.

City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday told the council that he checked with a handful of cities that had used Springsted and Brimeyer to find executive staff, and Halliday said most officials reported good things about both firms.

Council discussion included a vote on a motion offered by Christianson that the city first post the job opening in hopes of learning whether any current department heads were interested in the administrator's position. He wanted to look internally first before hiring a search firm. He said the council would do current department heads a disservice by not letting them come forward.

Anderson disagreed, saying the position is very important and that the council owes the citizens to get the best person possible. He said internal candidates would have to stack up against what is out there. Anderson said the city is a $25 million operation and he could not fathom not having one person in charge.

Fagerlie said he knows the city's employees and said he did not need a search firm to tell him how to run the city. Fagerlie said department heads have the background and have demonstrated the competency.

Also, Fagerlie questioned the need for an administrator when department heads ran their departments years ago and he thought it worked fine.

Dokken agreed with Fagerlie and said the council should look internally first.

Reese, a long-time council member, said he first opposed establishing the administrator's position, but said over time he gained a comfort level in having an administrator.

"When you have a search firm and local people can apply, it eliminates personal preferences, and we have a broader comparison: who is available and experience,'' said Reese.

The council defeated Christianson's motion with Reese, Anderson, Ahmann and Johnson voting against and Christianson, Dokken and Fagerlie in favor.

The council then discussed which firm to hire and voted to hire Springsted.

Following the council meeting, the Labor Relations Committee met and voted to accept Schmit's recommendation to promote acting public works director Holly Wilson to public works director at a salary of $86,624. The full council will consider the recommendation on Monday night.

Wilson had been holding the interim position for several months and had served as assistant city engineer under Mel Odens until Odens resigned this year to take a position with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150