What are the next steps, challenges and opportunities in hiring a new city manager?

City Manager Eric Campbell, center, listens to discussion during a Sept. 24, 2019, council meeting as Mayor Deanna Reed and council member Chris Jones look on. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

After City Manager Eric Campbell’s resignation last week, city council members are preparing to start the process of identifying qualities they want in Campbell’s successor. And while Campbell will finish out the year in that key role, at least one observer of local government said city leaders shouldn’t lose sight of Harrisonburg’s strategic plans during the transition between city managers.

Rob Alexander, an associate professor of political science at JMU with a specialty in public administration, said an infusion of federal money  offers a chance to enact changes. That includes funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that Congress passed earlier this year. 

“With ARPA funds and things like that,” Alexander said, “it’s a great opportunity to look at our strategic plans and say, ‘how do we actually make things now that will create this place we’d like it to be in 10 or 20 years?’” 

He said in communities like Harrisonburg, which operate with a council-manager system of governance, the city manager’s office is especially important in implementing the larger policy and value decisions the council sets forth. In addition, the manager must oversee the delivery of quality city services. 

And while there are built-in back-up plans for deputies to handle a sudden resignation, Alexander said the city is poised to start that hiring process soon to minimize the potential interim time after December.

“There are two deputy city managers who will likely be filling in the interim role while council starts the process of interviewing and hiring a new city manager,” Alexander said. “That plus the city attorney, is a very crucial role. The attorney works to make sure we’re in compliance with our charter, to make sure that everyone’s doing the processes and procedures as they need to be done.”

He also said the city attorney is crucial because that person, in this case Chris Brown, works to make sure the city is in compliance with its charter and that “everyone’s doing the processes and procedures as they need to be done.”

Mike Parks, the city’s spokesman, said that while council members haven’t officially started conversations about the hiring process, they’ll likely discuss it at the next few meetings.

“They could hire a search firm, to start a national search, and the search firm would take care of most of the effort of advertising the job and looking over candidates and helping us weed down to finalists to interview and setting up the interview process,” Parks said. “City council could decide to do that search themselves. City council could decide to promote from within.”

The city most recently hired an outside consulting firm to help search for a new police chief, as well as when the council selected Campbell as city manager in 2018. 

Parks said the council could also tap an interim manager to take the helm between the time Campbell leaves at the end of the year and when the new manager is hired. The council would start working on a job position description, which could look different from the one advertised more than four years ago. 

Since then, the city council members crafted their 2039 vision statement that posits Harrisonburg as the capital of the Shenandoah Valley. They worked on amending that vision with a specific environmental provision this year

“A lot has changed since then in the city, and we have different priorities now than we did then, we didn’t have the city council vision at that time, we had different city council members, so they’ll likely want to discuss what that job description is and what they’re looking for and the timeline and ultimately decide if this is something we want a search firm to help us with,” Parks said.

Alexander said council members will likely discuss what kinds of values and criteria they’d like to see in a new manager, but “what the dominant value should be is just competency.”

He also said it’s important the next manager has the ability to use the budget process to reflect the values the council puts forth, to manage and assist department leaders across city government, and to ensure clear ethical guidelines are in place for those in public service.

From a resident’s perspective, Alexander said he also hopes for a transparent process and “that there’s some opportunities for public input.”

“And that’s just a personal belief I hold around effective local government,” Alexander said. “When we have our council members partnering with our residents and citizens, that’s really the strongest way we can figure out who we want to be and how we wanna get there.”

Alexander also emphasized the importance of the city manager’s role as an adviser to the council the way that Campbell and city staff did with recommending ways to address affordable housing and homelessness.

With the council-manager model in a city of Harrisonburg’s size, Alexander said “our council are volunteers essentially,” and the city manager’s office is the administrative lead. So, when the council members say addressing homelessness and affordable housing are top priorities, it’s up to the city manager to collect data and evidence and consult with the experts to make informed policy decisions.

“So I think that a city manager coming in now has to hit the ground super running to figure out, first of all, what are the values of the community that have been ensconced in our comprehensive plan,” Alexander said. “And the city council has their own strategic plan of who they want the city to be, and if we’re not following those plans that’s a whole other administrative challenge.”

He also underscored the point that the council and manager work in conjunction, and neither can succeed without the other.

“How do we leverage what we’ve learned positively from the pandemic, and how do we address the harms that have been caused by the pandemic, but utilizing this situation of resources in a really smart and strategic manner, and that’s something that can’t be done by council alone, nor can it be done by the city manager alone, it has to be a close collaboration,” Alexander said.

At the first council meeting following Campbell’s announcement of resignation, Campbell said he has faith in the council to find his successor to continue to help the community.

“Facing constant challenges in a position like city manager never poses the right time to make a leadership transition,” Campbell said. “However I’m convinced the executive leadership team is poised and prepared to move the community forward during the transition.”

He also reminded people he’s still in the position through the end of the year. 

“There is a lot of work to be done between now and my departure at the end of the year,” he said. “I plan to face the next few months with the same passion and energy that I had when I accepted the position in January 2018.”

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