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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Clean Slate

This past weekend, the Pioneer Press ran a story about our city manager search. It ended with a quote from me, as follows:
Nephew said he's looking forward to a city manager who has no previous ties to the city.
“These guys weren't associated with some of Maplewood's political stuff or previous management on either side," he said. "They'll at least be starting from a clean slate."
I wanted to take some time to unpack this and try to articulate how I'm looking at the city manager search process, especially as we'll be making the major decision tonight as to whether or not to hire a new city manager.

Conventional wisdom divides our council into two factions. One way to look at the factions is to see which managers they supported. For example, Mayor Longrie and Councilmember Hjelle removed former city manager Richard Fursman as soon as they could in 2006. They installed Greg Copeland as interim manager, and a few months later decided to cancel the search process that had begun and appoint Mr. Copeland permanent manager.

Councilmembers Juenemann and Rossbach opposed Fursman's removal, and Copeland's appointment. Many times on the campaign trail (and in this blog), I criticized Mr. Copeland's performance and qualifications, and I agreed with Rossbach and Juenemann that Maplewood needed a change of management. Thus at my first meeting on the council we let Mr. Copeland go.

We must have a manager, however, and our city is very lucky that we had Chuck Ahl, Director of Public Works, at hand and willing to assume the mantle of Acting City Manager. He has done an amazing job in highly adverse circumstances, and I can't praise him enough for his performance. The budget we recently passed and the contracts reached with all the city's bargaining units are testimony to his leadership. After a period of difficult relations among management, employees, and the city council, Mr. Ahl has provided stability, an environment of teamwork, improved productivity, and superior results.

But as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. Because Mr. Ahl was willing to accept that responsibility when the new majority decided to remove Mr. Copeland, his very act of stepping forward made him “the enemy” to some people. For example, at one meeting last year, I was told that the mayor's husband was in the back of the room handing out flyers attacking Mr. Ahl. I don't agree with the criticisms or attacks on Mr. Ahl; rather, I think that they spring from a sort of “tit for tat” mentality. People who supported Mr. Copeland may feel that criticism of him was purely political, despite the evidence to the contrary, and that same political sentiment then drives them to attack and criticize Mr. Ahl.

What I see here is a political dynamic that is destructive and costly to our city. On the campaign trail I sometimes compared this to the legendary “Hatfield and McCoy” family feud, and said that I wanted a city manager search process that would move us beyond it. By taking our time with this process, and engaging the entire council and the larger community as we have, I believe we have an opportunity to break that cycle. Of course there's no guarantee that a manager who begins with the support of both factions will keep that support in the months and years that follow. A manager takes direction from the majority, and it's hard for people not to associate the messenger with the message. But my hope is that removing the perception that the city manager's office is aligned with one council faction or another will help build long-term stability – to better insulate the manager's office, and the city staff, from the shifting winds of city politics.

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