Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

January 12, 2014

‘Many things drew me to Ashland’

Transition going smoothly month into new job

ASHLAND — Benjamin Bitter says there were a number of factors that caused him to look favorably upon Ashland when he was researching the city to try to determine whether he wanted to apply for the city manager’s job here.

But there was one in particular, he said, that jumped out at him.

The Ann Arbor, Mich., native had spent the previous several years in Arizona and said he was longing to get back to an area “where they have four seasons. In Arizona, they have two — summer and hotter than summer,” he said.

Asked if the, no pun intended, bitterly cold weather of the past week had him rethinking his decision, Bitter said no, not in the slightest, and that he and his family were extremely happy here.

Bitter was hired in November by the board of city commissioners to replace Steve Corbitt, who retired after seven years in the position. His first official day on the job was Dec. 9. He said the transition had been smooth and all was going well a month into his new job.

In fact, Bitter said the change had probably been more difficult for the city staff than for him because Ashland “has traditionally had long-serving city managers. With someone coming in from the outside, such as myself, it’s been a new experience for them.”

Bitter is Ashland’s third city manager since William H. Fisher Jr. retired in 2006. His replacement, retired U.S. Army Maj. Randy Robertson, lasted less than eight months. He resigned after losing the support of elected officials.

Bitter was employed as a senior management analyst with the city of Casa Grande, Ariz., prior to coming to Ashland. He said he learned about the pending vacancy here from his friend, Sean Baenziger of Colin Baenziger and Associates, the firm hired by the commission to assist in the search for Corbitt’s successor.

The initial pool of 59 applicants for the city manager position was whittled down to eight finalists, but one withdrew from consideration and a second failed a background check. Bitter was chosen from the final pool of six.

Bitter said something else that prompted him to throw his hat in the ring for the position was the prominence of the health-care industry in both the city and the region. His wife, Brittany, is a registered nurse, and he said the couple figured it would be fairly easy for her to find work here.

He said the couple also concluded through their research that Ashland would be a great place to raise their daughters, Brooklyn, 4, and Makenzie, 2.

At 31, Bitter is substantially younger than Ashland’s city managers have traditionally been. However, he said it wasn’t at all uncommon for people his age and younger to be employed as city managers, particularly in cities out West. In fact, he said the city manager he worked for in Casa Grande was 25 when he was hired for that job.

City manager is typically viewed as a “mid-career” position among government professionals, he said.

Working in a city manager’s office, Bitter said, taught him a great deal about the role of a city manager and helped prepare him for his current job, he said.

One thing he said he learned very well was that it’s the responsibility of a city manager to carry out policy, not to make it.

Bitter, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in public administration from Arizona State University, said it was his experience living in Chile while on a two-year Mormon mission that made him decide he wanted a career in government. Living in another country, he said, opened his eyes to how government can affect peoples’ lives, for better and for worse.

Bitter lived in the Chilean city of Maipu (pronounced my-POO.) His first day there, he said, he was caught in a torrential rainstorm and water was flowing in the streets “basically like a river.”

He said he couldn’t understand why no one from the city came to try and correct the situation and “why my brand-new suit had to get ruined the first day I was there.”

Bitter’s first job in government was as an aide to Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, which he said taught him about constituent service and working with that. After that, he worked on the staff of Utah state legislator John Dougall, who is now that state’s auditor.

Bitter said he likes to joke that he has worked his way backwards, from federal government to local, “but that’s where I like it. The local level is where government works best,” he said.

Bitter wasn’t first choice of at least some of the city commission members to replace Corbitt, and one commissioner, Kevin Gunderson, voted against hiring him to the $110,000-a-year position. However, Bitter said there been no lingering animosity between him and any of the commissioners and that he’d found all of them, and Mayor Chuck Charles, to be great to work with.

“They’re all great people,” he said.

Bitter said his main goal as city manager was to help Ashland achieve its full potential and become a “role model” for other cities in the region. To do that, he said he believes the city needs to capitalize on its position as a regional health care, retail and entertainment hub.

“We’re already on our way in that we have more jobs in the city than we do people who live here,” he said.

Bitter said raising two young daughters doesn’t leave him much time for hobbies, but that he does enjoy watching sports in his spare time. He’s a life-long NASCAR fan, thanks, he said, to his father working for Ford, and said his all-time hero is driver Davey Allison, who was killed in a helicopter crash in 1993.

Bitter said he got to meet Allison several times as a child “and he was always so gracious. I just saw him as someone to model my life after.”

Bitter’s office is decorated with several diecast replicas of Allison’s Ford Thunderbird race cars, as well as a print depicting Allison and Alan Kulwicki, who edged Allison out for the 1992 NASCAR title and who was killed in a plane crash the same year as Allison.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.

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