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Running on empty 

If you're playing solitaire with a deck that's missing an ace, you're bound to lose.

And that's how some people at the city feel these days, because seven of the top 23 management positions are either vacant or being held by "acting managers" doing more than one job.

The vacancies — caused by budget cuts starting in 2008 that led to layoffs, retirements and some directors seeking greener pastures — will be filled after the new mayor, Steve Bach or Richard Skorman, takes office in June.

In fact, the pending May 17 runoff election is partly to blame for the rash of vacancies.

Interim City Manager Steve Cox, who also serves as fire chief, says the slots were intentionally held open so the city's first strong mayor could decide how to fill them, or even whether to fill them.

"It also creates an opportunity for the new mayor," Cox says. "If they're thinking about reorganizing, it could happen more easily."

Stalemate

Cox insists the vacancies haven't impacted day-to-day operations, but he concedes there's not much future vision being exercised.

"We aren't moving forward," he says. "We're like, in a wait state, waiting for what the mayor wants. Anytime a person is put in an 'acting' position, it can be difficult to implement change, because you're just there temporarily. That's the hard part for anyone in those positions.

"They're all good people and have good ideas, but there's a reluctance because, who knows when someone will become permanent?"

The state of flux, Cox says, undermines the stability of the organization. But the alternative — to hire people who could be sent packing by a new mayor — might be worse. "Change that will be changed again," Cox says. "That's hard on employees."

For now, it's certainly hard on managers who are doing double duty, including Cox, who's serving as city manager while running the Fire Department. Robin Kidder has stepped in for the retired Cam McNair to run the city engineering division, but continues working (and overseeing the Woodmen Road overpass project) as roadway engineer.

Of course, that arrangement will last only until Kidder leaves for another job in Arizona.

"So now we don't have depth to replace the city engineer," Cox says. He adds, "People are working so much harder than they've ever had to do. It's taking its toll and wearing people out."

Some employees have jumped ship because of the uncertainty. "I've been told by several people that they're looking at other organizations just because of the change in government," Cox says, referring to the conversion from a city manager-Council form of government to a strong-mayor form, which comes to fruition with the May 17 election.

Or, as city spokeswoman Mary Scott puts it, "I don't think anyone in senior management hasn't been thinking about keeping their ears open for other opportunities."

Free rein

Hundreds of city workers were laid off in 2008 and 2009 as the recession sliced into city revenue. The general fund budget declined from $242.3 million in 2007 to $208.5 million last year, though it has rebounded to $223.2 million this year.

As the layoffs unfolded, some workers, including managers, decided to retire instead of getting a pink slip. Then, last year, the Strong Mayor Project succeeded in persuading voters to put an elected mayor in charge of daily operations.

That mayor will have free rein to appoint whomever he wants into vacancies such as chief information technology officer; parks, recreation and cultural services director; public works director; planning director; city engineer; transit manager and streets manager.

Those jobs represent $915,000 in annual payroll, excluding benefits.

The mayor also will appoint the city clerk and city attorney, and has discretion to replace existing department heads, such as police chief and budget manager. (Council will hire the city auditor.)

Of the roughly 1,600 positions funded by the general fund, 101 are vacant.

Skorman says he won't appoint people to fill those positions, but rather will rely on the established civil-service application process.

"I'm not looking at them as patronage [positions]," he says. "I want to find the best people. I think they're all important. Chief of staff will be my number one priority, and that person will weigh in on who these other directors will be."

Skorman can't predict how quickly any of those jobs would be filled, because he can't predict how soon he would hire a chief of staff, which depends on that person's obligations at his or her existing job. He says he hasn't identified anyone for the top slot, and notes Cox has said he's willing to remain as interim chief of staff until the position is filled.

Bach failed to return two phone calls seeking comment on his plans.

zubeck@csindy.com

Holes to fill

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