Candidates for top city position sell themselves to council

WILLMAR -- Willmar City Council members began the process Tuesday of interviewing candidates to replace longtime City Administrator Michael Schmit who will retire at the end of July. Schmit has held the position since it was established in 1990 b...

Steve Okins

WILLMAR -- Willmar City Council members began the process Tuesday of interviewing candidates to replace longtime City Administrator Michael Schmit who will retire at the end of July. Schmit has held the position since it was established in 1990 by the council.

Six candidates were recommended by search consultant Sharon Klumpp, vice president of Springsted Inc. of St. Paul. The council held one-hour interviews with three candidates Tuesday afternoon and will hold one-hour interviews with three more candidates this afternoon.

In the morning, the candidates meet with department directors and receive a tour of the city by a department director.

Council members took turns asking a series of 12 questions developed by Klumpp with comments from council members that cover a broad range of administrative issues. Mayor Frank Yanish said the questions were designed to stimulate discussion.

Those interviewed Tuesday afternoon were Charlene Stevens, assistant county manager for Sedgwick County, Wichita, Kan.; Steve Okins, Willmar finance director; and Jeffrey Repp, administrator for the city of Cumberland, Md.


Stevens, who has young children, said she was looking for an opportunity to move closer to extended family in South Dakota. She wants to advance in her career, is interested in returning to the daily involvement of municipal government and is looking for a long-term contract.

Stevens said she has replaced tenured staff people. She said she works well in building partnerships and has an absolute passion for delivering quality services to the public.

Stevens said her role as administrator would be to make sure everyone has the same information before they come to a council meeting, to make recommendations, bring options to the council and explain how she arrived at those recommendations.

When asked about strategies to control costs, Stevens said everyone is working on cost containment. She would evaluate services, look for duplication and look at public-private services.

As an example of collaboration with other agencies, Stevens said she was the lead staff member on development of an aviation work force training center that involved partnership with business, the city and a community college. She said the project was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

Stevens said making information available in a variety of languages was one way to engage people in a city with a diverse population. She favors talking directly with people and finding out what is important to them.

Stevens said she is comfortable with change but knows not everyone is. Stevens said she would try to understand those who would be resistant to change. "Then you can work through it. Change is what you want to work toward and with,'' she said.

Okins said his leadership qualities include the ability to listen to others, listen to their ideas and find common ground. Having lived in Willmar for 25 years, Okins cited his knowledge of the city and said it was important to get people involved.


His role as administrator would be to capitalize on the strengths of people. If council members have differences of opinion, he would work to help others understand their positions.

When asked how he would present policies to the council, Okins said it depends whether the policies are current or new. With a current policy, he would help council members understand the policy, have staff members serve as a resource, and offer pros and cons. If it's a new policy, Okins would seek direction from the council and use the League of Minnesota Cities and Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities as resources.

If hired as administrator, Okins said he would work toward maintaining the affordable quality of life that he and others have become accustomed to in Willmar. Okins said he would find a finance director replacement as soon as possible.

As a way to keep council members informed, Okins said he would like to see an increase in the use of technology. Constant communication is important, he said.

Okins urged council members to review how they and the new administrator can come together as a group.

Repp also said he was looking for an opportunity to return to the Midwest to be closer to family and is looking for a long-term commitment.

Repp said his leadership qualities include communicating with the mayor and council and said his door will be open. Repp said he has experience in replacing senior staff members and said he believes in having the community involved in the process.

When asked how he would respond to split council votes, Repp said all he can do is provide accurate information.


Repp said controlling cost involves looking at the proper number of employees to provide the service. Repp said he not opposed to privatizing city services, but said the decision is up to the mayor and council.

Repp said he would have to research the question of how to provide dialogue to a diverse population. He said Cumberland does not have a diverse population.

At the end of the four-hour session, Yanish said the council had good candidates and he said the interviews went well.

This afternoon, the council will interview J. Crystal Prentice, Waseca city manager; Jeffrey O'Neill, Monticello city administrator; and James Payne, a partner with Precision Organizing and Records Management of Rio Rancho, N.M.

After the final interviews today, council members will narrow the field and decide which candidates they want to invite for a final round of interviews.

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