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Process to replace city manager still in works

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Posted: Thursday, July 8, 2004 10:00 pm

City Manager Dixon Flynn has given the Lodi City Council a final date for his departure.

Now what? Will council members promote from within or hire a headhunter to find outside talent? Will they look nationwide or narrow the search to California? And just how open will the whole process be?

No matter what course they choose, council members still have less than three months before Flynn's last day.

Will they have a new city manager in place by then?

Mayor Larry Hansen hopes so, but can't be sure. There are still too many unanswered questions.

"The first issue is: Should the existing council make the decision? My answer is, 'Yes.' Either you have two new council members with no experience making the decision, or two with 12 years experience (between them)."

Flynn's Wednesday evening announcement came less than a week before his formal council review scheduled for Monday.

He abruptly announced his plans at the end of the regular City Council meeting. He declined to elaborate, but said he would deliver to council members a formal resignation letter at the Aug. 4 meeting.

Flynn on Wednesday said that his last working day as city manager will be Oct. 1, although his official resignation won't take place until Dec. 1.

On Thursday, council members grappled with the task before them, but at least one continued to sing Flynn's praises.

Flynn, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, was hired as the city's finance director in 1991 before taking the city manager position four years later, not two as reported in the News-Sentinel on Thursday.

Hansen has not yet settled on a recruitment process and plans to talk it over with fellow council members before making any decisions. But he said it could include hiring a headhunter and looking nationwide, and estimates it will take three or four months.

"It would be my goal that prior to the new council being sworn in we have a city manager in place."

Unlike Hansen, Councilman Keith Land, who is not running for re-election in November, thinks the hiring decision should be made by the new council, including two new members, to be seated Dec. 1.

"There will still be three seasoned council members … and the new ones will have to work with the new city manager," Land said Thursday.

Neither he nor Councilwoman Emily Howard are seeking re-election, leaving the door wide open for two new faces on the council.

When it comes to replacing Flynn, Hansen wants a consultant to help with a nationwide search, but would welcome community input on the process. He is open to hiring someone from inside.

"And, we may have to have an interim or ask (Flynn) to stay a little longer," Hansen said.

Land could see Deputy City Manager Janet Keeter filling those shoes.

"I would be surprised if she didn't put her application in for the city manager position," he said.

Same process, different position

The city just underwent a similar process in hiring its new city attorney. Although council members ultimately chose Stephen Schwabauer - the former deputy city attorney appointed interim after Randy Hays was fired - for the spot after advertising in a magazine mailed to cities and counties across California.

Although 10 individuals applied, only five were interviewed by the council. Schwabauer was hired early last month.

Land favors a similar process to hire a new city manager.

He would like to take a closer look at what Flynn recently went through when he applied for a similar job in Bend, Ore. in May. Land said Flynn even told him about it.

"I liked the public involvement," Land said. "They had input, and the council members saw how a potential city manager interacted with the public."

In Bend, finalists were invited to a panel interview attended by the public. Citizens were encouraged not only to meet and greet, but to ask questions and provide feedback for council members who would make the ultimate decision.

Lodi Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Pat Patrick, who said he figured Flynn's announcement was imminent, favors a similar process.

"They should pull together a team of people from different segments that would make up a panel because whoever gets this job needs to be accepted by agriculture, people who are interested in preserving our uniqueness and in economic prosperity," he said, adding that the process will likely be "laborious."

As a representative of Lodi businesses, Patrick wants to see someone with a background in tourism hired.

"As I look at our city in the future, we don't necessarily want to extend our borders too far into precious farmland, therefore how can we make the most of the city we now see," he said.

"That is our key to economic viability."

Hansen doesn't have any specific characteristics he's looking for in the city's leader.

"I would hope the future city manager would understand what a wonderful community Lodi is and have all the people skills, community skills and management skills of someone you'd want at the top of the pyramid."

When Flynn was hired as the city manager in 1995, he was one of two finalists chosen from a pool of 80 applicants.

The selection process included hiring a Sacramento headhunting firm that based its recommendations on interviews conducted with council members about what kind of city manager they were looking for.

The consultant first narrowed the pool to 12 before council members selected six or seven to interview, said former Councilman Phil Pennino, who sat on the council from 1990 to 2002.

All interviews were done behind closed doors.

Supervisor Jack Sieglock, who was also on the council at that time, said there were three consultants that specialized in recruiting top administrators for cities and counties.

"We did the same thing for the county," Sieglock said of hiring County Administrator Manuel Lopez as supervisor.

In Lodi, he said, the council assembled a panel of local business professionals and city managers from other cities that helped narrow down the applicant list.

"Although we selected from in house, it was a good process to go through. Making them earn it through a process can be better for the city and better for them."

Pennino agreed.

"The process brought the City Council together," he said.

"I would encourage council members to go through the same process. It was good. We had some expertise helping us out.

"We also encouraged all department heads to apply."

Flynn, then the city's finance director, replaced retiring City Manager Tom Peterson as only the fourth city manager in Lodi's history. The process and final decision to hire Flynn took five-and-a-half months.

'City manager of accomplishments'

Flynn has been scrutinized by council members over his proximity to the near-censure of then-Mayor Susan Hitchcock and former City Attorney Hays who was fired in January for issues surrounding the city's ongoing contamination lawsuit.

The city manager also has been publicly questioned about his role in an incident in which then-Vice Mayor Howard became directly involved in a personnel matter with Flynn and Charlene Lange, the former community center director.

Vice Mayor John Beckman and Hitchcock have made no secret their dissatisfaction with Flynn. It was their public comments Land believes "pushed" Flynn out.

The councilman thinks Flynn's resignation is premature, and he is being forced out "due to the make-up of the council."

He said the timing of Wednesday night's announcement caught him off guard.

"Was I surprised at his decision? No," Land said.

He had nothing but praise for Flynn.

"Dixon has done a lot for the city and a lot has been accomplished," he said, starting down a list that included the new public safety building, widening of Lower Sacramento Road and Hutchins Street Square.

"I truly feel he is a city manager of accomplishments, and he will be missed."

Flynn first publicly announced at a city employee appreciation dinner in March that this would be his last year with Lodi. But a month later, in an e-mail to City Council members, department heads and Century Assembly Pastor Dale Edwards he announced he would not retire claiming he was "too young." It was in response to News-Sentinel columnist Bob Johnson calling on Flynn to provide a date so the council could adequately plan for his replacement.

Edwards headed up a team-building meeting with council members and top city administrators.

Also in the April e-mail, Flynn wrote that he "may not be here next year" and alluded to either leaving his job voluntarily or being terminated by the council.

He even pointed out that it only takes three votes to fire him since he is appointed by the council - a fact Hansen again pointed out Thursday.

"This is his decision," the mayor said.

If Flynn follows through with his resignation, he will be the third top administrator to leave this year, including Hays and former Finance Director Vicky McAthie who retired in June. Lange and former wastewater superintendent Fran Forkas retired at the end of last year.

Hansen is confident the process to hire a new city manager will be smooth and is confident Lodi will find a good one.

"I would like to get the best pool (of applicants) possible. We have had some great city managers, and I expect we will draw the cream of the crop."

Contact reporter Jennifer Pearson Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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