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Keeping talent in town: Winsted looks at city administrator retention
Feb. 8, 2016

BY STARRLA CRAY
Associate Editor

WINSTED, MN – When Winsted searches for a city administrator – a task that has occurred four times in the past six years – the city looks for someone bright and eager, with progressive ideas to keep the community moving forward.

The downside to hiring leaders with ambition, however, seems to be their staying power.

“The reality is, we’re a stepping stone, unless someone comes in and falls in love with the community and decides this is going to be his or her home,” Council Member Tom Ollig said at the Feb. 2 work session.

The first hour of the meeting was devoted to the topic of city administrators – challenges the city has been facing and why, and what, if anything, to change in the future.

“My philosophy is, if we get three years out of them, I’m happy,” Ollig said, explaining that an administrator needs to at least stay long enough to develop professional relationships and make significant improvements in the community.

Mayor Steve Stotko agreed, stating, “We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if they stayed three years.”

Past and present
Winsted’s current administrator, Dan Tienter, was hired in August 2015.

Stotko stressed that the council’s discussion is not related to Tienter, but is intended to be a proactive way to deal with city administrator hiring in the future. (Due to ethical reasons, Tienter chose not to attend the part of Tuesday’s meeting that dealt with city administrator incentives.)

Before Tienter, Winsted’s city administrator had been Clay Wilfahrt, who was hired in 2013. He left after 1.75 years, when offered a city administrator job in his hometown of Big Lake. Winsted’s clerk/treasurer, Deb Boelter, noted that the salary in Big Lake was $30,000 higher than in Winsted.

When Wilfahrt announced his resignation in April 2015, he noted that the average stay for a city administrator in any town is five to six years – less in smaller communities.

“City administration is a little bit different than working for a company,” he said at the time. “If I am to move up, my only option is to move to a different community. There is no vertical potential.”

Brad Martens had been Winsted’s city administrator before Wilfahrt, resigning after two years to take a city administrator position in Corcoran.

Winsted’s shortest-staying city administrator, Andrew Ebert, was employed for five months. Ebert resigned without explanation in February 2011, after the council met in closed session to conduct his performance review.

Before Ebert, Winsted’s city administrator was Brent Mareck, who began his career in Winsted in 2001. He left after nine years for a city administrator position in Carver.

Hiring the best candidate
Stotko noted that all of Winsted’s recent administrators have several things in common. They are all male, first-time city administrators between the ages of 22 and 30. Many of them left for jobs closer to the metro area, where they could earn a higher salary and manage a larger staff.

Stotko said the city has had interviews with people closer to retirement age, as well as those who promised to move to the community if hired, but the candidates did not seem to share the city’s forward vision.

“We want someone who’s going to be aggressive and progressive,” Stotko explained.

Ollig agreed, stating that the city has always hired the best candidate for the job and not compromised, but hoped the person would be motivated to stay awhile.

Each time a new administrator is hired, Stotko noted that there is a learning curve, and staff and the community have to adjust to a new management style.

“It’s critical to have continuity,” Stotko said.

Costs and lost time
Hiring costs are another burden of discontinuity. According to data Stotko provided, the city has spent $32,766 in the city administrator hiring process over the past six years. Outside firms have been paid to help with the search, background checks, advertising, and interviews.

“We used to do that process in house, but there are so many requirements, regulations, and laws that it really can’t be done by us anymore,” Boelter said.

Stotko noted that during the search for new administrators, the city isn’t able to move forward on projects efficiently, and it puts extra burden on other staff members.

When added together, about one year of the past six has been void of a full-time city administrator. (Stotko served as interim administrator for the most recent two vacancies, and Boelter filled this role during the previous two vacancies.)

The need for an administrator
“During the past six years, as we’ve lost administrators, the public starts asking, ‘do you really need a city administrator?’” Stotko said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we need a city administrator.”

In Winsted, the city administrator’s sphere of influence includes city employees, contracted services, businesses, organizations, commissions, and citizens.

Boelter said all Winsted’s city administrators have commented that they’re impressed by Winsted’s industry and activity level.

“They never envisioned all we have going on here,” she said.

Retention ideas
Four potential avenues were discussed for greater retention of city administrators – wage, vacation time, continuing education opportunities, and flexibility to occasionally work from home.

In 2007, Winsted’s salary range for city administrators was $50,918 to $68,827. Currently, the range is $68,723 to $92,872.

The council discussed possibly giving bonuses after a certain amount of time, in an effort to entice an administrator to stay.

Ollig noted that Winsted isn’t going to be able to offer a higher salary than a large metropolitan city, but job satisfaction is often more than monetary.

“The biggest key is feeling appreciated,” Ollig said.

The council plans to think of specific ideas for retention and send them to Boelter to compile. Discussion will continue at the Wednesday, March 2 council meeting, and Gary Weiers of consulting firm David Drown Associates will be invited to attend.

A few short stays
After Brent Mareck left the position of city administrator in 2010, after nine years of service, Winsted had its share of short-staying administrators:

• Andrew Ebert – 5 months

• Brad Martens – 2 years

• Clay Wilfahrt – 1.75 years

(Current administrator Dan Tienter was hired in August 2015. His sixth-month performance review is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 16.)

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