Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

November 10, 2013

Choice is made

Some unsolicited advice for Ashland’s new city manager

The Independent

ASHLAND — We break from our normal writing style today to offer some completely unsolicited and possibly unwanted  advice to Benjamin Bitter, the 31-year-old senior management analyst with the city of Casa Grande, Ariz., who the Ashland Board of City Commissioners approved Wednesday as its new city manager.

Bitter, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich., officially will succeed the retiring Steve Corbitt at the start of the new year but he will arrive in Ashland Dec. 9 to spend several weeks learning his new job from Corbitt. We can think of no better role model for the new city manager, who will earn $110,00 a year.

Here’s some advice for Benjamin Bitter:

You have been hired to manage the city’s finances on a day-to-day basis, make the final hiring decisions based on the recommendation of department heads and handle any conflicts within the city’s staff.

As much as humanly possible, stay clear of city political issues. The mayor and four city commissioners are the political leaders of the city and you are the manager.  There is a difference, and it is critical that you know the difference and stick to managing the city and leave the politics to the elected mayor and commissioners. Bill Fisher, who served as city manager longer than anyone else, learned early on to stay clear of politics, and he best demonstrated that when the city commissioners approved a payroll tax, by far the most controversial decision during Fisher’s long tenure. During the often heated debate on the payroll tax, Fisher never said whether he was for or against the levy. He simply put forth the options the city had and let the commissioners decide. That’s the role you should play as city manager. You are to be an advisor, not an advocate.

You are becoming manager of a city that, from our vantage point, is well managed. It has some excellent department heads. Listen to their advice because good listeners are usually good managers. If you so respect  your co-workers, they are far more likely to respect you and listen to and heed your advice.

While you are the day-to-day “boss” in the city building, your profile in the city need not be high. Fisher served as city manager for more than two decades, and it is clear that many people in Ashland still could not even pick him out of a lineup. He was a number cruncher who mostly stayed in his office and let others be the voice of city government. You should do the same.

 We offered this same advice to Randy Robertson when he was named to succeed Fisher, but Robertson ignored our advice. He tried to become a leader instead of a manager and his management style, learned in the Army, offended a lot of long-time city employees. As a result, Robertson’s tenure as city manager lasted only eight months and, during the time, Corbitt’s stint as interim city manager after Fisher’s retirement kept looking better and better. He was hired a city manager without the city commission even conducting a search.

 As a 31-year-old married father of two small children, you are just the type of talented young professionals this city and area needs far more of.  We have seen too many such talented people leave Ashland since the departure of Ashland Inc. and the downsizing of other major employers. Although it certainly is not your primary job, we hope you and your young family are just the first of many who will choose to live in Ashland. We need people like you.

When you first arrive in Ashland, be sure to take in a show at the Paramount Arts Center, visit the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center, visit and get a card to use at the excellent Boyd County Public Library, visit the schools, go out to eat and introduce yourself to the people who live here. Learn about The Neighborhood and the many nonprofits that help the needy in this community. Visit the Ashland Alliance and Ashland Main Street.

In short, become an active member of this community, as a resident, not a leader. That’s the best way to shed the image of being an “outsider” who has come to town to “save” Ashland.

Oh, before we end this, we wish you and your family nothing but the best. After all, this is our home.