RG49 a unique town-gown opportunity and a strange coincidence

Time hooks separate newspaper writing from most other forms. They’re also called “news pegs,” since they are what’s news (today) and it’s what you hang your story on. Nowhere else can readers be so closely fixed in space and time. So it’s the news pegs that drove this week’s column. More than I knew!

First, Friday is the day that Eugene City Council begins the work of choosing from all the city manager candidates. Second, we’re now roughly nine months into Patrick Kilkenny’s tenure as Athletic Director for UO. Third, there have been two good op-ed columns in the past week that I can reference directly. Fourth, the strategy I’ll propose creates a powerful synergy: both the university and the city could be undertaking top executive searches in 2010.

But fifth, this is weird but six years ago YESTERDAY, I sent The Register-Guard an op-ed column proposing something eerily similar. I’ll paste it below.

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Op-Ed: After Jim Johnson

by Don Kahle

Eugene City Manager Jim Johnson is retiring at the end of February. The city council who chooses his replacement almost certainly will look different than the city council who will work with the new city manager after next November’s election. Redistricting will alter the political landscape in ways that are hard to predict. No qualified candidate for the job this winter will want the job with such uncertainty in the fall. Therefore, Eugene City Council has no choice but to appoint a safe “acting city manager” to keep the seat warm for a year until a new council can begin a nationwide search for a permanent choice.

So goes the conventional wisdom. I have a favorite shirt that proclaims the truth here evident: “Conventional wisdom is seldom both.”

The next twelve months will be an unusually rich time for Eugene. The design of the federal courthouse and a brand new surrounding neighborhood will be unveiled, the last vestige of the downtown mall will be removed, the largest single-use building ever to be designed for downtown will look finished for months before the books are moved in, the hospital wars will settle into some new sort of stability, plans for a major new performance facility will begin taking shape in The Shedd, and Bus Rapid Transit will be promising to whisk riders from downtown Springfield to downtown Eugene with light-rail-type style.

This is no time for a stand-in to be running the city of Eugene. This is a time for bold and innovative leadership to help us recapture our pride of place. Our form of government makes the city manager the most important single person in the city, wielding more power than the mayor and forming an intentional counterbalance to the entire city council. While the mayor is cutting ribbons and giving speeches, the city manager is cutting budgets and giving promotions, cutting deals and giving raises, cutting red tape and giving incentives.

The past year or two have not been good ones for Eugene. Contentious ballot measures, a fractious city council, brain drain at the senior manager level, fleeing or folding industry leaders — these have all contributed to a malaise that has had us sucking our thumbs while Springfield’s been pulling out plums.

The short term of certainty for a new city manager could be the best scenario for the city, the city staff, and the right candidate for the job. Why not turn the whole equation on its ear and search now for a city manager who will agree to do the job for one year and no longer?

Corporations hire people for this sort of thing all the time in circumstances like ours. They call themselves “turn-around artists” and they use their brief tenure to their advantage, making changes that are painful but necessary. A professional can size up an organization, inspire the troops around a new vision, and lead the reinvigorated team into the pitch of battle with no concern for the dreary management of life after victory.

Certainly a town with Eugene’s reputation would attract some interesting candidates if we put out the call. A short-term assignment to help us pull ourselves back together might look very good on an up-and-comer’s resume. It might be the career capstone for a high-profile veteran. Who could resist an invitation to return Eugene to its best iconoclastic self?

City staff has displayed deep confidence that the talent to run the city is in place even after Jim Johnson leaves, so maybe the short-timer doesn’t need to be a professional city manager at all. Then we could make a bold choice that is also local. A non-professional would never take the position permanently, but a short-term assignment with a competent staff might be just the ticket to get things turned around.

What would OFAM’s Jim Ralph do for the city and the arts if he had a year and the resources of city staff to direct? How would the social service infrastructure be repaired if the job went to St. Vincent dePaul’s Terry MacDonald? What sort of development with a heart could be invented in one year under the leadership of Hugh Prichard? What kind of trouble could we create together under the tutelage of Jim Weaver? What could be accomplished if we brought back for just one year Mike Gleason or Vicki Elmer?

A year from now we can think about who will best manage the city for the next decade. But we can’t wait a year to have leadership in city hall.