Nathan Charpeski, The New City Manager

The Klamath Falls City Council has selected Nathan Cherpeski to replace Jim Hunter (police chief) who has been acting manager since the abrupt departure of Rick Whitlock (whose exit was strangely coincidental with a rumored prostitution scandal in town).

For the past six years, Cherpeski has been serving as city manager of Alamosa, Colorado, a city populated by 8,682 people (Klamath Falls is over 20,000). He will be assuming his post in February 2013, and moving his wife and five children, of Mormon faith, to Klamath Falls. Cherpeski holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and a Masters of Arts in Public Policy from Brigham Young University and does not appear to have any significant experience in the private sector. His employment contract terms have not been disclosed, but his predecessor received over $160,000 in value from wages and benefits.

Job creation was the most discussed topic among the applicants, a dialogue which seems ironic when career public servants claim to understand what it is like to operate a business. Nonetheless, this appointment marks a slight deviation away from the internal promotion choices Council has made in the past, for which they should receive one round of applause.

Two Small Differences

Klamath Falls has had three city managers since 1990. Jim Kellar, Jeff Ball, and Rick Whitlock. After going through the motions of recruiting new city managers, Council ended up promoting the city attorney in both previous vacancies. Thank goodness that didn’t happen this time. As anyone who has interacted with attorney personalities is aware, the position they take on any issue tends toward adversarial. They tend to be smart, cunning, and shifty, which is just what you need in a courtroom, but the environment of manipulating outcomes for an arbitrated decision is contrary to the type of personality and skill set that a city manager should possess. Attorneys thrive on conflict and mediation is simply not in their nature. Since the new manager does not possess a legal background, there is hope that conflict resolution will improve.

The other difference is the City won’t have to deal with an alcoholic at the post. By the time he retired, City Manager Keller had racked up three DUIs. When in a position of power like that, you really have to try hard to get arrested that many times. Just think how many other incidents there were where he wasn’t arrested. Jeff Ball was also known to be a heavy drinker. Since the new manager’s religion prevents him from consuming alcohol, we can expect a clearer head with less emotional conflict at the job. Staying awake through so many meetings without coffee will also be an amazing trick.

The big question is: will this new city manager change anything for the better? The only way to know is to observe his actions once he takes the helm, so we’re going to provide some tests by which the public can easily evaluate what kind of manager he will be from the get-go.

Early Tests of Leadership for City Manager

1. Fair resolution of the Boat House crisis.

Resolving this issue would be the best test of the new hire’s effectiveness and it is something he can work on before he is begins full time work. No sane and moral person can view the City administration’s treatment of the Boat House investors as anything but tyrannical. A good mediator could resolve this situation in a positive way for all parties within two weeks. If the new manager can’t accomplish this, then there is no way he will have any success in assisting job creation. He will be forever linked with the most recent, deplorable treatment of a business investor, which will undoubtedly weigh heavily in the minds of new business recruits as they ponder whether or not to invest in Klamath Falls. For the full background on the Boat House, see the other articles posted on Klamath.net (Klamath Two Face — Support the Boat House — Boat House Meeeting Update — Boat House Status)

2. Change the Administrative Culture

The adversarial stance pervasive throughout the City’s structure needs to end. Staff that must interact with the public have not been empowered to assist in identifying and correcting the many policy defects harming the public they confront on a daily basis. In contrast, as bad as state government seems, many agencies have a built in mechanism for improving efficiency and removing barriers facing customers through staff recommendations that lead to policy corrections in the Legislature. Most agencies have a reward system in place for the effort. A path for staff to submit procedural changes for open consideration by Council will be essential if the City hopes to correct it’s bad reputation.  At a minimum, the new manager could issue directives that promote problem-solving and allow for any staff member to participate in the process of continuous improvement (as defined by people outside administration). This would improve reactions to requests from “here are all the reasons why you can’t do something,” to “let’s find a way to make this work.”

3. Deal with the Planning Department

Nowhere in the City is the public interface in greater disarray than the Planning Department, which includes policies that turn away investors and business startups. When you consider that most of the licensing requirements relating to building codes are also enforced by the County, the existence of any additional overhead at the City level is redundant and costly. When a business attempts to file for a business license, the City charges a $300 site review fee just to consider granting the license at any proposed location. For what? The process opens painful door leading to undue harassment by the fire marshall and planning staff that heap additional requirements such as landscaping and sidewalk repair. While some of this makes sense on Main Street where the City is obsessed with making the streetscape into a park to the exclusion of retailer needs, such burdens have no just rationalization in the industrial zones. Why would the City require Klamath Cold Storage to remove a huge section of paving behind a warehouse in an industrial property next to the railroad tracks? They didn’t stop there, as the business was also forced to block a semi truck loading dock with landscaping.

Here are some activities to measure the city manager on as he deals with Planning:

  • Eliminate ALL requirements that duplicate in any way the requirements in place at the County level. This includes site reviews, fence permits, outbuilding permits, sign permits, etc.
  •  Support grandfathering.When a business has been operating for years at a site, closes, and another business not too different in function moves in, they should be allowed to continue operations in the same manner. This includes retaining existing sign cabinets and all structural scenarios. Most of the business sites remain vacant because neither the owners or new businesses can afford the upgrades the former tenant was not burdened with. This exact situation occurred on the property the Mayor sold to a Bend investor that sits vacant because of cost prohibitive upgrade requirements that fail to assist business success, so there is no return on investment for complying with the whims of the City administration. They lose less money by letting it be vacant.
  • Cease Public Improvement Attachments. A business or property owner should not be forced to make significant improvements in public rights of way as a condition to use a property they have rights in. Streets and sidewalks are public infrastructure, but the City has passed the burden on to cash-strapped private sector people. They’ve attempted to force some businesses to pave alleyways that have never been paved before. They constantly block investments by requiring sidewalk replacement (costing $80,000 per half block), which is extremely expensive and often costs more than most small buildings are worth. It is also a contradiction to require planting trees in sidewalks that will ultimately damage the sidewalk and require later replacement.

4. Just Eliminate Planning

The best outcome the manager won’t likely consider tops the wish list for improving the business climate. Eliminate the entire Planning Department. Ask about starting a business in a location and you receive pages of forms and a long list of everything you might not be able to do. How does throwing barriers in the face of someone putting out feelers help the cause of investment? For the most part, the functional role of that section is to conjure more bureaucracy, confusion and generate fees that support their positions. In the end, this serves only to kill the private sector job creation opportunities that would be boosting the tax base the City needs to sustain services.

Different One Way, Similar Another

We don’t want to downplay the incredible stride the Council made from its own history by not promoting from within for the first time in decades. That action is a pleasant surprise. Internal promotion is the way half the Cities fill upper management vacancies. The other half fall of Oregon in line with the other trait the Council sided with: career and training in public administration.

On the surface, that doesn’t sound bad. Our society takes the easy scapegoat approach to hiring, using institutionalized credentials as a protection against being blamed for flaws in a hire down the road, rather than seeking personalities that will solve specific problems based on the merrits of creativity and skill. Behind that push is the League of Oregon Cities (LOC), the organization that trains local governments how to lock their cities down tighter than Fort Knox. They also become involved in City Manager Recruitments by assisting with outreach and evaluation. Council member Bud Hart sits on the board of the LOC, helping to push policy recommendations and templates like those most harmful to the Klamath Falls economy. That’s part of how we ended up with Portland-style major metro policies that simply don’t belong east of the Cascades in an area with completely different geographic challenges and economic barriers. The best way to retain the flawed and unwieldly structure of City government is to put a highly trained expert in place that can be an effective handler of unpaid volunteer council members while serving the greater city government special interest group.

What if the President?

Just think if the office of the President of the United States was operated like most Oregon cities. There would be no presidential election. Congress would appoint a president who would serve indefinitely. It would be nearly impossible to fire someone who controlled the information and the administration, just as here. There would no longer be a president; the position would be called the USA Manager, and all the elected people would be banned from involvement in administration issues, just like in Klamath Falls. We have a flawed system that is far removed from the concept of a democracy where you elect the people in charge.

The great philospher Plato contemplated the solution to the human condition involving such hierarchical rule. In his Utopia, in order for the ideally benevolent city-state to come into being, “philosophers must become kings…or those now called kings must…genuinely and adequately philosophize.” Plato felt that creativity combined with reason in leadership would ultimately surpass oppressive forces. Klamathites have yet to see that materialize here.

We hope this new manager will surprise us with the sort of unconventional benevolancy and morality Plato thought would be ideal in the pre-democracy world. The Council may have accidentally made as good a selection as could be hoped for. We shall soon see what kind of manager Nathan Cherpeski will be, easily measured by the the extent to which he runs the gauntlet of the tests posted here.