What Will Wollenweber Do?

What Will Wollenweber Do?

(Crystal A. Proxmire, 1/18/2011)

Mark Wollenweber is giving up two weeks of basking in the sunshine of Florida, to temporarily handle the municipal administration of Ferndale, in what are certainly the city’s coldest months – literally and politically.

As he tasted his first, of what is likely to be many, five dollar Tuesday burgers at the Emory, Wollenweber talked about what his role will be as City Manager, his previous experiences in other cities, and the issues he hopes to help Ferndale through over the next 3-6 months.

HOW HE GOT THE JOB, AND WHO WILL GET IT NEXT

The Ferndale City Council held a special meeting on Jan. 6, 2011 to interview two candidates for Interim City Manager.  Current City Manager Bob Bruner has accepted the same position with the City of Birmingham, and will be leaving the Ferndale office on Feb. 11.  At the Jan. 10, 2011 meeting, City Council voted to give the job to Wollenweber.

“We had other people interested in the permanent City Manager position and the temporary one,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kate Baker.  “We decided to interview people who weren’t interested in the permanent position so that whoever got the interim job wouldn’t have an unfair advantage in the interview process.”  Wollenweber said he is happy to come out of retirement to help, but definitely not for long.

Council voted to work with the Michigan Municipal League to do a nation-wide search for Bruner’s long-term replacement, who should be chosen within the next six months.

WHO IS MARK WOLLENWEBER?

Wollenweber earned his Bachelors and Masters of Arts from the University of Detroit Mercy.  He was a staff assistant for the Michigan Municipal League and held administrative positions in Plymouth and Westland before being City Manager of Huntington Woods for 12 years.  He then was the City Manager of St. Clair Shores for nearly 15 years and City Administrator for Grosse Pointe Woods for six.

He is also highly involved in municipal advocacy groups.  He is on the Board of Michigan Suburbs Alliance, the organization where Councilperson Melanie Piana works.  He also serves on the board of the Traffic Improvement Association, The Suburban Library Cooperative and is the Vice Chair of The Library Network. He also serves as the 2nd Vice Chair of the Detroit Area Agency on Aging, is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners from the American Planning Association, and previously served as a board member and state president of the Michigan Local Government Management Association.

He said that he left Huntington Woods out of boredom. “I really ran out of things to do in Huntington Woods.  It was a great place to live, my kids loved it, it was fun.  But I got bored and ran out of things to do.  We had tons of money – this was the late 80s and early 90s – I don’t know how they’re having troubles now, there was a lot of money there.  So I went to St. Clair Shores.”

He said that in 2004 he left St. Clair Shores because it made the most financial sense for himself.  After 17 years of collective City Management service, his pension was close to being capped.  “Going to Grosse Pointe Woods was an opportunity to collect my pension and work at the city right next door,” Wollenweber said.  He retired from Grosse Pointe Woods in July 2010 and agreed to come out of retirement after being asked by members of Council to apply.

AND THE JOB IS…

The City Manager’s job is to run the day-to-day operations of the City.  The City Council makes decisions and gives direction, and the City Manager orchestrates the implementation.  He makes sure that the City’s various departments –Police, Fire, City Clerk, Community Development, Cable, Department of Public Works, etc – are running smoothly.   “Coming to work in a city is like jumping on a moving train,” Wollenweber said.  “It’s just a matter of how quickly you can grab on and start moving forward.”

“I’d like to start off by meeting everyone and figuring out how Bob [Bruner] has been doing things,” Wollenweber said.  “I’ve met Bob already and I can tell it’s not going to be hard to pick up where he left off.  And I’ve met many people involved with the City already because of interactions with Ferndale while I was working for other cities.”

He also said that he expects to me out in the community more.  “I go to ribbon cuttings and things if I get asked.  There is always a debate as far as how much a City Manager should be out being friendly, but I think it’s good to be in the community.  One thing City Managers know though is that it’s not our job to be the face of the city.  That’s what elected officials are for.  We’re used to being behind the scenes – taking the blame when things don’t go well, and letting the elected officials take the spotlight when they go right,” he teased.  “But seriously, I’m here to work for the people of the city, and I’m happy to talk to anybody.  It’s fun when people stop by the office.”

Residents will also be able to catch Wollenweber at Dream Cruise time, cruising around in his 1968 Barracuda Convertible. Though it certainly won’t be all fun and games.

SUNSHINE AND SITUATIONS

Wollenweber is trading sunshine for some less-warm situations.  Each year he travels south and spends a few weeks in Florida, relaxing and visiting Disney World.  “I think it’s really important to relax and have a nice balance in life,” he said.  “Going to Florida is a tradition of mine since working back in Huntington Woods.  We had a great recreation program and I used to organize the trip down each year. It was about 30-40 of us.  We’d get busses and go down to Disney World as our winter break.  It was right before we’d have to start working on the budget, and it was nice being able to face that with a clear head.”

This year will be a little different, and his visit will be brief so he can return to Ferndale in time to meet with the staff and gain vital information about running the city before Bruner leaves for Birmingham Feb. 11.

Though he will only be managing for 3-6 months, Wollenweber will be administrating at a critical time for the city.  Several situations will require his attention, including changes in personnel city-wide, the budget process along with contract negotiations and a possible Headlee Override, and the process of hiring a new City Manager.

CHANGING FACES

The City has severely scaled back its non-union workforce and consolidated City Hall to a bare-bones staff with a single customer counter.  The remodeling of the offices is done, but there is still some time needed for staff to cross-train and adjust.  (see: http://oaklandcounty115.com/2010/08/01/remodeling-city-hall/).

Mayor Craig Covey left his position at the beginning of the year to become a County Commissioner, leaving the City with Mayor Pro Tem Kate Baker running the show for a month and Council interviewing applicants to fill the vacant Mayor position for the remainder of 2011.  Council will decide on Jan. 24 if the new Mayor will be former Mayor Bob Porter, former County Commissioner Dave Coulter, or Ferndale TimeBank founder Michelle Foster.  (see: http://oaklandcounty115.com/2011/01/16/three-residents-to-be-interviewed-for-mayor-position)

And on top of that, the process of the new City Manager search will take place while he is in the temporary position, although Wollenweber says he anticipates that Council will work more with the Michigan Municipal League to conduct the search without a lot of input from him.

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

The budget process is a challenging time for anyone involved in local government, but Wollenweber will be jumping right in along with whomever is appointed Mayor and learning about the budgets of each separate department and seeing how they can fit together.  Negotiations with the Police and Fire Unions have gone into arbitration, leaving city leaders in the dark about how much payroll expenses for the two largest departments will be for the year.  And on top of it Council is considering placing a tax increase on the ballot to help cover some of the $2.8 million expected deficit in the budget, which is due to declines in property tax revenue and revenue-sharing payments from the state.  (http://oaklandcounty115.com/2010/12/30/committee-recommends-tax-override).

“I watched the meeting where the Financial Committee gave their report and I was really impressed,” Wollenweber said.  “They did a fine job.  …I’d want people to know that it’s not poor management that is causing these problems, it’s bad times.  It’s hard sometimes to explain to people that services cost money, and if you want to live in a nice place then you have to pay that.  Another part of it is that people don’t want to pay for invisible things.  They don’t think about all the costs, because they aren’t things they see in their daily lives.”

Wollenweber will help council in the budget process by doing things like gathering financial information from all departments and creating reports and recommendations.  He also brings experience navigating financial struggles for other cities and in using tax increases to fill the gaps.

“Unfortunately with the economy changes we eliminated 10-15 positions in Grosse Pointe Woods,” Wollenweber said during his interview with Council.  “There the city council had the ability to raise millage without an election, and in the last budget I did, two years ago, Council saw the need…and they had to raise the milage.  They did it with a lot of kicking and screaming.”

Wollenwebber also described a water milage that went to a public vote, calling it “pretty successful,” and saying that they used to test ballot questions before putting them to vote by doing surveys and test votes to see what wording worked best.

“You got to determine what people want, businesses and residents, and figure out what they can pay for,” he said at his City Council interview.  “Because property values have declined, the taxes have gone down.  No one wants to pay more, but you need to explain to people they need to pay their fair share,” he said. “Ferndale has always been a high-service community.  People expect that.  A community is not just police, fire, and garbage pick up.  What makes a community are the extras, and if you take those away then people don’t have any reason to stay here, and they move to communities that have that community feel to them.  Ferndale is good to residents.  Without the community center or the festivals it wouldn’t be Ferndale any more.”

For more information about local governance, please see our Politics and Government page.

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