The sudden resignation of City Manager Shawn Hamilton last week brings to a close a worthwhile experiment that produced mixed results.
The experiment? Hiring a city manager with limited public-sector experience.
Back in July 2012, a majority of the then-city council approved mayor Dave Schmidt’s appointment of Hamilton after the previous city manager – Jim Hock, a career bureaucrat – was sacked for unsatisfactory performance. Hock was a replacement for yet another career bureaucrat, Tim Schuenke, who should have been sacked for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was helping former mayors Wietecha, Marous and Frimark mastermind the Uptown TIF debacle.
Schuenke, however, was allowed to retire in 2008 with a healthy Illinois guaranteed pension. And he promptly moved back to Wisconsin where he could keep his Illinois pension benefits flowing while pulling down another six-figure salary as the City Administrator of Delafield, WI, until his second retirement (and second government pension?) in 2012.
The buffoonery and outright malfeasance of Hamilton’s predecessors is exactly why we welcomed him, noting in our 08.01.12 post that he was “a high risk, high reward selection” because he had less than a year of public sector experience – as Grundy County Administrator with only a $14 million budget – after working in banking and management consulting.
In fairness, Hamilton did some good things for the City.
He brought some needed youth and energy into the office after his two older predecessors pretty much sucked the life out of it. And he was willing to work for a smaller salary than they did, which was still a bump-up from his Grundy County paycheck as he continued to live in, and commute from, a lower-cost Coal City.
Hamilton also had some success in addressing the myriad problems he inherited from his predecessors, not the least of which was refinancing parts of the Uptown TIF. And after Mayor Dave and the Council set him off in the right direction, he helped move the City into a better overall financial position (so that, e.g., the City no longer had to borrow from the sewer fund to make payroll) while keeping tax increases – which had been held at artificially low levels by the aforementioned Wietecha, Marous and Frimark, even as infrastructure was being neglected – tolerable.
Unfortunately, his performance never reached the level of consistent excellence needed by this community and demanded by our City Council in addressing such difficult situations like flooding. And he did not appear willing to take ownership of, and provide the necessary leadership on, projects like the Storm Water Utility, the alternate water supply initiative, and strategic planning – leaving those to the Council to battle.
In a public sector where every job seems to be treated as an entitlement without accountability, finding a new city manager measurably better than Hamilton may be no easy task, especially if the rumors are true that, within the career bureaucrat community, Park Ridge is considered a “tough” assignment because our aldermen are not mindless rubber-stampers who treat every City employee as a Lake Woebegone trifecta: strong, good-looking and above average. That alone can be the kiss of death when recruiting career bureaucrats who expect kudos and annual raises just for showing up on a regular basis and avoiding indictment.
What does that mean for getting a quality city manager? For starters it might mean a salary near the $200,000/year mark.
When Schuenke left in 2008, he was pulling down $180,000 plus a few perks. Hock’s all-in package (including perks) totaled around $200,000. And that clown car known as the School Board of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64 paid rookie Supt. Laurie Heinz more than $200,000, plus perks, for an undistinguished first year (2014-15) of a three-year contract – before hiding in several secretive closed session “reviews” around this time last year before emerging to announce both a one-year extension to Heinz’s contract and even more money in her pay envelope.
At a salary of around $160,000 and fewer perks than his predecessors, Hamilton actually was a bargain, even if only for 3.5 years.
Given Hamilton’s predecessors’ compensation and the fact that Heinz oversees a budget of roughly the same $70 million-plus as the City’s while serving less than 5,000 students to the city manager’s 37,000+ resident customer base, a city manager salary in the vicinity of $200,000 might be a rough midpoint between what Heinz is getting and what Hamilton got last year. And the taxpayers can count on this City Council being much more demanding of any $200,000/year city manager than the $250,000/year-plus Heinz’s milquetoast bosses on the D-64 Board could ever be.
Although the Hamilton experiment was far from a complete success, it did demonstrate that somebody with a private sector background and just a year of public-sector experience can pretty much do as well/poorly as career bureaucrats, if not better.
Merci et bon chance, Mr. Hamilton.
And bon chance to the new Acting City Manager, Joe Gilmore, whose upgrade from City Finance Director was unanimously approved at last night’s Council meeting.
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