There are three chief ways you can serve the City of Perry. You can be elected to office like the mayor or members of the city council. You can be appointed to office and serve on a board or commission. Or you can be hired as an employee of the city.
All three ways of service were active in the closing weeks of 2013 and beginning of 2014.
On the election track, one new city council member, John Andorf, was sworn into office at the Jan. 6 council meeting, and two returning public servants, second-term Mayor Jay Pattee and second-term Council Member Dr. Randy McCaulley, repeated their oaths at the same meeting.
Andorf was elected in November and now fills the at-large seat previously held by outgoing Council Member Jenny Eklund, who was present for Andorf’s installation. The mayor and council warmly welcomed Andorf to office, with Council Member Phil Stone noting he was "really impressed" by Andorf’s willing involvement in council affairs even prior to taking office.
On the appointment track, Council Member Stone was himself appointed as mayor pro-tem through December, 2016. The mayor pro-tem is appointed by the mayor and presides in council in the mayor’s absence.
Other appointments made Jan. 6 by the city council included Perry Planning and Zoning Department Building Official Steve Tibbles’ appointment as Perry’s representative to the Central Iowa Regional Housing Authority, Carolyn McNiell’s appointment to the Perry Day Care, Inc. Board and the Dallas County Early Childhood Education Board and Perry Compliance Officer Mike Ware’s reappointment to his part-time position through June 30, the end of the 2014 fiscal year.
Perry Public Works Assistant Director Josh Wuebker was also appointed as the city’s 2014 representative to the Central Iowa Regional Transportation Planning Alliance, with Bolton and Menck’s Matt Ferrier, Perry’s de facto city engineer, and City Administrator Butch Niebuhr serving as alternates to the transportation working group.
Niebuhr was appointed to the city administrator’s position in 2005 after directing the water works department for more than 25 years. With an eye on his eventual retirement in two or three years, Niebuhr proposed to the council at the Dec. 16 meeting the creation of an assistant administrator position.
Niebuhr even had a person in mind for the job, and this brings in the third way of serving Perry: hourly wage labor.
Perry native Sven Peterson, 23, has worked as a college intern in city hall for the past two years. Now, with his freshly minted Bachelor of Science degree in community and regional planning from Iowa State University and plans for a Master’s in public administration from Drake University, he is first in line for the assistant administrator post and would be heir apparent to the top job when Niebuhr retires.
But Niebuhr’s Dec. 16 proposal to create the assistant position and immediately fill it with Peterson was deemed too hasty by the council, and a compromise resolution was passed, moved by Council Member Chuck Schott and seconded by Council Member Dr. McCaulley, that simply created the position of assistant city administrator.
"This plan didn’t hatch in 24 hours," Schott said, "and it’s not going to go away in 24 hours, and having a couple of weeks will give me time to think about it."
This brake on the process also bought the council time to advertise the job opening, which will satisfy certain Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statutes regarding preferential hiring standards for US Veterans, and it gave the council’s personnel committee a chance to interview Peterson and assess the proposal.
In spite of the delay, discussion of the proposal at the Dec. 16 session revealed the council’s generally favorable regard for Peterson, whom all agreed in liking. Reservations about his hiring were mostly stated indirectly and couched in terms of flattery of Niebuhr, with several members noting the remarkable leadership and omni-competence Niebuhr brings to the job.
"Butch has big shoes to fill," Council Member Barb Wollting said. "He has been a real wizard at attracting grants. He developed the Brownfields project. His mastery of the technical details of managing the city is really phenomenal."
This was a roundabout way of pointing to Peterson’s novice status and relative inexperience, which plainly worry some council members.
Council Member Eklund, attending her last meeting as a member, was more direct. "It takes very broad shoulders to do [the administrator’s] job," she said, "and Sven is just a little boy."
Peterson is no little boy, as Eklund well knows, and he does not seem likely to be easily pushed around, even by hoary old city department heads twice his age or more. And shadowing Niebuhr during his last few years would give Peterson helpful lessons in navigating the tricky political currents that sometimes complicate even small-town government.
But anxiety at the prospect of Niebuhr’s eventual departure is not irrational, and it reflects the kind of vulnerability a small-scale municipality with a part-time mayor and council faces during periods of transition. Mayor Jay Pattee noted this vulnerability when he recounted past difficulties Perry endured in less capable administrative hands than Niebuhr’s.
"We need to be ahead of the game on this rather than behind," Pattee said. "I think we have better odds hiring someone from around here with an interest in Perry rather than someone looking at Perry as a stepping stone to another job beyond in a bigger city."
That Peterson might have ambitions beyond Perry cannot be ruled out, but having him groomed in the position by Niebuhr, a kind of apprenticeship period, could set up a situation in which Perry would enjoy very stable leadership for as long as 20 or 30 years. The expertise bred by continuity of that length is just what Niebuhr brought to the job, and it has yielded benefits to the city the council would like to see continue.
At the same time, there are money matters that make creating and filling a new position in city hall easy to dispute. If we cannot afford to hire a 13th police officer, critics say, how can we afford to hire a junior administrator? And revenue projections for the next fiscal year suggest less money is sooner to be expected than more.
Dr. McCaulley drew the council’s attention to the financial numbers and said he wanted to be "comfortable with the thought that we have the money to handle this new position" before he could support filling it, noting the city would "probably have to make some .cuts in the next fiscal year unless we get some revenues coming in."
Niebuhr partially addressed the council’s fiscal concerns. Hiring Peterson at the proposed wage of $18 an hour would get the city a "bargain basement" rate for an administrator, he said, and he also expressed a willingness to take a cut in his own pay in order to supplement Peterson’s after his first year on the job.
"I think we can afford this hire at this time," he said. "A calendar year’s hire saves us half-a-fiscal year’s wages," he said, referring to his proposed Jan. 1 hire date for Peterson.
In the end, the council resolved to create the position of assistant city administrator at its last meeting of 2013 and resolved at its first meeting of 2014 to advertise the position for 10 days. During that time, the personnel committee met with Peterson.
None of the city’s elected officials were willing to go on record with their views regarding the situation at present and while they seem generally to favor the plan, some are such past masters at equivocation and the art of the possible that they seem to say yes and no at once.
Niebuhr clearly favors hiring Sven and seems eager to formulate his exit strategy, but he is realistic about possible obstacles.
"If it doesn’t work out with Sven and the pressures of the job don’t suit him, or if there are conflicts with the administrative staff or with department heads, then the council will hire someone else."
Peterson is similarly stoical about the outcome of his venture on the job market. "Respect is something I’ll have to earn along the way," he said. "I’ll just have to work as hard as I can."