Big Rapids City Manager Sobers announces contract will not be renewed

HEARTFELT DISCUSSION: Big Rapids City Manager Steve Sobers is temporarily overcome by emotion as he discusses his eventual retirement and replacement. Sobers' contract is set to expire at the end of 2016, but he plans to remain working through Jan. 27, 2017. (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

HEARTFELT DISCUSSION: Big Rapids City Manager Steve Sobers is temporarily overcome by emotion as he discusses his eventual retirement and replacement. Sobers’ contract is set to expire at the end of 2016, but he plans to remain working through Jan. 27, 2017. (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

BIG RAPIDS — The contract for Big Rapids City Manager Steve Sobers is set to expire at the end of 2016, and there is no plan for it to be renewed or extended.

Although Sobers’ contract expires at the end of December, he asked commissioners at a retreat meeting Monday if he might stay on a few weeks longer.

“The last time the city went through the renewal process, we did a four-year contract with the understanding that at the end of this year, I would retire,” he said. “It would be nice for me on a personal level if that extended into January – that would let me be part of the annual report and finish out the year. I’m looking at about the end of January, possibly Jan. 27, the last Friday in January.”

The discussion during the meeting Monday was intended to lay the groundwork for how the city will go about replacing Sobers.

One possibility for finding a replacement is hiring a consultant. The last time the city searched for a manager, they hired the Michigan Municipal League to review job applications and visit the communities of the finalists in the application process, Sobers said. This process brought Sobers to Big Rapids in 2003.

“They wrote reports and talked to various people along the way to get a nice feel for the background for the folks being considered,” he said.

Another option is advertising in national publications such as the International City/County Manager Association, Sobers said.

“To get a start time in January, you would have to have advertising started by at least September,” he said.

The final option discussed could potentially save the city thousands of dollars, Sobers said.

“I would remiss if I did not comment that you have a more than outstanding candidate in Mark Gifford,” he said. “If the commission, in their wisdom, says they would like to save perhaps a $20,000 price tag for trying to find somebody who might eclipse Mark – which I think would be a stretch – that’s an opportunity for you to review.”

Mayor Mark Warba said he previously spoke with Gifford about the Department of Public Works director’s interest and desire to succeed Sobers as city manager. Gifford said yes to both.

“The city charter says the commission selects and appoints a city manager on the basis of executive and administrative qualifications with special reference to training and experience,” Warba said. “I think Mark has those credentials. I don’t want to be on a commission that spends $20,000 to find someone who might already be in our own backyard.”

However, Commissioner Tom Hogenson stressed that having an outside consultant and a formal application process, while expensive, is not without merits.

“I think Mark is uniquely qualified,” he said. “Having participated in the last selection process that resulted in Mr. Sobers coming to work with us, I would say that the process is a sound one. As a fall back to have that approach would be of value were we to need to look outside our current ranks. I don’t think you necessarily want to denigrate the process or the expense, because it is well worth it if it’s your only option.”

Gifford has be involved in a number of quality-of-life-improving initiatives in the past six years, Sobers said.

“Pocket park, Mark Gifford; the downtown, Mark Gifford; the ice skating rink in the park, Mark Gifford; the improvements to Michigan Avenue, Mark Gifford; you can’t name anything he hasn’t been involved in,” Sobers said. “There are wonderful people who work hard and who maintain and keep up on things who are brilliant and you love to have them. There are other people who, given the opportunity, innovate.

“The biggest issue Mark has is, taking over as manager he’s got to spend time budgeting, writing grievances, taking care of insurance and all those kinds of things, who is going to be the next Mark Gifford. If he gets a new Mark Gifford he will have a fabulous tenure.”

Gifford said he is not perfect, but the search process would not yield a perfect candidate either.

“You won’t find anybody, anywhere, who cares more about Big Rapids than I do,” he said. “I can do a good job and I have the passion for it.”

Gifford thanks Sobers for his tutelage and providing an example of a leader who allows his staff to grow and learn, even if it means the occasional disagreement.

“I’ve been extremely lucky to have Steve as a mentor, there is no question,” he said. “There are some things he’s allowed me to take part in that I would never have had those experiences, things like union negotiations and closed sessions of the commission.”

Commissioners did not make a final decision of which option to pursue. They will readdress the issue and make a final decision at their next retreat meeting at the end of August.

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Posted by Adam Gac

Adam is the Pioneer City/County Reporter, covering government in Mecosta County. He can be reached by e-mail at agac@pioneergroup.com or by phone at (231) 592-8347.

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