The Billings City Council hopes to offer interim City Administrator Bruce McCandless a short-term contract as official city administrator, and to find someone new for that position by next fall.
The council made that decision Monday night, five weeks after the person offered the job withdrew from consideration because he and a council subcommittee could not agree on a contract.
The council also voted Monday to enter into lease negotiations with Art House Cinema & Pub to take over operation of the Babcock Theatre in downtown Billings. Art House Cinema has proposed using the historic theater mostly for screening movies but also for occasional concerts and other live events.
The vote on hiring a new city administrator followed a lengthy discussion of the best way to proceed, given the breakdown in negotiations that prompted Great Falls City Manager Greg Doyon to withdraw from consideration for the job.
One option considered by the council Monday was reopening discussions with the other finalists in the search for a city administrator. That option disappeared when Councilman Larry Brewster said he contacted the top two finalists, only to be told that neither of them was still interested in the job.
Council members decided to begin gathering information on how much city administrators in comparable cities in the region are paid, and what else in the way of perks and benefits are included in their contracts. Several council members said the negotiations with Doyon broke down because there was no clear guidance on how much the city was willing to offer him.
McCandless had been assistant city administrator until City Administrator Tina Volek retired on Sept. 30. McCandless was then named interim administrator. At the beginning of the meeting Monday night, it was announced that Planning Director Wyeth Friday has been named assistant city administrator, though he will continue to devote some of his time to planning duties.
Council discussion of what to do next centered on the question of timing. Human Resources Director Karla Stanton suggested not rushing into the hiring process. With the approach of budget season and contract talks with all three unions representing city workers, she said, it might be wise to stick with experienced staff for a while, then start the search for a permanent administrator in five or six months.
Council members did some impromptu negotiating with McCandless Monday night, asking him how long he’d be willing to serve as administrator and whether he should hire a permanent assistant.
McCandless even took the extraordinary step of advising the council to make him the official, not the interim administrator — so he could be fired at will. If he remained as interim administrator, he said, he would still be, technically, the assistant administrator and he’d be subject to employment laws that would prohibit his firing except for good cause.
As full city administrator under contract, he said, he would serve at the pleasure of the council.
McCandless said that if he were made administrator, his first job would be to hire a permanent assistant, partly because he would need the full-time help, but also to have a person in place who might then be an attractive candidate when it’s time to fill the top job.
Also, he told the council, he’d like to move quickly on finding people to lead the Fire Department and the Finance Department, both of which have had interim directors for extended periods of time.
Mayor Bill Cole raised the delicate question of McCandless’ future, should he hire an assistant and the council then finds an administrator. That would appear to leave no job for McCandless, Cole said, though it might be possible to retain him as a consultant to help the new administrator.
Once again McCandless demurred, saying there can only be one boss, and that he shouldn’t stick around after an administrator is hired. But that would be OK, he said, because he is 63 and is “planning to retire sooner rather than later.”
The council ultimately voted to have McCandless draw up a proposed contract by Feb. 1, so council members can review it at their Feb. 5 work session, and then possibly vote on it at their next business meeting, on Feb. 12.
In the meantime, city staff will begin gathering city administrator contracts from other cities, together with related data that will help the council come to a firmer idea of what they want to offer the next administrator.
The council will also have to decide whether it wants to use a professional search firm to conduct the hiring process — either the one it used in the last search, the Mercer Group, or another one. Councilman Frank Ewalt faulted the Mercer Group for the some of the problems with the most recent search.
Everyone seemed to be happy at the prospect of having McCandless in the job a while longer. New City Council member Penny Ronning said that during her council orientation, department heads all expressed admiration for McCandless and confidence in his ability to do the job.
As for the Babcock Theatre, the council voted unanimously (with conflict-of-interest abstentions from Cole and Ronning) to accept a council subcommittee’s recommendation that the city enter into negotiations with the Art House Cinema and its founder, Matt Blakeslee, to operate the Babcock on a five-year lease for $1 a year.
The Art House, a nonprofit, already screens movies five nights week, and proposes to show movies seven nights a week at the Babcock.
In 2008, the city approved a grant to the current owners of the Babcock Building at Broadway and Second Avenue North, with the understanding that just the theater portion of the building would be deeded to city ownership in 2016, later extended to 2017. The city expects to take ownership of the theater within a matter of weeks, City Attorney Brent Brooks said.
Liz Kampa-Weatherwax, the city’s purchasing agent, said the city already owns or partly owns the Alberta Bair Theater, the Billings Depot and the Moss Mansion, all of which are nonprofits run by boards of directors.
When the subcommittee made its recommendation, Blakeslee said that if a lease with the city is negotiated, he could start showing classic films with the theater’s existing equipment within weeks.
The next step would be to buy new projection and sound equipment — there is $370,000 left in a fund for improvements established by the city — and start showing first-run movies as soon as the new equipment is installed.