Printed on: November 21, 2012

Changing of the Guard

By Clark Corbin

After a generation of stability and predictability within Idaho Falls city government, change is coming to City Hall.

Sparked by retirements and a resignation this year, city officials are poised to replace up to eight of the city's top 11 directors over a five-year period.

City departments long have been run by an experienced group of top division directors without much turnover.

But that's changing.

Parks and Recreation Director Dave Christiansen retired March 30 after 22 years of leading his division.

In August, Idaho Falls Regional Airport Director Len Nelson retired after five years on the job.

Former City Attorney Dale Storer abruptly resigned in September after handling the city's legal affairs for 30 years.

Last month, Police Chief Steve Roos announced he will retire Jan. 1 after a 31-year career in law enforcement. Roos served five years as chief. He succeeded Kent Livsey.

Since March, 88 years of combined experience has walked out the door at City Hall.

By 2015 or 2016, the city could lose up to 130 more years of top-level management experience as four department heads and other key personnel near retirement age.

Additionally, all six council members and Mayor Jared Fuhriman will see their terms expire, either in 2013 or 2015.

Council President Ida Hardcastle said the danger in turnover is losing experience and know-how developed over long careers.

"The thing is we want to have the institutional memory, and the fact is we've got so much of it here," Hardcastle said.

Still, she said change brings opportunity. Hardcastle said she has been especially impressed by the vision of Greg Weitzel, who succeeded Christiansen at Parks and Recreation.

"We don't bring in recent graduates; we're looking for people with experience," Hardcastle said. "These are top-level jobs, they're good-paying jobs, and they've brought in many qualified applicants."

Council member Mike Lehto said the changes allow city officials to bring in new ideas and leadership styles. But rapid turnover also creates stability challenges while officials search for replacements and bring successors up to speed.

"To answer your question, absolutely it's a concern of mine -- and I'm sure of other council members and the mayor -- there is a huge knowledge base going out the door," Lehto said.

In most cases, city officials and council members are given notice to prepare for retirements of longtime officials, as was the case with Christiansen.

But when retirements come in bunches or an unexpected resignation occurs, city officials must play catchup.

"We've been mostly able to set up a timetable (to plan for retirements), but one problematic (exit) has been, obviously, the departure of the city attorney," Lehto said.

The city is approaching three months without a dedicated city attorney since Storer's Sept. 7 resignation, although his firm is filling in on an interim basis.

Even though four top officials have left this year, more change is coming to City Hall. 

Officials are expecting more retirements in the months and years ahead. Public Works Director Chad Stanger, who has served the city since 1972, is eligible for retirement. Council members this summer also considered hiring and starting training for a successor to Planning Director Renee Magee, who has served since 1992.

Municipal Services Director Craig Lords, who has worked with the city since 1978, is 61 and will reach retirement age within four years.

Finally, City Clerk Rose Anderson, who has worked in various city departments since 1976, also will be eligible to retire in two years based on the state pension program's "Rule of 90," which factors in age plus years served.

"There is the possibility of at least four or five more (directors) being gone over the next two years or so," Lords said.

Lords made the comment the week before Roos announced his retirement.

Hardcastle said she isn't worried that the changes in leadership will adversely affect the city. The city has plenty of options between in-house employees who could fill a vacancy, she said.

Although no decision has been made, Hardcastle said assistant public works director and former city engineer Chris Fredericksen would be a capable replacement for Stanger.

In many cases, the only decision is whether to promote from within or begin the more lengthy and costly process of a national search, Hardcastle said.

"I might have been stressed (by turnover) a few years ago, but not now because we've had some really quality people come in," Hardcastle said.

Stanger said Monday that he has yet to make a decision regarding his future but believes his department is strong and stable.

Stanger said he has surrounded himself with quality employees. The rest, he said, will take care of itself.

"It's a mayor and council decision on the transition and replacement of division directors," Stanger said. "But, in the meantime, we have excellent personnel in the public works division, and they all perform well in their job functions."

Clark Corbin can be reached at 542-6761. Comment on this story at Post Talk, talk.