With Friday’s announcement that the Killeen City Council had selected James “Kent” Cagle to be the new city manager, the city took a major step toward administrative stability.
Cagle has more than 18 years of city management experience and has worked in local government for 32 years. He most recently served as Leander’s city manager from November 2011 to May of this year. Prior to that, he was Duncanville’s city manager from 2001 to 2011, following four years as its assistant city manager.
But even though Killeen’s top administrative job is filled — pending the council’s formal vote on Cagle’s contract this week — the city still has some pretty big holes to fill.
As of Friday, the city was without a permanent aviation director, the longtime city attorney was preparing to take over the same job in Temple in three weeks, and Killeen’s planning director was planning to retire at year’s end.
None of this is to say that the city is rudderless at these positions.
After Matt Van Valkenburgh retired as aviation director in October, airport operations manager Mike Wilson was put in the post in an interim capacity.
Also, it has already been determined that Assistant Planning Director Tony McIlwain will serve as interim planning director once Executive Director Ray Shanaa retires Dec. 31.
And David Ellison has served as interim city manager since Ron Olson retired Oct. 1. Ellison was hired as an assistant city manager with the knowledge that Olson would likely leave the city sooner rather than later, as he was 67 when he was hired in early 2017.
Ellison, who came on board Feb. 4, has been filling in well since Olson’s departure.
In addition, the City Council recently brought back former interim City Manager Dennis Baldwin as an assistant city manager — on a 90-day contract — to help with the current workload and assist the new city manager get up to speed.
Once Cagle is in place, tentatively Dec. 3, he will determine the process and appointments of new department heads, city spokeswoman Hilary Shine said in an email Friday.
That will include the selection of the next city attorney, a decision that will be crucial — as well as a bit dicey.
That’s because Killeen’s longtime deputy city attorney, Traci Briggs, also applied for the Temple city attorney post and was a finalist along with Killeen City Attorney Kathy Davis, who was hired by Temple last week. With Davis departing Dec. 1, if Briggs were passed over for the Killeen city attorney job, it’s not unreasonable to assume that she would continue looking for a similar position elsewhere.
That’s a potential problem, from the standpoint of institutional knowledge. Davis started working as Killeen’s top attorney in 1995, and Briggs has worked in her current role since 2003 and in the city attorney’s office since 1999. If Killeen were to lose them both, it would represent 44 years of valuable legal experience and expertise that would be extremely difficult to replace.
However, it could also be argued that the city could use a fresh perspective in the city attorney’s office — particularly since both Davis and Briggs were in place during the turbulent budget years examined by the 2017 outside audit, which found myriad institutional, management and procedural problems surrounding the city’s financial practices.
Also, Cagle may wish to put someone with an outsider’s viewpoint in the city’s attorney’s post, just as he brings his outsider’s perspective to the city manager’s office. And as Shine pointed out, that would be Cagle’s prerogative.
As Cagle moves into the city manager’s post, it will serve him well to become acquainted with the department heads and staff at City Hall — and their work histories — before making any major personnel decisions.
Just as Olson did during his tenure, Cagle should examine the areas where the city staff excels, where it falls short, and what changes to make that will best serve the city and its residents.
Cagle also should be mindful — as was Olson — that some of the policies and practices that the city employed in the past are not necessarily worth continuing.
Changing long-held methods of operation can be difficult, but it must be done if the city is to operate efficiently.
Finally, Cagle should adopt a staffing strategy of “less is more.” Given the city’s ongoing battle to balance revenue and expenditures, Cagle should resist the urge to grow departments and add staff — to include the hiring of a second assistant city manager.
Considering the fact that more than 25 city employees currently earn more than $100,000 annually, it would seem to make more financial sense to add responsibilities to division managers and department heads, rather than to hire another high-dollar administrator.
No doubt, Cagle will bring his own leadership style to City Hall, and he will need to draw on his three decades of local government experience to address Killeen’s unique issues and challenges.
Selecting the best-qualified people to fill the city’s administrative vacancies will be an important first step.