Consulting firm to help select next city manager

City Manager Bill Watkins will retire in March.

The Columbia City Council met Monday to discuss the search for a new city manager. City Manager Bill Watkins announced last month he would retire from his position in March.

Also leaving city government are Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser and First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz, who have decided not to run for reelection in 2011.

“I think I let everyone know when I first started that I was going to leave after one term,” Sturtz said. “Having a young child reinforced that it was a good idea not to do another three years.”

Nauser said she believes government should not be run by long-term or career politicians. She said she believes it is someone else’s turn to take the reins of her council seat.

The council listened to presentations by The Mercer Group, Neher & Associates and Affion Public in which the businesses made bids to help the city in its search for the next city manager.

Although the council cannot vote until Nov. 15, its members seemed to be in agreement to hire Affion Public CEO Scott Reily. They will draw up a resolution to contract with Reily, which they will bring to a vote on Monday.

“We are a headhunting firm,” Reily said. “We’ll talk with you about (the candidate’s) background, their educational background, their work background, we’ll tell you the great things they’ve done and the screw ups they’ve made.”

Affion differentiates itself from other management consulting firms because it deals only in the public sector, such as government and educational positions. Other firms work in the private sector with executives and CEOs of corporations, as well as city manager and other high-level positions in the public sector.

Karolyn Prince-Mercer, senior vice president of The Mercer Group, presented reasons for hiring the management consulting firm. She said by getting to know the members of Columbia’s local government, the firm would be able to screen potential candidates for the position. The firm would handle the application, interviewing, negotiating and hiring process for the city.

Neher’s presentation and questioning was done via telephone intercom. During Neher’s presentation, a background phone in his office went off twice, making it hard for council members to listen to what he was saying or provide feedback.

Neher is mostly on the East and West coasts, but has done some work in places such as Ohio and Illinois.

The Mercer Group is consulting Overland Park, Kan. in its search for a city manager and has worked in college towns such as College Station, Texas, and Athens, Ga.

Affion Public has worked with university communities as well, including Austin, Texas, San Marcos, Calif., Morgantown, W.V., and Springfield, Mo.

Cities with universities are more complex because the cities must work with the schools in order to coordinate expansion plans, land use and other overlapping issues.

In order to provide a smooth transition, council members want to have someone fill the city manager position by March 1, 2011.

The contract is not finalized, and any of the three consulting firms could be selected to help the city make its decision. According to both Mercer and Reily, the relationships with qualified men and women across the country are some of the most valuable assets to their consulting firms.

“I really feel like we would do a good job and be quite successful because we do know a lot of people,” Mercer said.

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