City attracts 32 applicants for merged post

by Jim Boyle

Elk River does not have a community development director or a public works director, but the city is closing in on hiring someone to fill a new hybrid position.

The city of Elk River fielded 32 applicants for the newly devised community operations and development director post, and the plan is to narrow that list down to four to six for initial interviews as early as this week.

Once someone is hired, the city will work to fill a new deputy director post. The city’s goal with the deputy post will be to balance out the needs of the department with someone who has complementary skills.

In other words, if someone gets hired for the director post who has a strong background in public works, someone with more community development experience will be sought. And vice versa.

The hiring is part of an overall administrative reorganization.

Cal Portner speaking at an event earlier this year. File photo by Jim Boyle

Cal Portner, Elk River’s administrator and the architect of the new “org chart” being put into place, foresees a more efficient and effective management team. He says the council has been gracious to fund new positions and be supportive of a plan to pare back a senior management team that now numbers 14.

The management team has grown as directors have left and managers have pulled up chairs to the administration’s senior management board room table.

“It gets unwieldy at times,” Portner stated at a recent meeting of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority where he laid out the new org charts. “It’s helpful for the managers to be at the table, but it takes them out of the workplace.”

The new organizational chart will provide a tighter span of control, with each director having between four and eight reports. There will soon be only eight at the table. That will include Portner, directors of finance, parks and recreation, and the director and the deputy director of community operations and development, as well as the police chief, fire chief and the city clerk.

“They will be able to spend time on strategic planning and community direction and take care of ongoing issues as they arise,” Portner said. “They will be able to communicate with me, the council and key members of the community and the development community.”

In an ideal world, the Elk River City Council would have hired directors of public works and of community development. But as the issue has been debated over the past couple of years, it has been decided to muddle through budget challenges and make do with the staff it had until either a brighter day financially or a new day.

That new day dawned with the new organizational chart assembled by Portner, who became Elk River’s city administrator on Oct. 17, 2011.

He was given six months or so to size up his staff and formulate a new structure. He was also given during the last round of budgeting a pool of contingency funds totalling $191,550 to execute it.

He put together a proposed organizational chart, which was approved in May. The new community operations and development position job description was approved in August and a plan to fill the position was crafted, too.

The city spent $33,000  of the $191,500 on three staffing requests this past spring. They amounted to:

•moving a recreation department office assistant position from temporary to regular part time,

•adding four hours per week to an existing part-time recreation staff assistant,

•clarifying the role of the interim street maintenance superintendent.

That left nearly $160,000 for money to fill out the more substantial needs at City Hall such as filling the positions (roles) of a community development director, a public works director, an engineering technician, an environmental services technician and a senior planner.

Other areas of need established by staff included a human resources assistant and a communications coordinator.

The main needs have been synthesized into four positions:

•a director of community operations and development,

•a deputy director of operations and development,

•an engineering technician,

•a planning intern.

“My proposal is to go to market to fill each of the positions as available, although I have confidence that there may be some opportunities for staff growth and enhancement,” Portner said.

The merged operations and community development position was created out of necessity to make sure the city has an operational structure that is functioning, Portner stated at the August HRA  meeting. It’s experimental in a sense, but Portner told the Star News he’s confident it can be a success.

“Each person in (a public works and a community development post in and of itself) can have differing personality characteristics, but they have to work together,” Portner said, noting that working in silos is not an option. “We’ll have one hybrid department and I think we will be successful.”

The hybrid department will include a director and a promoted manager with broader supervisory and strategic planning responsibilities. Areas of responsibility will include planning, economic development, environmental, waste water, engineering and street maintenance.

Other structural changes that have or will occur include moving building safety and code inspection divisions to the fire department, moving building services and payroll to the finance department, coordinating communications functions to maximize efforts and several others.

Portner said what he discovered in his assesment of city staff is where they have had consistent department management, it’s easy to see where that paid off.

He says its a great time to be looking at the big picture and figure out where the city wants to be.

“We can set a blueprint so we’re ready (when growth picks back up), and we’re not caught trying to catch up,” he said.

HRA Chair Stewart Wilson told Portner it makes a lot of sense to streamline management to increase his level of effectiveness.

Pat Dwyer, of the Elk River Economic Development Authority spoke at the August HRA meeting, said his concern is economic development could be moved too far down managerial chain in the reorganization.