Ashland finally has its next city manager.
After meeting in executive session for 90 minutes on Wednesday, the Board of City Commissioners voted 4-1 to hire Benjamin Bitter, a senior management analyst with the city of Casa Grande, Ariz., to the $110,00-a-year position.
Bitter will succeed Steve Corbitt, who is retiring at the end of the year. He was chosen from a field of six finalists.
“I’m excited to come here to Ashland to help the community grow and build on the successes we’ve already had here,” said Bitter, a 31-year-old native of Ann Arbor, Mich. He went on to say he believed Ashland was in a “strong position” for future growth and he hoped to help the city capitalize on its strengths, one of which he said he was its ready access to ground, water and rail transportation.
Commissioners and Mayor Chuck Charles said they were pleased with their selection, even though it was clear Bitter wasn’t the first choice for the job.
Commissioner Kevin Gunderson, who cast the lone dissenting vote against hiring Bitter, said he did so because he wasn’t pleased with the process by which the commission arrived at its decision.
He said the commission had originally coalesced around “a dynamic female candidate” from Georgia and had extended her a job offer. But she rejected the offer after the city refused her request for a contract, he said.
Gunderson also said when word got out the commission intended to hire a woman, some senior city staff members lobbied against it, which he said he found shameful.
“We make the decisions here,” he said.
Gunderson said he’d assured Bitter his “no” vote wasn’t directed at him personally and he’d told him he would do everything in his power to ensure he succeeded in the position.
Commissioner Cheryl Spriggs said she also had misgivings about hiring Bitter, due in part to his age — he is 31 — and lack of experience compared with the other candidates. She said she had originally planned to vote against hiring Bitter, but changed her mind because she didn’t want to appear as though she didn’t want him to succeed.
Spriggs also said she was supportive of the female candidate and she, too, was discouraged by the way the entire process transpired.
But Commissioner Marty Gute said he believed the commission had hired the best person for the job.
“I’m excited,” he said. “We’re getting a man of integrity, energy and innovation who wants to set down roots in our community and work with the whole city commission.”
Gute also strongly denied there were “gender issues” involved in the commission’s decision to hire Bitter and not the female candidate. Ashland has never had a female city manager.
“We made offers to two people. One person refused our offer; the other accepted it. That’s the bottom line,” he said, adding he believed “we got the better of the two candidates.”
Charles said he was pleased with the choice of Bitter, whom he called “an innovative individual who’s ready to go and who’s full of energy.” Asked whether he thought Bitter not being the commission’s first choice would cause lingering issues, the mayor replied: “Absolutely not.”
Bitter, who’s married with two young daughters, will begin work on Dec. 9, and will spend time in Ashland shadowing Corbitt prior to his start date, Charles said.
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, according to Sean Baenziger of Colin Baenziger and Associates, a firm paid $19,000 by the city to assist in the search. Several members of the initial pool of applicants were said to be current city employees, or residents of Ashland.
Bitter will be 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.
Corbitt, a former public services director who served as acting city manager immediately before Robertson was hired and then again following his departure, was eventually tapped to fill the post full time.
KENNETH HART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2654.