By Lee White
I’ve been observing local government in El Dorado for a long time. The very first news story I ever wrote was for the Butler Community College Lantern in 1981 and concerned the untimely death of Mayor Max G. Main. In the ensuing 35 years, El Dorado has had only four city managers: Dick Chesney, Stan Stewart, Gus Collins, and Herb Llewellyn. Although I’m often the town’s harshest critic, that’s a record to be proud of.
“Last two years and you’ll have the best job in Kansas,” the late Mr. Stewart wrote in an e-mail to Collins. Of course, Collins didn’t, but that’s a story for another day. What that statement says, however, is that the position of El Dorado city manager had value and importance beyond what it might have had in a city of similar size. I believe that’s as true today as it was a dozen years ago. As the city commission begins the process of hiring Llewellyn’s replacement, it will be important to market the uniqueness of the community and to demand that candidates possess the skills and education to handle an organization with more “moving parts” than most other cities its size.
Particularly during Llewellyn’s tenure, the city’s role has expanded beyond basic services such as utilities, streets, and police and fire protection. El Dorado extended its reach from industrial parks into residential real estate with acquisition at a tax sale of lots in the Constant Creek development on the west side. BG Products Veterans Sports Complex has undoubtedly elevated the community’s image regionally, but nothing’s free. Technically, a new governmental entity called the “sports authority” runs the place, but it collects little revenue of its own. It depends on funding from the college, USD 490, and the City of El Dorado as illustrated in this recent Times-Gazette story about maintenance costs.
Then there’s Prairie Trails, the old El Dorado Country Club, that the city acquired in 2010 and has heavily subsidized with tax dollars and labor ever since. Recently, the city bought more golf carts and reconstructed the front nine greens. There is certainly an argument to be made that a golf course is an important community amenity and an economic development “draw;” however, the facility has been frightfully expensive for a town of El Dorado’s size to operate. Factor in stagnant wages, an overabundance of golf courses in the Wichita area, and waning interest in golf nationally and there exists for any city manager a real political and financial challenge.
Topeka presents what is the worst sort of issue for local government and business alike: instability. Although voters sent packing several of Gov. Sam Brownback’s uber-conservative supporters in the Kansas Legislature, political turbulence is likely for years to come. Funding, particularly for infrastructure projects and social services, will be scarce as lawmakers struggle to balance the budget. It will take at least one more election cycle to determine which direction voters will take the state.
Without a doubt, the El Dorado city manager’s job is not one for amateurs. Now is not the time to try any “bold experiments.” The successful candidate must be educated. A master’s degree in public administration is essential. He or she must have experience formulating budgets and managing multiple subordinates either as a city or county manager in a relatively smaller setting or as an assistant in a larger one. A couple of examples come to mind. Stewart was city manager of Abilene before accepting the El Dorado position. Kathy Sexton was assistant Sedgwick County manager before becoming Derby’s city manager.
I encourage city commissioners to avail themselves of the League of Kansas Municipalities’ interim city manager program if that becomes necessary. The plan is to utilize a search firm to find Llewellyn’s permanent replacement and that’s a great idea.
Although I understand some candidates feel the need to keep their job searches secret, I would encourage the commission to introduce two or three finalists to the public. Commissioners also need to make sure that the baggage a candidate has is acceptable. Don’t rely on the headhunter to research the applicants’ backgrounds. At the very least, Google them and search their local newspaper for stories about them.
To someone who has been away for awhile, El Dorado looks better than it has in years. The trick will be to catch a rising star as city manager to keep the momentum going. To potential applicants reading this blog post, I encourage you to accept the challenges I’ve outlined. El Dorado, by virtue of its broad range of programs, could provide you with a wealth of experience you just couldn’t get even in a somewhat larger city.