Once again, Killeen finds itself at a crossroads.
With Assistant City Manager Dennis Baldwin’s acknowledgement last week that he plans to retire in January, the city will have to decide what path to take with his successor.
It’s not an insignificant hire.
With his 35 years of experience with the city — 12 of those as police chief — Baldwin takes with him a wealth of institutional knowledge, and that can’t be discounted.
After serving as interim city manager for four months prior to City Manager Ron Olson’s hiring in February 2017, Olson asked Baldwin to stay on in order to provide context and continuity.
And while Olson brought more than 38 years of experience as a city manager to the position, he was new to Killeen and the management structure at City Hall.
That’s where Baldwin proved especially valuable, and Olson recognized that, to his credit.
However, by the time Baldwin retires next year, Olson will have spent nearly two years in the city’s top administrative post. During that time, he has crafted two balanced budgets and reworked many of the city’s management practices and spending protocols. He has rectified most problems identified in an external management audit performed in the summer of 2017 and has taken steps to improve cooperation and communication among city departments.
In short, Olson is fully up to speed.
However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need someone to fill Baldwin’s post. In a growing city of more than 140,000 people, the need for an assistant city manager is pretty much a given.
The question is, what kind of person should the city look for to fill the role?
It comes down to choosing someone with ties to the local community or looking outside the area.
While council members may be more comfortable bringing in someone who is already connected to the local area, that may not be the best strategy for the city — especially in the long term.
When the City Council agreed to hire Olson in early 2017, the city handed the administrative reins to an outsider for the first time in 24 years. That dates back to 1993, when Tal Buie was hired after serving as Sherman’s city manager.
The last three permanent city managers — David Blackburn, Connie Green and Glenn Morrison — were all hired from within the city staff. Likewise, Baldwin and Ann Farris — both of whom served as interim city managers after Morrison retired in April 2016, were moved into the top spot from within the city ranks.
While all of Killeen’s recent city managers prior to Olson had strong institutional knowledge and familiarity with the city, their lack of an outsider’s perspective and prior city management experience hampered their effectiveness to some degree.
The outside management auditors pointed to some of those areas in their 2017 report — weakness in internal financial controls, convoluted recordkeeping, heavy use of enterprise funds to support the general fund, and a general history of overspending that impacted future budgets.
While Olson has done much to rectify these problems, the need for continued vigilance is crucial.
Olson is to be commended for implementing stronger controls and stricter guidelines in the city’s financial dealings — as well as reviewing and revising the management structure at City Hall.
However, it must be noted that Olson was 67 when he was hired, and he can’t be expected to stay on forever.
That’s why it’s imperative that the new assistant city manager be someone with city manager certification and experience running a municipality.
In other words, the person the council hires should be someone who can step in and do Olson’s job right away, should Olson decide to leave or retire. Ideally, the candidate chosen for the assistant city manager position should be someone in Olson’s mold — a strong administrator with experience and a fresh set of eyes.
No doubt, council members will feel some pressure to “hire local,” to bring in someone with ties to the community.
And while that makes sense on some level, it would be counterproductive to hire someone with links to the business, development or real estate community — no matter how tenuous those links might be.
It’s also important that the person hired be able to resist the all-too-common refrain from “the good ol’ boy network” that “we’ve always done it this way” or “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
For too long, always doing it the way it had been done put Killeen’s finances in a bind. And for too long, city insiders couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge that some of their methods were broken and needed fixing.
It took an outsider like Ron Olson to pull the city out of its rut — and it’s in the city’s best interest to look to another experienced outsider to work under Olson and continue to move the city forward.
The assistant city manager’s job was posted this week — at a starting salary of $140,000 plus car allowance.
Hopefully, the council will receive resumes from several strong candidates. And hopefully they will choose wisely.
Indeed, Killeen is at a crossroads — and the city’s long-term future may be at stake.