by April Scheinoha
UPDATE as of Tuesday evening: The Thief River Falls City Council approved a salary and benefits package for Rodney Otterness at its meeting Tuesday, March 15. Otterness will be paid $100,687 for six months. That amount will increase to $105,987 after a satisfactory assessment by the council after the six-month period. His salary will be $109,167 effective Jan. 1, 2017. Otterness will also receive up to $5,000 for relocation expenses. He is expected to begin his new job May 1. More information will appear in the next edition of the Northern Watch.
The Thief River Falls City Council has approved hiring Rodney Otterness as the next city administrator, subject to a final contract agreement. The decision was made at a special council meeting Saturday, March 12.
Otterness is currently employed as the city manager of Union Gap, Wash. The second time was the charm for Otterness, who was a finalist in 2012 for the city administrator position here. At that time, council members chose between him and Larry Kruse. Otterness is a former city administrator of International Falls. He succeeds Kruse, who resigned Dec. 15 to accept a similar position in Willmar.
The ad-hoc Labor Committee is expected to meet soon to discuss a potential salary and benefits package for Otterness and then present that information to the council. The job had a posted salary range of $95,000 to $125,000. The council was scheduled to meet in regular session Tuesday, March 15.
Council Member Jim Strandlie said it was a difficult decision to find the right candidate. He thanked all of the candidates for applying.
Otterness was one of 17 people who applied for the position. Council members interviewed him and three other finalists Saturday. The other finalists included Christine Anderson, Pennington County economic development director; Joseph “Yose” Haj, former Thief River Falls City Council member and current owner/operator of Trax Liquors in Dilworth; and Kandis Hanson, former city manager of Mound. After the interviews, council members voted for their top two finalists. Then they voted between Otterness and Anderson.
Prior to voting, several council members noted that Otterness would hit the ground running whereas there would be a learning curve for Anderson. Mayor Brian Holmer said both were good candidates and the city would be served well by either candidate. However, he cited Otterness’ experience working with legislatures on behalf of the cities for whom he has worked.
Available department leaders also met with the finalists Saturday. They provided information about the city and their particular departments to each finalist. Council Member Steve Narverud thanked them for their assistance.
The council facilitated the job search on its own without assistance from a consulting firm. Council Member Curt Howe noted the council saved money by doing what the taxpayers wanted in terms of the job search. He thanked city Human Resources Specialist LeAnn Engelstad and Interim City Administrator Angie Philipp for their assistance.
Earlier this year, the council changed the city’s organizational structure. In the recent past, city department leaders reported to the city administrator, who was their immediate supervisor. Now, the department leaders’ immediate supervisor is City Council, their council committee or the city administrator as delegated by the council or council committee.
Each finalist asked the council what they would like to see in the next city administrator. The answers were transparency, honesty, trust, the ability to unite people, and the ability to disagree respectfully.
Rodney Otterness has been employed as the city manager of Union Gap, Wash., for three years. Prior to that time, he was employed as the city administrator of International Falls. Otterness has also worked as an attorney, including serving as a city attorney.
Otterness has experience lobbying for additional funding for the cities for which he has worked. He cited a $35 million energy improvement project in Washington as well as his involvement with the League of Minnesota Cities Board. In terms of working with other governmental groups, he cited an $11 million city administrative complex in International Falls. The federal government leases a portion of that building.
Otterness also has experience working with challenging situations. He said Union Gap had a $300,000 deficit. Washington doesn’t have state income taxes or Local Government Aid. To compensate, he said the city reduced its workforce by 30 percent. At the recommendation of its fire chief, the city sought fire protection from a neighboring community despite the concerns of a former mayor. All nine employees now work for the neighboring city and they received a pay raise, he said. City residents also now have the benefit of five fire engines, not one, immediately responding to the scene of fires.
Union Gap city employees are also working out of four buildings. Otterness said city leaders are now confident that Union Gap can afford a City Hall.
Otterness has also worked with unions in the past – both in city management and as a city attorney. He noted that he has handled union disputes in the past, including a grievance related to holiday pay stemming from a change in 12-hour versus eight-hour days. Otterness said the grievance probably resulted from him not sitting at the negotiating table. He noted the multiple steps of a grievance process help dial down emotions and tease out bigger problems. Otterness said it’s the nature of working with people.
In terms of short-term goals as city administrator here, Otterness cited fiscal stability and the completion of major infrastructure projects if they’re ready to be completed. Looking farther into the future, he referred to the challenges of downtown Thief River Falls. Otterness said he is looking forward to conversations with the Thief River Falls Chamber of Commerce regarding the downtown area. He said he is also planning to tap into what the 8,500 people of Thief River Falls want.
Like Otterness, Christine Anderson also has ties to International Falls. She grew up there. Since September 2014, Anderson has been employed as the Pennington County economic development director. She moved here to be closer to home. Prior to moving here, she worked in Aberdeen, S.D. for 15 years. Anderson has experience in human resources and real estate.
Since moving here, Anderson has worked on the Arctic Cat expansion, helped facilitate the tax abatement plan for that project, and worked on the final portion of the Noper project. She cited her experience working with the Senate Bonding Committee as well as her work with governmental groups in South Dakota. Anderson said she has appeared before the South Dakota Public Utilities Committee regarding the Keystone Pipeline. She has also appeared before a South Dakota housing and agriculture committee regarding water and fishing rights.
Anderson already has experience working with both the city of Thief River Falls and Pennington County. In particular, she has been working with both governmental entities regarding a regional justice center.
Tax Increment Financing has been used in the past to help developers build additional housing in the city. Anderson said TIF isn’t necessary for housing here since it places income limits on tenants. She said more workforce housing is needed in the city.
However, Anderson said TIF is a necessary evil for economic development and redevelopment. She referred to the Schuett Development LLC project at the former downtown site of Sanford Medical Center. Anderson noted that site could become a blighted property if TIF weren’t awarded for the project. “TIF needs to be used in the right way at the right times,” she said.
Like Otterness and the other finalists, Anderson was asked about her short-term and long-term goals if she were hired as the city administrator. She referred to the creation of a city employee handbook as a short-term goal.
As a long-term goal, Anderson cited her goal as economic development director – increasing Thief River Falls’ population by a minimum of 5,000 people by 2020. She noted her initial goal was 15,000 people. Anderson said Thief River Falls is bursting at the seams and hasn’t added 90 housing units per year as recommended by a 2012 housing study. Anderson said Arctic Cat and Digi-Key are both planning to add employees. In addition, she referred to other confidential possibilities that may occur in the future.
Anderson noted that no one would have thought five years that Fargo, N.D., would grow as fast as it has. By contrast, Anderson referred to International Falls. She said that community has done nothing for many years. “We can’t be Fargo or Grand Forks, but we could be International Falls if we do nothing,” Anderson said.
Joseph “Yose” Haj
Former Thief River Falls City Council Member Joseph “Yose” Haj found himself on the other side of the table during his interview. He served on the council for three years. He left the area to obtain a Master of Business Administration degree. Currently, he owns a liquor store in Dilworth. Haj formerly owned the Best Western, which is now known as the Quality Inn in Thief River Falls.
What sets him apart from the other candidates, Haj said, is that he has been a Thief River Falls City Council member. He said he knows that their decisions are incredibly more difficult when they don’t receive every piece of information. Haj said he would provide as much information to the council as possible.
Haj noted that he lobbied on the city’s behalf as part of Day at the Capitol and Chamber Day at the Capitol. He added that he served on the council when the underpass, roundabout and trail system were coming to fruition.
Haj’s short-term and long-term goals centered on helping the city continue to grow in terms of more housing and economic development.
The council also interviewed Kandis Hanson, former city manager of Mound. Prior to serving in that position for 15 years, Hanson served in similar positions in Eyota and Kasson. She holds a master’s degree specializing in local government management.
Hanson left Mound city employment this fall. A separation agreement was signed between Hanson and the city. According to other media, that agreement came after she was cited for driving while impaired and careless driving. The former charge was later dropped. However, the agreement indicated that Mound City Council members were able to publicly state that the agreement is unrelated to the charge.
Hanson said she was attracted to the position here due to the city’s infrastructure projects – underground, above ground and at ground. She also liked the full range of services offered by the city, including police, fire protection, the liquor store, and parks and recreation.
Hanson said she is accustomed to taking on bold challenges and getting bold results. She referred to working with a more conservative council that sought to find all of the savings it could find. Hanson said the number of city employees soon decreased from 51 to 25 after city departments were analyzed and reorganized. The police and fire departments were also studied for efficiencies. After a study, the police department was dissolved. The city now contracts with Orono for police service. All of the Mound police officers were hired by Orono.
Hanson further noted that Mound lost almost all of its LGA in 2007 and 2008. The city then instituted franchise fees and streetlight fees.