Shenandoah elections, resignations shake up city leadership

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Six months following the May 6 election, which brought three new council members to the Shenandoah City Council dais, the city continues to undergo changes in leadership due to turnover.

The city has had 10 staff members leave their positions in both 2016 and 2017, but Shenandoah has experienced turnover of higher-level positions this year, such as city administrator and city finance director, in addition to five new faces on the council since May 2016.

City leaders are working to fill vacant roles, while others are adjusting to their newly assigned interim positions. In the midst of these transitions and months after the May election, former council members continue to attend meetings as residents and address current council members during citizen’s forums.

“For the past six months, I’ve sat quietly watching and waiting for sensibility and civility to return [to the city]; for the past six months, I’ve waited in vain,” said Council Member Mike McLeod, who was first elected to the council in 2014. “This current council of dedicated servants and city staff has been working tirelessly to make the best decisions possible to advance the city. Nevertheless, they have experienced unrelenting roadblocks.”

Amid a city divided by political tension, the council is working to move forward and focus on citywide issues, city officials said.

“We are excited about the direction that we are headed in,” said Mayor Ritch Wheeler, who was elected to the position in May 2016. “While we certainly appreciate all of our former employees, we are focusing on the future and where we are headed. As council, as staff and as residents, we are focusing on keeping Shenandoah moving forward.”

Role changes

In the past two years, Shenandoah City Council has undergone a nearly complete member turnover. The May 6 election brought three new members to the council. Ted Fletcher was elected to Position 2, formerly held by John Houston; Byron Bevers assumed the role of Position 3, formerly held by Darrell Frazier; and Charlie Bradt took over Position 4, formerly held by Jean Teague.

The remaining council members, Wheeler and Position 1 Council Member Ron Raymaker, were elected in May 2016. McLeod was first elected to Position 5 on the council in May 2014.

Frazier was the only incumbent who did not seek re-election in May.

“When I started with the city, there was a long period of status quo with  little change on council,” interim City Administrator Kathie Reyer said. “We have a few years where elections were canceled due to no one running against incumbents. The last two years have brought more change on City Council.”

In August, Greg Smith, who had served as Shenandoah’s city administrator for eight years, announced his resignation effective Aug. 31.

During his tenure, Smith was tasked with cutting the city budget and streamlining city operations, both of which Reyer said Smith achieved. Smith oversaw development in the city’s residential and commercial areas, worked with the National Collegiate Athletic Association to bring events to the area and represented the city in planning initiatives.

Although the city’s recent turnover is consistent with that of 2016, both years are an uptick from 2015, during which three staffers left their positions. However, the 2016 and 2017 data pales in comparison to 2010 during which 20 staff members voluntarily left their positions, according to city data.

“Employee turnover, unfortunately, is not a new city issue and has been a significant challenge the past two years, which is why I addressed it during my campaign,” Bevers said. “Whereas the recent turnover rate has been more publicized, it is not significantly different than what the city has experienced over the last few years.”

While Smith declined to comment on why he left his position with the city, citing a separation clause in his contract, council members said some of the reasons staffers may have left is because of change in city leadership.

“[Some] left for better opportunities … others left because they didn’t want to implement policy changes we proposed,” Raymaker said.

Reyer, who has worked for the city for 10 years, assumed the role of interim city administrator in September, until a permanent city administrator is hired.

Reyer said the council is working to evaluate and revise the job description for the city administrator position.

The city administrator is responsible for overseeing city operations, supervising staff members, managing projects, overseeing the budget, representing the city’s interests and implementing policies created by the council.

“Over time, the needs and demands of the city change, and council is taking the time to decide on the type of qualifications that meet the needs of the city now,” Reyer said. “Once they decide the direction they want to take, they will begin recruitment efforts.”

Reyer said no one has applied for the position as of late October, because the job has not yet been posted as available. The council is collecting job descriptions from other cities in their review process and once the council determines a revised job description, Reyer said the position would be posted internally and externally for a minimum of 14 days.

“Council has not stated a self-imposed deadline, but they are taking their time to be thorough,” Reyer said. “There is no requirement to hire a permanent city administrator within a certain time.”

Shortly after Smith announced his resignation in August, Jennifer Calvert, city finance director and Convention and Visitor’s Bureau director, also announced her resignation, which became effective in mid-September. Calvert worked for the city for 10 years and also declined to comment on why she left her position.

The council appointed City Accountant Lisa Wasner on Oct. 25 to serve as interim city finance director until a permanent finance director is hired.

Combating turnover

In addition to the 18 combined years of experience the city lost with the resignations of Smith and Calvert, Shenandoah also lost 15 combined years of council experience following the May election.

Teague said she believes loss of experience could be a challenge for the city.

“With the changeover of elected officials and rapid departure of some of our most talented leadership personnel, we face a knowledge and experience gap in the city,” she said. “But I am hopeful that council will act decisively to replace those who left with well-qualified individuals based on a rigorous and competitive process.”

However, Bradt was first elected to the council in 1983 and held that position until 1990. He then served as mayor from 1990-92 and served on the city’s planning and zoning committee from 1998 to 2017.

Prior to the election, Bevers also served the city as the director of public works from 2010-15.

While there are a number of reasons for why an employee may leave the city, Frazier said he thinks the political state of Shenandoah may be a factor.

“I believe one of the major factors in the increase in staff turnover is directly related to the political environment the city is under,” Frazier said. “To combat future turnover, council needs to allow the high-caliber, professional city staff to do their job without micromanagement, retaliation and political platforms.”

In contrast, Bevers said he has spoken with employees in every city department and, through those conversations, has learned they are all excited about working together and about the direction the city is headed in.

“Earlier this year, many differences were highlighted during the course of campaigns, and the voters made their choices,” he said. “Although the election was held six months ago, a few people in the community continue to operate in campaign mode with a primary focus on dividing our city; I choose to focus on what unifies us as a community.”

In hopes of reducing turnover, council members said they have worked to keep salaries competitive, and maintain benefits and incentives, while fostering an environment compatible for growth.

“While all components are important, the key is to focus on creating an environment that people want to be a part of,” Fletcher said. “You can love what you do, but if you don’t like where you do it, you’ll leave for a better place.”

During the August 2016 budget workshop, Raymaker proposed a separate human resources function for the city, including a consultant to look into turnover issues. The item was not funded.

The HR consulting services proposal remains unfunded in the 2017-18 budget. However, the council has directed staff to begin developing framework for the services and qualifications they are seeking, and the city will then go out for bid. Reyer said the council will decide if it will be a 2017-18 expenditure or a 2018-19 budget item.

In the meantime, the council approved amendments to the city’s communication policy during the Oct. 25 meeting. The revised policy allows staff and council members to communicate on routine matters while following a chain of command. It allows staff to submit improvement ideas to the council and provides a method for anonymous communication.

With these changes, Fletcher said he hopes to see turnover stabilize and possibly decline in the future. Since the election, one employee who resigned earlier this year was rehired, which city officials said they believe is a positive sign in their effort to curb turnover rates.

Moving forward

As city leaders work to fill voids left by former staffers, the council is also working to address issues associated with future growth, such as development, mobility and maintenance.

However, current and former council members do not agree on the best courses of action on these issues.

Teague said she has concerns about the current council’s stances on reserve spending, prompt replacement of open staff positions and transparency.

In contrast, Fletcher said he disagrees with the previous council’s decisions regarding city budgeting and taxation, employee retention, and goals and objectives for the city administrator.

“Kathie Reyer is a strong, respected leader and has fostered a great working environment that encourages staff to make unique contributions and let their talents shine,” Fletcher said. “This has allowed council to focus its energy on matters such as growth, economic development and resident benefits.”

Reyer likewise said she thinks the council is moving in the right direction.

“In my observation, the tone of the City Council meetings is more professional now, even if members disagree on an issue,” Reyer said. “There was a resentment toward new members previously, especially if they had a different opinion than the majority. Mayor Wheeler brings strong leadership to council and works to ensure that all residents have a voice.”

As a 36-year resident of Shenandoah, Bradt has witnessed nearly four decades of council and staff changes.

“I have over the years disagreed with many council decisions and the way the then-council was running the city,” Bradt said. “I believe if we looked at it like Ben Franklin, we would see that the good was greater than the bad. The City of Shenandoah progressed then and will under this council as well.”

While the new council works to serve their constituents, former council members said they plan to continue to attend meetings as residents to keep city leaders accountable for their actions.

“As a former city council member, I was accountable to the residents for my votes and public behavior,” Teague said. “As a resident, I consider it to be an important citizen obligation to continue to hold council accountable for their actions and behavior.”

McLeod said he hopes both the former and new council members can set aside their differences and reunify the city.

“This is hurting our wonderful city, and it’s time to stop,” McLeod said. “Let’s put aside our differences. Let’s come together for this holiday season.”

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Hannah Zedaker

Born and raised in Cypress, Texas, Hannah Zedaker graduated from Sam Houston State University in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in mass communication and a minor in political science. She began as an intern with Community Impact Newspaper in 2015 and was hired upon graduation as a full-time reporter for The Woodlands edition in May 2016. She covers business, transportation, health care and other local news, specializing in Shenandoah City Council and Montgomery County nonprofit organizations.

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