David Berner, of Madison, will serve as interim manager in the City of Fort Atkinson, beginning on or about Nov. 9, until a new city manager to succeed outgoing Matt Trebatoski has been selected by the council, and he or she has begun their duties.
Meeting remotely via Zoom, council members voted unanimously, by roll call, to approve Berner’s hire during their regular session Tuesday night.
Trebatoski, 40, will be leaving Fort Atkinson Nov. 6, his last official day as city manager, to become city administrator/treasurer in Oconomowoc. He will start his duties there on Monday, Nov. 9.
He was selected as city manager by the Fort Atkinson City Council in July 2014. He and his family will be relocating to Oconomowoc.
A successor to Trebatoski is not expected to be seated until the first of next year. It is anticipated that a new city manager would not begin their duties until early to mid-February, depending upon the individual’s schedule and how much notice they must give their employer.
Public Administration Associates LLC (PAA) was hired last month by the council as the search firm to assist in recruiting candidates for hiring a new city manager to succeed Trebatoski. The firm was accepted for a fee of $12,500 for professional services, plus any direct consulting expenses not to exceed $500.
The firm also was able to commit the services either of Berner, who lives in Madison, or Darrell Hofland, who resides in Sheboygan, to serve as interim Fort Atkinson city manager if deemed necessary.
Kevin Brunner, president of Public Administration Associates since 2018, said both of these PAA associates, who attended Tuesday’s meeting remotely, could provide “boots-on-the-ground” expertise and insight invaluable to assisting in determining who the new city manager is going to be.
“The two people we have suggested for you are both ready, willing and able to help you out,” Brunner stated. “Both of them have 35 years-plus city management experience in the State of Wisconsin and are available.”
As one of the firm’s recommended candidates to serve as Fort Atkinson’s interim city manager, he said, David Berner — who retired as Platteville city manager in 2015 — has a 25-year-plus career as a local government administrator in Wisconsin. Berner, he said, also served as interim city administrator for Lake Geneva through PAA from August to December 2018 and again as interim city administrator in Columbus from November 2019 to April 2020.
As manager, Berner typically will work 20 to 25 hours per week in an interim capacity, with reduced hours around the holidays. Moreover, he will attend all city council and required committee meetings as well as spend time on other assignments as directed by the city council president and/or city council.
“He can come in and work for you during this interim period of time,” Brunner said. “His job is to keep things rolling along, and to be a resource for staff and counsel to keep the ‘finger in the dike,’ if you will. It really works out well because there’s a really smooth transition.
“He (interim manager) is essentially keeping the organization moving forward administratively and provides continuity on major projects that have already been initiated or that need administrative stewardship,” he explained. “The interim administrator would serve until the new manager arrives in Fort Atkinson and then typically spends three to five days with the new manager in order to aid in a smooth transition.”
Berner will be paid $80 per hour — over and above PAA’s contract for consulting services — plus an applicable per diem of $40.
Over roughly 10 weeks, the interim city manager will earn approximately $20,000, City Clerk Michelle Ebbert calculated. Overall, she said, the city will see some savings and has a “good cushion of a contingency” to help fund the position as well.
Unlike Hofland, Berner currently is not serving as an interim administrator in any other community.
Brunner said he will be working in concert with Berner on the recruitment of candidates to fill Fort Atkinson’s city manager position.
“But it’s very good to have an interim (manager) there as a resource for candidates to talk to about the community,” Brunner pointed out. “It works really well.”
Having seen their resumes, council President Mason Becker said both interim city manager candidates were well-qualified to serve, and that he was comfortable choosing either. However, he felt Berner was the “sensible, logical choice” right now.
Ultimately, the council selected Berner due to his closer proximity to Fort Atkinson, having only a 30-minute commute from Madison, and the fact he is not engaged in any other interim administrator role at the moment.
City Attorney David Westrick, meanwhile, will draft a separate services agreement for Berner to sign, authorizing his additional duties as interim city manager.
During discussion, Brunner was asked about communities in which an interim administrator is not hired. Those responsibilities, oftentimes, are assumed by the city clerk, he said, or fall to the city council president or even the village president.
Asked if she potentially could handle the additional interim manager duties, City Clerk Ebbert responded: “Obviously, once an election passes, schedules free up immensely. I have a great supportive staff that is willing to take on anything and be of assistance for pretty much anything that I ask them to be there for. So, if we were to go down that road, I would be committed and would guarantee to fill the shoes as best as we need.”
Still, she generally felt that enlisting temporary administrative help to ease the burden on city staff was best.
Becker said he did not doubt Ebbert could take on the additional duties during the intervening months following the Nov. 3 general election.
“However, I kind of got the general sense that, during the selection process for the (recruiting) firm, the general consensus was that we would be looking for an interim manager from outside,” Becker said. “And some of the feedback we had gotten from city staff was that that would probably put them a little more at ease with the transition.”
Council member Paul Kotz concurred, saying city business might slow in November and December but could heat up in January with the New Year, compounding the workload for the city clerk or council president.
“If we had someone (new city manager) come on board in early January, maybe this wouldn’t be much of an issue,” Kotz said. “But I don’t want to risk burning out the city staff or city council President Becker.
“I’m sure, on an interim basis, Michelle or one of the other department heads would probably keep things going on a reasonably even keel, but I don’t think we want to stress them out,” he added. “And maybe we can benefit from outside assistance, even if it’s only 20 or 25 hours a week. I’m sure that person will have to lean on city staff quite a bit.”
The city clerk said the City of Fort Atkinson is in a “really great spot” for an incoming interim city manager.
“I don’t see us having issues to resolve, I don’t see any personal issues — everyone gets along really good,” Ebbert remarked. “We have a really good rapport among our department heads. I don’t think they (an interim manager) would have to come in and mend anything. If anything, (they would) be a good sounding board and then just keep things rolling.”
City engineer Andy Selle said, “When he (Brunner) mentioned ‘setting the table’ for the incoming hire … that seemed like a pretty pragmatic approach, and something that might be very important to do.”
Lastly, Becker stressed the importance of getting an interim manager in place, and having that person meet face-to-face with Trebatoski prior to his departure to help ensure an orderly transition.
“I just see the interim (manager) thing as we are investing for a little bit of security to make sure this is a smooth transition and a smooth process overall,” he observed. “I feel good that we’re moving along with this process and feel comfortable with the direction we’re heading.”
“And you can’t put a dollar on that,” Ebbert quipped.
In related business Tuesday, council members heard Brunner share that the number one-priority area of expertise desired by both city staff and city management in a future city manager is financial management skills.
Council members, he said, listed their other top concerns as experience with human resources, paid performance and general personnel management; commercial development/downtown redevelopment; economic development; and capital improvement planning and execution.
The consultant said experience with Tax Incremental Financing also should be included in PAA’s marketing and advertisements for the city manager post.
“We would be recruiting toward these skill sets,” Brunner said. “We would mention those prominently in our announcements and everything we would put together for the marketing of the position. Does that make sense?”
“Seems as though there’s pretty much alignment with both the city staff and city council,” Kotz said of the desired attributes. “Nice to see them that closely aligned.”
Brunner, who lives in Whitewater and previously served as that community’s city manager, will be the lead consultant in the recruitment/search process. He will be assisted by Berner, an associate of PAA.
He said they already have compiled a list of eight to 10 potential candidates that they would target recruit for the Fort Atkinson city manager position.
“We will play to these items in everything we do in terms of recruitment,” Brunner stated. “We’ll include these as part of the announcement — these are some of the experience areas that you’re expecting candidates to have. And then we’ll also recruit candidates that have these particular skill sets.”
And commercial development experience in a candidate, he said, also is of paramount importance.
“I’m pretty familiar with Fort Atkinson, living so close by,” Brunner said. “I understand how important commercial development is — filling your business park. You’ve got acreage in your business park, you’ve got opportunities throughout the community for redevelopment. That doesn’t surprise me at all — that (criteria) really rose to the top. And that doesn’t happen in most communities — that’s not a priority.”
Concerning personal qualities sought in a city manager candidate, he said, there was quite a diversity in terms of what the council’s expectations were versus the city staff.
“The council’s number-one ranking was for a team-builder, and a leader in addressing community issues and problems,” Brunner said, “whereas the staff had listening skills as number one. They obviously want a boss that’s going to listen to them and not micro-manage, probably, and seek to understand rather than respond, as we always like to say.”
In terms of person qualities, other attributes in the next city manager sought both by city staff and council members, he said, included a collaborative style in carrying out policies; personal and professional integrity; possessing open and positive communication skills involving public relations and public marketing; and a strong work ethic and commitment to public service.
“And you want somebody who’s had history of stable tenures in previous positions,” Brunner said. “We’re looking for candidates who’ve established themselves in other communities and have developed a good reputation in the profession, those kinds of things.”
City staff, he said, want to see a supervisor with strong leadership skills, as well as someone with a strong commitment to public service.
“And then somebody who might think ‘outside the box’ — an innovative person,” Brunner added. “Another department head said they really want somebody to really hold people accountable.”
He said his firm basically is building profiles of “an ideal candidate” for Fort Atkinson, and will do a “deep dive” into each candidate’s background.
“Some of those qualities, we bake those into the announcements that we use,” Brunner noted. “These characteristics (desired in a new city manager) will be included in a position profile so that candidates are aware that’s what the council and staff expect in Fort Atkinson.”
Council member Bruce Johnson said he would “like to see a city manager who comes in and utilizes the fact that Fort Atkinson is blessed with extremely talented professionals running their departments. Rather than make those people into him, he (or she) should fit in with them, and learn from them and get along that way. We had a mistake in the past where that didn’t quite happen.”
Brunner assured him that his firm “can certainly make mention that the city staff is a high-talented staff and the expectation is that the new leader will be complementary to them going forward. We’ll try to blend that into the announcements as well.”
In the next day or two, he said, PAA will produce an announcement reflecting the qualities and skill sets sought by city staff that will be posted on job boards around the country.
Additionally, the firm will encourage residency for the winning candidate “so the expectation is that you would move to the community,” Brunner said, noting that residency no longer can be required. “In reality, though, we can’t force them to move to the community.”
The consultant also suggested the city pay for the new hire’s moving expenses or offer a one-time bonus as an incentive to induce him or her to relocate to the community. And some candidates, he said, might be somewhat reluctant to move during the COVID pandemic.
Council President Becker said Trebatoski is only the eighth city manager in Fort Atkinson’s history.
“We’ve had a history of long-tenured city managers, and while we can’t predict the future, we’d be looking to hire somebody that will hopefully be on for a decent tenure,” Becker said. “So, it would be advantageous for them to become integrated with the community and hopefully live here eventually, I would think.”
Brunner said the winning candidate also will hold a master’s degree in public or business administration, as well as have five or more years of municipal management experience.
Lastly, council members agreed the salary offered for recruiting a new city manager should range from $95,000 to $112,000. Currently, city manager Trebatoski is paid an annual salary of $105,269.
Fort Atkinson currently is below average in the state in terms of compensation for the position, Brunner said, noting the average salary for similar-sized communities is $113,158 with a salary range from $95,000 to $130,000.
“You are a little bit on the low side,” Brunner noted. “How that’s going to affect your recruitment — I can’t say that it’s going to affect it adversely. But on average, you are below your comparables in the State of Wisconsin.”
Becker emphasized that city officials will be delegating Trebatoski’s additional duties as city finance director to the city clerk.
“We are not going to be advertising for that dual role — we are, in fact, transitioning the finance director duties largely to City Clerk-Treasurer Michelle Ebbert,” Becker said. “So, the city manager current salary is going to be stepped down slightly because it won’t include those finance director duties that the position has right now.”
Brunner said PAA also will be filming a segment featuring council president Becker reading from a script in a video promoting the community and its leaders to aid in the recruitment effort.
Meanwhile, in other business, the council:
• Unanimously approved repealing and re-enacting Chapter 15 of the municipal code as “Chapter 15: Zoning Ordinance,” and adopted the new zoning ordinance; and then reviewed and approved repealing and re-enacting the “City of Fort Atkinson Zoning Map” as the city’s official zoning map, replacing all previously approved zoning maps.
According to City Zoning Administrator Brian Juarez, VandeWalle & Associates was retained by the city in 2019 to act as consultants to rewrite the city’s zoning code in its entirety.
He said the process was undertaken for a couple of reasons: the current code was becoming obsolete and outdated after a nearly 50-year service life, and that the code needed to relate to and correspond with the newly adopted city comprehensive plan.
“This is the culmination of about a year-and-a-half worth of work trying to put this together to completely overhaul the zoning code and the zoning map for the city,” Juarez said, noting it has been a long, but productive process. “We’ve had a lot of good input from the public, which has been really helpful.”
He said the city developed the updated zoning ordinance to protect property values, create an environment in which reinvestment is encouraged, establish clear development procedures, and match regulations to the city’s existing and/or desired future land use pattern.
“I think it (zoning code) is very different and will take some getting used to, but I think it really incorporates a lot of the really newer tendencies and trends toward affordable housing and sustainable housing, and all the different types of things that we really want to try to encourage in the city going forward,” Juarez added. “So, I think it’s a good product and I hope that it will work well for us for a long time.”
“I think it’s a good step forward in really modernizing the city’s code,” Becker remarked.
Kotz commented: “Lot of hard work here by the city staff, and we’re glad to bring this to closure. So, thanks to everyone.”
• Upon recommendation from the plan commission, approved a conditional use and certified survey map creating zero lot line dwellings for the property located on Montclair Place at lot 36 and 37 of Crescent Beauty Farms Subdivision.
City engineer Selle said this was a request for a zero lot line split on two adjacent parcels on Montclair Place to create an instrument for two separate owners of a duplex, sharing a common wall.
Separate water laterals are required for individual parcels, he said, noting that both laterals are located in the terrace and serve each parcel independently.
He said the city currently does not require a separate sanitary lateral to serve each unit.
“This duplex includes a single lateral shared outside the homes,” Selle indicated. “The maintenance agreement specifically includes this structure with shared maintenance and replacement costs.”
• Approved a recommendation from the License Committee to approve a Class B intoxicating liquor and Class B fermented malt beverage license for Bridge @ River & Main LLC, owned by James and Christa Bowers, for use at 88 S. Main St., contingent upon the surrendering of license held by Scott Arndt, business owner of the former Soulful Toad.
• Approved a request to change the Nov. 3 city council meeting to Thursday, Nov. 5, due to the election.