As members of the Ashland Board of City Commissioners look for a replacement for retiring City Manager Stephen W. Corbitt, they should seek someone just like Corbitt.
Corbitt has served as city manager since 2007, but served as interim city manager for seven months in 2006 following the retirement of longtime City Manager William H. Fisher.
Corbitt has succeeded as city manager because he fully understood what the job entailed and what was expected of him. The city manager is expected to be just what the job title says. He (or she) is expected to manage the day-to-day operations of city government and oversee the various city departments. The job is political only in the sense that the manager serves under the five, elected members of the city commission, who can vote to terminate the manager at any time.
Fisher, who hired Corbitt as city engineer and director of public services in 2000, fully understood the role of the city manager. For more than two decades, he ably managed the city while keeping low public profile. Fisher never assumed a leadership role in advocating such controversial proposals as the city payroll tax, but simply explained what the tax could do for the city’s finances and let the elected leaders of the city commission decide to enact the tax without the city manager taking a public position on it.
That is how is should be. Just like Fisher, Corbitt has managed the city while letting the elected city commissioners be the political leaders of the city. As good example of this is the current debate over changing the times of the city commission meetings. Corbitt has not said what he thinks are the best times for city commission meetings because he understands when the commission meets has nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the city. Setting the times and frequency of the meetings is strictly a political decision.
Unlike Fisher and Corbitt, retired Army Maj. Randy Robertson, who the city commission appointed as city manager following Fisher’s retirement, never understood his role in Ashland. Although new of the city, he immediately became quite visible in the city and started making changes in city government. His management style was forceful and he succeeded in angering a number of city employees including some longtime department heads.
After only eight months as city manager, the same commissioners who had appointed Robertson decided enough was enough, and Robertson was out as city manager. While officially he “resigned,” it was a forced resignation, one of those resign or be fired deals.
During Robertson’s brief tenure, the city commissioners began to long for a return of the able management that Corbitt had provided after Fisher’s retirement. That’s why the commission voted to hire Corbitt as city manager without even bothering to search for anyone else. That was the right decision.
At the time he was named manager, city commissioners knew Corbitt’s tenure as city manager would be relatively brief because of his age. Corbitt is retiring because he turned 70 in March, although he looks and acts much younger. Thus he is required by law to begin drawing some of his retirement savings later this year. Although he has set his tentative retirement date as July 31, he has agreed to stay on the job while the search for his replacement is conducted, which is expected to take four to six months.
The city commissioners have authorized Corbitt to start the process of finding his replacement. He said he will recommend hiring a professional search firm as opposed to doing it in house.
Corbitt’s retirement comes at a time when the city is facing soaring health-care and retirement costs and declining revenue as a result of plant closures and the reduction of water purchases by other large customers. Thus, in his final weeks as city manager Corbitt will be putting together a tough budget that likely will require the city commissioners to either make some deep cuts in spending or to increase taxes, or possibly a combination of the two. The choices are not easy ones, bu Corbitt knows his job is to give the elected commissioner as series of options and let them decide which path to take.
The financial challenges facing the city increase the importance of the city commissioners making the right choice for replacing Corbitt. The next manager will be inheriting management of a government that is struggling to make ends meets. While Corbitt’s role in selecting his replacement should be only minor, the city commissioners would be wise to look for someone like Corbitt to succeed him.