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Willmar, Minn., City Council member doubts administrator's judgment in filling Public Works post

WILLMAR -- City Council member Ron Christianson and City Administrator Charlene Stevens differ on filling an expected vacancy in the Public Works Department.

Christianson told Stevens during last week's Labor Relations Committee meeting that he was not comfortable with her judgment in filling the public works superintendent position, based on "things'' that have happened.

"That's your opinion,'' responded committee member Denis Anderson. "That's not shared. I think we're way out of bounds.''

Christianson said he favors promoting from within the department to fill the post that will be vacated when longtime superintendent Ron Gilbertson retires July 8.

Christianson asked what role the committee or council plays in filling the position.

"The question is: What is our job? I think that's a big problem with the City Council. We're policymakers, but to what point where do we cross the line?'' he asked. "If you don't promote from within, what are the other employees going to think? Bringing in from external will affect morale.''

Christianson said he did not think looking for an external candidate or candidates was necessary. He said there is a lot going on in Willmar and said he wants a smooth transition.

"If we get someone external, they come in here, they better have a whole lot of experience somewhere,'' he said. "There's a lot going on here. Our internal people out there know a whole lot about what's going on.''

Stevens requested, and received, committee authorization to advertise, interview and fill the position. But she would be required to first post the position internally before advertising externally.

The committee vote is a recommendation to the council and the council will consider it tonight.

Stevens said the public works superintendent is a front-line supervisory position that is normally appointed by the city administrator through an interview process with herself and a number of other city personnel.

She said typically no council members are involved in the interview process and the appointment is not returned to the committee or council for approval.

The process is different from appointing a department director that receives approval of the council under the City Charter, she explained.

Her recommendation was to simultaneously post the vacancy internally and externally to save time and get the best individual possible. Stevens said she does not want to preclude anyone.

"I think we have some strong internal candidates. But I think it's always also an opportunity to see if there are any external candidates to be interviewed and go through the hiring process,'' Stevens said. "If an internal candidate doesn't rise or doesn't apply, we've not lost time in that process.''

Committee member Jim Dokken asked why the city would advertise externally if the city feels it has a qualified internal employee.

Anderson said the city had internal and external candidates for the fire chief/fire marshal position. He said the position was filled with an external candidate "and it seems like everything is working out.''

Christianson said the comparison was an apple and an orange.

Anderson said he just wants the city to have the best person.

Stevens said promoting from within, and hiring "new blood'' from the outside with new ideas, is a balance in every organization.

"The employee has to be able to meet the expectations of management,'' she said. "That's why we go through a hiring process, not necessarily go with an heir apparent system and it creates a fair process for all employees,'' she said.

"That's has been my hiring experience over some 18 years in local government and it has served me very well in getting the right fit, the right match in positions,'' she said.

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