(Crystal A. Proxmire, 1/7/2011)
The Ferndale City Council held a special meeting on Jan. 6, 2011 to interview two candidates for Interim City Manager, who is expected to work for approximately six months while a permanent City Manager can be found. 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.
Council publicly interviewed Michael Culpepper and Mark Wollenweber, and agreed to wait until Monday night’s City Council Meeting to make their final decision. Another applicant was expected to be interviewed, but withdrew his applicant so that he might be eligible to apply for the long-term job of City Manager.
Culpepper has a Bachelor of Business Administration from Walsh College and a Masters of Public Administration from Oakland University. From 2005-2006 he was Public Works Director of Auburn Hills, and from 2007-2008 he was City Manager of Auburn Hills. Since retiring in 2008 he has worked on several contractual projects, including consulting on consolidating public services in Walled Lake.
While much of his experience has been in public works, Culpepper feels his background gives him an advantage over other potential applicants.
“Walsh College is a heavy business school, and heavy in accounting classes,” he said. “From there I’ve been able to look at budgets in the Public Works area and the Management area. A lot of City Managers are budget-minded but aren’t familiar with how the departments work. The numbers are really simple when you get into it. There are revenues and expenses and in the end a manager needs the numbers on a page to balance. …Managing public works, I know what those numbers really mean. …I’ve had to work with water and sewer which are enterprise accounts, which is the closest thing to a business a city has. Knowing the ins and outs of those kinds of accounts is something I can do.”
When asked about the possibility of being City Manager while the City goes through a public vote on a Headless Tax override, Culpper stressed the importance of community involvement in the process. He stated that his only experience involving a tax increase going to a public vote was when working with the City of Auburn Hills on having the City do consolidated trash collection. “For years individual homeowners that contracted with private companies for trash pick up and it created chaos. On the same street people would have different trash pick up days… Lots of confusion. The City needed to manage it, but there was no grassroots group of citizens willing to step up and push the issue. Having community groups be involved and discuss issues can help cities to get the facts out there without it having to be on the shoulders of Council. …It’s hard to get people to part with a dollar and a City has to be very careful with that, because the City is often the only show in town to serve the residents. It takes some cost to do the people’s work.”
Culpepper is also a self-described advocate of consolidation. He said that he has worked with one city that wanted to eliminate their engineering dept, and another that wanted to reduce work staff by 30 employees in a two week period and they “were at their wits end how to do that.” He assisted in consolidating Walled Lake public services.
He is not interested in the long-term City Manager position, and said he is happy to do short-term projects in his retirement. He said he would be excited to take the job because he grew up next door in Royal Oak and has a son that lives here in Ferndale.
The second applicant is another experienced City Manager willing to come out of retirement for the short-term work. Mark Wollenweber said he is even willing to consider cutting his annual trip to Florida in February down to a couple of weeks to be in town as the City goes through the regular City Manager search and a likely-contentious budgeting process. “I go to Disney World every year,” he said. “I’m just a kid at heart.” While City Manager for Huntington Woods he even planned annual retreats to the Florida-based theme park through the City’s recreation program.
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 he then 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.
Wollenweber has had more experience raising for City Services. In some instances no public vote was required. “Unfortunately with the economy changes we eliminated 10-15 positions in Grosse Pointe Woods. 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.” (For more information about the Grosse Pointe milage increase of 2009 and the issues that City faced, see this article in C & G – http://www.candgnews.com/Homepage-Articles/2009/5-13-09/Woods-millage-flier.asp)
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. Because property values have declined, the taxes have gone down. No one wants to pay more, but you need to explain 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.”
The currently four-member council disagreed initially. Michael Lennon said that both are good applicants and that more discussion needs to be done.
Piana, who has experience working with Wollenweber as part of Michigan Suburbs Alliance, said he would be her choice. “What I’m looking for in a city manager is someone who can take us through the arbitration process and budget cycle. I’ve also received four recommendations from other city managers and three outside organizations recommending Wollenwebber’s expertise.”
Galloway too initially favored Wollenwebber energy and his ability to “hit the ground running,” but questioned his lengthy answers to questions.
The final decision will be made at the Jan. 10, 2011 City Council meeting, which takes place at 7:30pm at City Hall.
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