The city administration of Denison, Iowa, found itself in a bit of a dilemma last year when two key employees of the public works department decided to retire within a short time of each other.
The announcements got City Manager Terence Crawford thinking about succession planning. “We’re a small enough city right now that we deal with our succession planning mostly through open lines of communication.”
Those open lines have worked well for the government of the city of about 10,000 nestled in the Boyer River valley in west central Iowa.
So, when Doug Wiebers, the city’s public works director, and Dave Nemitz, a 44-year employee and long-time Denison street commissioner, decided to retire within months of each other, the communication lines became extra important.
The main concern when the retirements were announced was getting people in place before the tough Iowa snow-removal season. “Winters tend to wear on our public works people,” Crawford said.
He also noted that one of the advantages of being a small municipality is the contacts that people have with others in the community. Those have helped in finding people to step into the vacancies that retirements create.
But the small community also means small departments suffer when even just one employee is gone. Nemitz’s retirement in the spring of 2020 left the city’s public works department with only six workers and one supervisor.
Crawford said the city came out of that transition in good shape.
The new public works director, Eric Martens, was director of maintenance at Smithfield Farmland Foods, the largest employer in Denison. The new street superintendent worked for Crawford County, maintaining secondary county roads around the Denison area.
“He had created spreadsheets on all of the county equipment from the day it arrived until it was retired,” Crawford noted one of Mike Vogt’s strengths when applying for the Denison street superintendent position.
In the ongoing conversations about succession planning for the public works department, Crawford said the city considers not just the ability to do the jobs as they open but also ensures candidates and current employees have the proper certifications to make the transitions smooth regardless of the time of year.
In the public works department, making sure that they always have adequate employees with a state commercial drivers’ license is important.
But public works was not the only department that focused the Denison city government on succession planning.
The manager of the city-owned Boulders Conference Center decided 2020 was time to step back from her position, and the city library’s assistant manager and children’s librarian both reached retirement age.
Crawford said the conference center position caught the city by surprise. “We had no succession plan in place.” The manager had been on the job since the center opened in 2006. Again, communication with the community played a role in finding a solution.
“City council negotiated with a lady who came forward to lease the center. Laura Matthews owns The Stables at Copper Ridge. She restored a barn on her property after her husband’s death and turned it into an event venue.”
Crawford credited city council representative Corey Curnyn with finding a way to keep the city’s conference center functioning. “He led the effort and negotiated with Laura so that she’s leasing it with the option to buy it.”
According to Crawford, the library dilemma might have been tougher to figure out if the COVID-19 pandemic had not limited the library’s full operation. “That gave our library director, Monica Walley, more time to find a replacement for the assistant librarian.
“While the pandemic has been a terrible thing, it has given us a little grace in this situation, having more time to fill those positions while the library was not fully open.”
In May, the city hired a new assistant director. Crawford said the two would begin a search for a children’s librarian to bring the staff back to full operation.
Conversations about succession planning have been ongoing in city council meetings and work sessions. The latest of these conversations has to do with the future of Crawford’s combined city manager and city engineer position.
Crawford began his work with Denison in 1991 as the city engineer. In 2012, the city manager left that position to work for another area of the state. Since the mayor of Denison is a part-time advisory position elected for two-year terms, the city council wanted someone with an understanding of the community to step into the city manager position.
A member of the city council asked Crawford if he thought he could do the job of city manager and the job of city engineer. “I didn’t think there would be enough time to do both.”
Crawford and the councilman set to work redefining the city manager position, calling on the skills of long-time city clerk Lisa Koch to manage the city’s financial and budgeting functions. “I also said that I wouldn’t have time to micromanage the department heads,” Crawford noted.
With those caveats, Crawford and then-mayor Denis Fineran, along with the city council, agreed the city manager would spend 25% of his time managing and 75% of his time engineering. “And we’ve been plugging along ever since,” he said.
So, now nine years later, the city manager is approaching his 10-year anniversary in the position and his 70th birthday. “We recently had a work session where council asked me when I plan to retire.” Crawford said he wants to reach that 10-year milestone but also wants to give the city council adequate time to prepare for a new breed of city manager.
“I’m kind of a rare bird being city manager and city engineer.”
So, the city of Denison is working on how to prepare for 2022 and planning for the succession of another key employee. “They’re considering options, so there is no gap in leadership.”
While the city has tried to be wise in its planning, Crawford said the open communication key has worked well. “At some point, there will be a definite plan for every department, but right now, this has worked for us.”
He said the city is growing, particularly in its cultural diversity. “We have a growing Hispanic population, mostly because of Smithfield.”
Crawford estimates that nearly half the population of Denison is now Hispanic. “They are a big part of our culture. They’ve gained citizenship and are growing their families here. And they’re involved in all aspects of the city.”
Like the public works department, the work of keeping those communication lines open citywide is important and continuing in city council work sessions and budget planning where conversations on the future occur. With these continued conversations, Crawford believes Denison has a “bright future” ahead.