Leadership gap looms as April nears

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January 12, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Come April 1, Iola will be in a leadership vacuum.
It will be without a city administrator; its city commission a lame duck; and it will have until April 18 for its incoming city council — which to date has no candidate with any experience with the governance of Iola — to take control.
“It’s a lot of transition,” said Judy Brigham, Iola city administrator whose position has been extended to as far as March 31. Typically, the city administrator’s contract is renewed every two years each December, as was done in December 2008.
Mayor Bill Maness said the commission did not extend Brigham’s contract because its understanding of the city council model could have the role of mayor assuming the responsibilities of a city administrator.
“Whether he or she will want those responsibilities, I don’t know,” Maness said of the incoming mayor.
He voiced his support for Brigham to be given the opportunity to reassume the daily operations of the city once the new council is seated.
Bill Shirley, commissioner, said he still wants a “better understanding” of the city council management style and the mayor’s role.
Commissioners did not have to leave the city rudderless, said Sandy Jacquot, legal counsel for the Kansas League of Municipalities which is the guiding arm of city governments. Jacquot said the change in city government styles “should not have had any impact on a city administrator’s position.”
“Typically, there should be no impediment to continuing a city administrator’s role,” whether a council- or a commission-style of government is in effect. “A city administrator’s job should be totally immune from this change,” she said.
If Brigham were reinstated, it also would do a lot to ameliorate the fact that her dismissal will come just six months shy of her qualifying for full benefits.
The March 31 termination means that Brigham, a city employee for 31 years, will not receive health benefits under the city’s retirement policy nor immediate benefits under the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System. Brigham would have qualified for the benefits on her birthday, Sept. 19, when she had planned to retire.
Brigham, 52, has served as city administrator since May 1, 2006. Before that, she served as city clerk for 10 years, and before that worked her way up from the city’s utility department.

THE VOID in experience would have Brigham concerned were it not for the city’s 11 department heads, who, she said simply, “are the best.”
Still, as city administrator, it’s Brigham’s job to coordinate the various departments to make for a smooth-running operation.
“City commissioners set policy,” Brigham said, “And it’s the city administrator’s responsibility to see that it gets done.”
Iola is unique in its many functions, Brigham said, which include providing electricity, gas, water, sewer and trash services, as well as parks, cemetery and recreation facilities.
“Very few cities in the state provide everything that we do,” she said.
Recreation facilities, for example, are often provided by a school district, such as in Humboldt. Many cities do not provide electricity or natural gas or water, she said.
An emergency best dem-onstrates Iola’s services, she said. “If your electricity goes out, you can depend on a 15-minute response time from city crews,” she said. With local crews, “You don’t have to worry how soon someone responds to the scene.”
Iola is only one of 52 cities in the state that generates its own electricity, she said, though it relies on its participation with the Kansas Power Pool for most of its energy.
When it contracted with Westar Energy, the city was shy on self-generating ca-pacities ever since the destruction of a 9-mega-watt generator in the 2007 flood.
“We can self-generate 24 megawatts of energy if needed,” Brigham said. Such times would be during peak demand, such as in August. The advantage of having a high capacity of self-generation is that it enables the city to “attract better rates if we can be self-sufficient,” she said.
Commissioners did not replace the generator be-cause of its $10 million price tag. Instead, it used the $1.1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to replace the destroyed municipal pool and bath house at a cost of $1.3 million.
Because of its many services, Iola has a big crew.
“We have 106 employees,” Brigham said, “but many are cross-trained,” helping reduce the work force. Those who work in Iola’s water plant, for example, also have responsibilities in the city’s wastewater treatment facilities. Those who work in electric distribution, also work with power plant personnel.
A real advantage to this is in times of emergency, Brigham said. “In a snow storm, Kent Tomson’s electricity distribution department works hand in hand with Dan Leslie’s streets department driving dump trucks,” she said. “Same as with removal of limbs after an ice storm. You can’t afford to have separate crews on hand for each instance.”
Maintenance of the city’s athletic fields is another instance of overlap. Luke Bycroft of the recreation department oversaw their development; Leslie’s street and alley department built the fields; and Don Leapheart’s fire department saw that the fields were adequately watered.

BRIGHAM’S primary responsibilities are to set and manage the city’s $25 million budget and see the city keeps on track with its comprehensive plan set in 2005 under the guidance of the engineering firm of Shafer, Kline and Warren.
The flood of 2007 helped the city reach many of the plan’s benchmarks, Brig-ham said wryly. Iola Municipal Pool and the Recreation Community Building were both targets for improvement.
New housing was also a goal. The flood ruined 120 homes. The Cedarbrook housing development site north of town created 30 homes for those with limited incomes. There’s also a “positive look” at another 30 homes for senior citizens through Dean Development from Overland Park, Brig-ham said.
High school students in USD 257 also have built two homes on the site.
The hiring of Human Resources Manager Ken Hunt for the city has made a big difference to city efficiencies, Brigham said.
“A city’s success or failure depends on its employees,” Brigham said. She also noted the help of Corey Schinstock, assistant city manager, and Roxanne Hutton, city clerk.
Though it’s not sexy, Brigham said the city’s biggest accomplishments are those not seen by the average citizen, referring to the overhaul of the city’s sewer system. Brigham worked to get $1.3 million in grants for the renovation, which has included new wastewater lagoons, inspection and repair to all of the city’s sewer mains that are 8 inches and larger, renovations to the city’s six lift stations, and inspection and repair to all of the city’s manhole covers.
Some of the repairs were to 100-year-old structures.
The passage in 2009 of another half-cent sales tax has enabled the city to continue needed enhancements, she said. The half-cent tax yields an average of $600,000 a year. A portion of the funds recently purchased new storm sirens, replacing “1950s technology,” she said.
Though she’ll be out of a job, Brigham hopes city managers will continue what she’s help start, including the extension of the Prairie Spirit Trail from Cofachique Park to Riverside Park.
City administrators se-cured a $400,000 grant from the Kansas Department of Transportation for the rail trail project. Iola’s portion is $100,000.
She’s also hoping the city hires an information technology person to coordinate communications within departments, its website and its Channel 6 television station.
“It’s really become a necessity,” Brigham said of the position.
A new Allen County Hospital may mean location of another generating substation at the new site, she said, as well as getting utilities and infrastructure in place.
Brigham views the shelved plans for new welcome and directional signs devised by Landworks Studio a “missed opportunity.”
The city directed $100,000 for the signage into its special projects budget, Brig-ham said, but city commissioners failed to follow through on their implementation.

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