Originally created 03/10/01

Augusta studies hopefuls



Copies of a news article from The Richmond Times Dispatch had already been placed at the seats of Augusta commissioners when they arrived the afternoon of March 4 to interview three finalists for the city's administrator position.

The article, distributed by Commissioner Jerry Brigham, tied candidate and former Richmond, Va., Director of Public Utilities George Kolb to a $15 million shortfall in the city created by not billing customers enough to cover the cost of natural gas.

"I'm trying to check anything I can check," Mr. Brigham said, which is how he found out that Mr. Kolb resigned in January amid the natural gas controversy.

It was the only negative information to be presented on any of the candidates. But research shows that all of the men, not just Mr. Kolb, are the subject of numerous newspaper accounts.

The other two candidates both have bowed out of jobs before their contracts ended. Candidate Barry Burton, who has worked primarily for local governments in Ohio, left two years into a four-year contract as county administrator in Allegany County, Md. An illness in his family caused him to return home.

"We hated to see him leave, but he left for family reasons," said Dale Lewis, president of the Allegany County Commission. "He left on agreeable terms."

The other candidate, Hector Rivera, left a one-year contract position in Braintree, Mass., after seven months to accept a position with the U.S. Peace Corps in Washington.

"My gut feeling all along was that we had a short-timer on our hands," Town Clerk Joe Powers said in a telephone interview from Braintree. "I don't think people were genuinely surprised that he ended up leaving. And I don't think it was a question of `why.' It was a question of `when."'

An executive search firm hired to find Augusta's next city administrator is conducting background checks on all three candidates this week, looking at their criminal and credit histories. Once those results come in, commissioners will have to decide who they want to manage the city.

Amid the day-to-day controversies that may have attracted news coverage of the candidates in their respective jobs, all three have been characterized as aggressive reformers. Former colleagues of the finalists confirm that changes implemented under their leadership have been sustained in their absence.

Richmond officials say news accounts surrounding Mr. Kolb's departure from their government don't account for the politics that forced him out or the supporters, mostly city employees who worked under him, he left behind.

"I'm certain this wasn't a performance issue," said Michele Quander-Collins, public information manager for the city of Richmond. "I don't know if it was a personality issue, but (the city manager) has hired a lot of people to fill new posts ... I think he was bringing in his own team."

Mr. Kolb, prior to leaving Richmond, had worked his way up from public works director to deputy city manager under the leadership of former Richmond City Manager Robert Bobb.

Mr. Bobb left Richmond in 1997 to accept a city manager position in Oakland, Calif. When Mr. Kolb applied to replace him, current City Manager Calvin Jamison was hired instead, and Mr. Kolb was moved back to public works.

Such a demotion under a new administration is not out of the norm, Mr. Bobb said by telephone from his Oakland office. But he questions the recent chain of events that seem to have led to Mr. Kolb's resignation.

"As a new administrator, you should feel free to bring on a new staff, but you don't do that to the detriment of making government run smoothly," Mr. Bobb said. "Don't lay out some weird excuse that becomes damaging to a person's career when that's not the issue whatsoever."

The city typically carries a debt from natural gas fees during the winter months, and that loss is recovered during warmer spring and summer months to absorb the cost burden of customers, he said.

Augusta Commissioner Lee Beard said negative publicity is par for the course when it concerns high-profile government positions.

"You're going to have pros and cons, but that isn't (abnormal)," Mr. Beard said. "That's probably the trend for all administrators because of the decisions they have to make."

Finalist candidate Mr. Rivera also has seen his share of bad press, including in the seven short months he occupied the executive secretary position in Braintree, Mass., which is comparable to a city manager position.

According to news accounts from The (Quincy, Mass.) Patriot Ledger, Mr. Rivera's management style had been characterized as "dictatorial" by some city employees who believed he often overstepped his bounds.

"I have not been the most popular person, but I've been an aggressive administrator," Mr. Rivera told the newspaper. "If everyone is saying positive things about me, I'm not doing my job."

But the same newspaper has reported that the city's governing body is looking for a replacement with the same reformer mentality of Mr. Rivera.

Augusta's new administrator will be appointed by a majority vote of commissioners March 20.

Mayor Bob Young will endorse one candidate by recommending him to the commission. He said he plans to choose someone who will receive the most support from commissioners, but he hasn't made a decision.

"It's hard to say who it will be," Mr. Young said. "Nobody's committing to anybody."

Candidates respond

Each administrator candidate, as a part of the application process, submitted a response to the city's profile and challenge statement, which is a document adopted by Augusta commissioners that outlines the successes and failures of Augusta and describes the ideal city administrator candidate. Here are excerpts from those responses:

"The role of the administrator ... (seems to) require policy clarification from the commission so that operations of the government under the administrator are separate from the policy-making role of the elected officials ... This obviously requires confidence and respect between the parties, but basic ground rules are desirable to avoid future disagreements or lapses in memory."

- Hector Rivera

"Establishing core values for the organization and leading by example sets the standard. It is very difficult to establish a clear vision that is shared by the community, elected officials, and staff. It is even more difficult to translate that vision into strategically aligned business plans and individual employee work plans. I have successfully accomplished both."

- Barry Burton

" ... (The) administrator must above all else be a professional administrator with the ability to remain `apolitical' yet have the quiet influence to build consensus and show administrative leadership. He must not become a clerk of the governing body. Rather he should become the governing body's change agent to move the process forward and instill quality into the community."

- George Kolb

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.