An innovative leader who can promote economic development and environmentalism while improving town-gown relations is what Oberlin residents say they want from a new city manager.
Ideas were given in a total of four community forums Monday and Tuesday at the fire department and Oberlin High School. The Monday sessions drew about 35 people.
Recruiter Heidi Voorhees, president of GovHR USA, led the forums.
Based in Northbrook, Ill., about 20 miles west of Chicago, the company is being paid $21,500 to conduct the search for a new Oberlin chief administrator.
Voorhees served as village manager of Willmette, Ill., from 1990 to 2001 and has recruited more than 150 government or nonprofit leaders.
She told residents every community has unique aspects and resident input is crucial in attracting strong candidates.
“We want people to know what the job is and exactly what it’s going to be like for them,” she said. “Oberlin’s had a history of stability, which is a good thing to say about a community when you’re trying to attract candidates.”
Voorhees said after the forum that the goal is to have a new city manager on the job by September or October. Finance director Sal Talarico has been serving as acting city manager since Eric Norenberg left in December, less than a year after being asked to resign in a letter signed by a few council members.
Norenberg, hired in 2007, earned $115,762 annually. Voorhees said a salary range for the position hasn’t been established but is expected to be about what Norenberg earned.
Several residents said the new city manager will be worth every penny they’re paid if they can mend frayed town-gown relations. Linda Lewis said the next city manager cannot be bullied by Oberlin College, a perception she said many residents have. Lewis said she appreciates what the college brings to Oberlin but believes it has received preferential treatment from city officials because it’s Oberlin’s largest employer.
“We might as well rename Oberlin Oberlin College because I feel the citizens of Oberlin are being lost to the needs and desires of Oberlin College,” Lewis said. “When you get a community that feels that way, they are being under-served.”
Pradnya Martz said the next city manager must be a firm and skilled negotiator experienced in dealing with colleges. She said a lawsuit settled April 20 over a parking dispute and firefighter access to the soon-to-be-completed Hotel at Oberlin is an example of bad communication and management on both sides. “It hurts everybody and causes antagonism,” she said.
The job search is national but residents disagreed about whether to hire locally. Karen Reynolds said an Oberlin resident would have a greater stake in the community.
However, Oberlin college environmental studies and politics professor David Orr said it should be an outsider with imagination and vision. He or she should have experience in city government and an understanding of how to capitalize on environmental initiatives like the Oberlin Project, a city-college effort to eliminate carbon emissions and create community and economic development. Orr said city government negativism is robbing Oberlin of its potential.
“It isn’t what Oberlin is. It’s what it could be but isn’t,” said Orr, special assistant to the president of Oberlin College on sustainability and the environment. “When you suggest something, the first response is the 19 reasons why it cannot happen instead of one reason why it must happen.”
Gregory Jones, an energy advocate with the nonprofit Providing Oberlin With Efficiency Responsibly, said the next city manager should use Oberlin’s environmental initiatives as a magnet for attracting businesses. “I don’t think the community leverages its muscle as much as it could,” he said.
While residents praised Oberlin for being an innovative, forward-thinking community, Brent Smith said there is a tendency toward overthinking and excessive process that can lead to “paralysis by analysis.”
Smith said some surrounding communities perceive Oberlin as arrogant and the next city manager will need to mend fences to improve regional collaboration. “We don’t know it all and we have a finite community,” he said.
While some 20 percent of Oberlin residents live in poverty and there is town-gown tension, housing problems, and a lack of public transportation, Voorhees said Oberlin’s issues pale in comparison to some of the cities she’s recruited for.
“You really are doing things that 95 percent of the communities I work with are not doing,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that are excited about that and would be excited about coming here.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Heidi Voorhees, GovHR USA president, speaks at a Monday community forum at the Oberlin fire station on recruiting a new city manager. Voorhees is running the search for Oberlin.