Winchester set to reinstate assistant city manager post

Posted: January 31, 2013

The Winchester Star

Winchester City Manager Dale Iman in a meeting last year with finance director Mary Blowe (right) and Celeste Broadstreet. Iman told City Council on Wednesday that an assistant manager would help him lead the city. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — City Council is counting on Dale Iman to lead Winchester toward being widely recognized as one of Virginia’s top small cities.

But the councilors and Iman, the city manager, are convinced that he needs more help than he has to accomplish that goal, so an assistant city manager is scheduled to be hired soon.

“The management of this complex an organization,” Iman said Wednesday, “is more than one manager can handle if, indeed, our expectations are to be a high-performing organization.

“Much of my job is leading the employees, establishing a vision for the organization and setting a plan for how to get there. Under the current situation, I’m not able to do all that.”

The assistant city manager position, which has been in and out of budgets over the years, is common for cities about Winchester’s size.

Harrisonburg, Salem, Staunton, Fredericksburg and Charlottesville — mid-sized Virginia cities Winchester officials often use as comparisons — all employ assistant city managers. Leesburg’s website lists both an assistant town manager and a deputy town manager.

The post last was re-established on Nov. 25, 2006, when Anne Lewis was promoted, and for a time Craig Smith also was an assistant city manager.

But in early 2010, with the recession battering government budgets, then-City Manager Jim O’Connor said he could get by without an assistant. On July 1, 2010, the position was eliminated and Lewis became Winchester’s Parking Authority director (she has since moved on to be Harrisonburg’s assistant city manager).

Since July 2007, when Ed Daley departed to become Hopewell’s city manager, Winchester has had three full-time and four acting or interim managers.

City Council President Jeffrey Buettner, who has served on the panel since 1998, said that in that high-turnover period, the assistant manager’s position suffered from a lack of clearly defined responsibilities. That, combined with declining revenues during the weak economy, prompted councilors to eliminate the position.

But Craig Gerhart, the interim manager who bridged the gap between O’Connor and Iman, implored City Council last March to add an assistant manager’s post. In addition to being an asset with daily operations, he said the assistant could play a vital role in special projects that arose and disaster management.

Iman, who began working for the city in April, agreed to delay filling the position for six months because he wanted to evaluate the city’s needs so he could find the best person for the job.

Buettner and Vice President John Willingham said that with two veteran managers telling them the position was needed, they were convinced that it was worth the expense. The position is advertised as paying $87,200 to $107,500 and is funded with a small portion of the 9-cent real estate tax increase the councilors approved for the current fiscal year.

“(Gerhart) felt that for us to move in the direction we were going — with all the infrastructure improvements, the economic development improvements, the quality of life issues we were dealing with — we needed help at the upper level of management,” said Willingham. “We had two strong opinions from two people we greatly trusted, and think we have to provide them, when we can, with the resources necessary to achieve their goals.”

Buettner said Gerhart convinced him that a solid assistant manager was needed “so the city manager would have time to do the things a strong leader does and not spend all his time putting out fires.”

The city also is in a different operational mode than it was in 2010. Instead of holding the line on taxes and maintaining services as best as possible during the recession, the improving economy has convinced councilors that the time is right to advance projects that could yield benefits for years to come.

“If council wanted to just maintain the status quo,” Iman said, “I could do that in my sleep. But that’s not my style, and it’s not what council is looking for.”

The councilors have identified projects they think will benefit the city and prioritized them in the recently adopted strategic plan. That plan, Buettner said, sets “a pretty aggressive agenda” for the city, and Iman will need help “to do any of the initiatives justice.”

Willingham said he thinks the position is needed to implement the strategic plan successfully. If the councilors didn’t fill it, he said, “I think we’d be shortchanging the city’s ability to achieve all those goals we want to come to fruition.”

Ben Weber, who in March was appointed to fill a vacant council seat and was elected to a four-year term in November, is a convert to that line of thought, too.

He initially questioned the need for an assistant manager and opposed the tax hike. But with the strategic plan in place and the assistant manager slated to play a vital role, he’s convinced it’ll be valuable.

“The assistant city manager is another tool we’ll be using in order to be successful,” he said. “Based on the fact that we now have a game plan, I think it’s important to have that person.”

Weber and Willingham also said they think it’s important to have a strong assistant manager as a matter of succession planning in case Iman were to be unavailable for a period of time or were to leave the city.

Iman said 17 department heads report directly to him, and he also works with the city’s five constitutional officers.

He expects at least five of those department heads to report to the assistant manager, and that person will have primary responsibility for many other duties, including legislative affairs and helping fill positions on city boards and commissions.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com