Why East Ridge can't find a city manager

Why East Ridge can't find a city manager

May 23rd, 2013 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

East Ridge City Hall

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

Wanted: East Ridge city manager, competent and qualified.

But first, a warning. You may not agree with the city's definition of "qualified." A lot of folk in the city don't even agree with their own definition.

Nonetheless, the leaders of East Ridge continue their search to fill the city manager position, open since former manager Tim Gobble resigned Feb. 7. There has been some debate in the last 31/2 months about why the city can't fill the job. Some say the city council has run off solid candidates; some say candidates just plain aren't interested.

Most people, though, blame a decision five years ago, when a charter study commission recommended that the city demand its managers hold a bachelor's degree in public administration. The charter allows no wiggle room. Even candidates who hold master's degrees in public administration don't qualify for the job.

But who specifically is to blame? The commission that recommended the changes? The Municipal Technical Advisory Service consultants who helped the commission?

The East Ridge council members who agreed to put the recommendation on a ballot? The city attorney who wrote the amendment? The 73.6 percent of voters who approved it? Everyone?

"It [ticks] me off that we've been so foolish and idiotic," said Dick Cook, one of five members of the charter study commission who recommended the change.

Then-Mayor Mike Steele gathered Cook and four others together in April 2008 to look into the charter and propose changes. At the time, the city's manager wasn't required to have any special level of educational attainment.

Hiring someone professional, said Greg Ezell, another member of the charter study commission, might mean the manager would be qualified and could keep the job for a long time.

But why did they choose a bachelor's degree in public administration, and only a bachelor's degree in public administration? It is, after all, an uncommon degree. For every 10,000 students who graduated in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 17 held that degree.

Cook and Ezell said MTAS consultants helped the charter study commission and did not object to that requirement. Mike Tallent, who was executive director at MTAS and worked with East Ridge at the time, did not respond to an email asking him about the commission.

MTAS attorney Sid Hemsley said Wednesday that he is familiar with the manager job requirements in most Tennessee cities, but East Ridge is the only one requiring a bachelor's degree in public administration.

In August 2008, after the commission settled on recommendations, it presented them to the city council. Nobody objected. Nobody suggested requiring the bachelor's degree would be too problematic.

Cook said former city attorney John Anderson should have written the amendment in a more open-ended way.

"All he had to do was put in two words: 'or equivalent,'" Cook said of the public administration degree. "We wouldn't be in the mess we're in."

Anderson said it was not his job to advise the council if the degree were too restrictive.

"I was at best a scribe," he said. "I didn't create. I just wrote it down."

If the charter read "at least a bachelor's degree," the search field would be wider. In 2010, about five times as many students earned master's degrees in public administration as they did bachelor's degrees. This is reflected in the East Ridge job hunt.

One candidate held a master's degree in public administration and 35 years' experience in municipal government. One held a doctorate in public administration and worked as a chief operating officer for an electric company in Florida.

Still another earned a master's degree in urban planning from Johns Hopkins, another master's in public administration from Western Kentucky and completed an executive fellowship at Harvard.

None of those candidates qualified.

"Part of the responsibility for the situation that we're in now lies in the former council, the council from 2008 and the city attorney from that time period," said Councilman Marc Gravitt. "The council and the city attorney should have caught that major misstep in the charter."

Last week, Gravitt met with a new charter study commission, which will recommend changes to be voted upon during an election next year. They will try to fix the problems of the past, Gravitt said, and avoid creating new ones.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.