Opportunity Awaits...

City Office: 515-832-9151 | Utility Office: 515-832-9141

City Council expected to confirm Harrenstein as interim city manager

January 2, 2024

Although it won’t be official until the City Council of Webster City votes tonight at its first meeting of 2024, John D. Harrenstein, of Bondurant, has been hired as interim city manager of Webster City.

Both he and the city have signed an employment contract which takes effect today, and runs for eight months through September 2. Confirming Harrenstein’s appointment will be the council’s first matter of business on this evening’s agenda.

The council formally accepted Daniel Ortiz-Hernandez’s resignation on November 6, 2023. The former city manager’s contract called for him to work through January 18, 2024, but he left a month earlier by claiming unused vacation time. The city council immediately began the process to replace Ortiz-Hernandez.

As a first step, it wanted to know if anyone presently on city staff wished to interview for the job. Every city employee received an email to this effect.Two weeks were allowed for interested employees to step forward.

None did.

A next logical step for the council might have been to consult an executive recruiting firm to open a typically months-long search for qualified candidates. Not this time.

“Aside from placing a notice on the Iowa Association of Council of Governments website, we had just begun to think about our next steps,” said Mayor John Hawkins. “But right after Daniel’s resignation, we had external candidates approach us about the position.”

After interviewing three such candidates, the council began negotiating with Harrenstein. Despite coinciding with year-end holidays, family travel and commitments, the importance of having an experienced city manager on the job as soon as possible weighed heavily on the council’s collective minds.

Hawkins seemed to capture the mood of the entire council, saying, “We’re in a stronger position than expected with this move.”

Harrenstein was born and raised in Clear Lake. He attended the University of Northern Iowa, graduating in 2008 with a degree in public administration. During his undergraduate years, he worked as an intern at the Iowa State Legislature and, later, as a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Counties. These experiences confirmed his interest in a career in public service, he said.

Next, he earned a masters degree in public administration at the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration. Following that graduation, he worked for three and a half years as a management and budget analyst in the county manager’s office of Johnson County, Kansas. In 2009, he was appointed city manager of Eudora, Kansas, a city of 7,500 about 40 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri.

Then he was appointed city manager in North Mankato, Minnesota, a job he held nine years. He cited “a desire to be closer to family in Iowa,” as a factor in his decision to take the position in Minnesota.

In 2022, he was appointed city administrator (the equivalent of city manager) in Altoona. He resigned that position after just six months on the job, telling The Daily Freeman Journal, “The job wasn’t what I expected, wasn’t what was represented during the interview.”

Since then, he’s worked as a consultant with GPS Solutions, Southfield, Michigan. This work has seen him take on various short-term assignments helping cities with planning, budgeting and staff recruitment.

The DFJ contacted all five city council members for this article, asking them to comment both on the interim nature of the city manager position, and Harrenstein’s selection.

All responded.

Councilman Matt McKinney underscored the interim nature of the job. “We need someone to steer the ship now. They must have demonstrated city management experience. If they’re a good fit, they can apply for the position permanently.”

Councilwoman Abbie Hansen said, “The person who takes the interim city manager position needs to keep us on track and moving forward with projects we have right now. “ She specifically referenced the need to ensure Department of Natural Resources regulations are followed in changes to the city’s tree and brush waste site.

Councilman Logan Welch stressed “a key issue is maintaining the morale of city staff, and following the direction council has set.” Citing Harrenstein’s management of the municipally-owned electric utility in Eudora, Kansas, Welch added, “He has electrical utility management experience. It’s a complex issue and has direct application here in Webster City.”

Councilwoman Megan McFarland concurred, commenting, “His past experience in municipal utilities is a huge plus, and will be helpful in both electrical and water utility work going forward.”

Why, specifically, did council create a temporary city manager position?

The DFJ put that question to Mayor Hawkins, who didn’t hesitate to say, “We knew we need a manager now, but we also need time to think through longer-term requirements.”

The eight months of Harrenstein’s contract will give council that critical time to think strategically, while the large, previously-approved projects, including the new wastewater treatment plant, Reisner electrical substation, installation of new, advanced household water meters, and longer-range planning for a new water treatment plant, are professionally monitored and managed by Harrenstein.

Last November, Councilman McKinney, after learning of the resignation of Ortiz-Hernandez, wondered aloud if “all is well at city hall.” A professionally-designed and administered survey of city staff about working conditions in city government was discussed, and may still go forward in early 2024. It may help answer the question why small, rural cities, like Webster City, have trouble attracting, and retaining executive talent.

Harrenstein will be paid a base salary of $160,000 per year, prorated over his eight-month contract. He’ll also receive the standard health, disability and life insurance coverage provided to all city employees. He negotiated two weeks’ vacation time and 40 hours sick leave, and a $500 automobile expense allowance.

Commenting on the compensation package, Hawkins justified the higher salary (Ortiz-Hernandez was paid $139,000 annually), saying “it’s temporary employment, so he has a short-term horizon here. He won’t have a public works director, or assistant, and must carry the entire responsibility himself.”

The contract provides no housing allowance, so he’ll either commute from his home in Bondurant, or find local housing at his own expense. He’s also being provided a desk or laptop computer, mobile phone and plan for the duration of his contract. He’ll be allowed to continue his consulting work “as long as it shall not interfere or compete with interests of the city.”

The contract provides complete flexibility for both city and city manager at the end of eight months. It can be automatically renewed monthly, or canceled, by either party, with 15 days notice.

Hawkins recalled talking to a search firm six years ago when the city was seeking a new city manager.

“We proposed paying our city manager $105,000 at that time, and it was pointed out to me, electric utility directors in comparably-sized cities were earning, on average, $110,000 a year,” he said. “It was a wake-up call as to what it takes to have a competitive compensation package for these positions today.”

Harrenstein explained why an experienced city manager would take this job in this town, on these terms, at this time.

“Its an exciting time to come on board,” Harrenstein said. “I like big projects that call on my education and experience every day.”

He called the local city council “forward-thinking,” and said “they have practical, workable plans for the future.”

As to what might transpire next September, Harrenstein said he’s “open to any process where my skills can best be put to use.”

Harrenstein is no stranger to Webster City and Hamilton County. His father’s family is from Kamrar; his wife, Angelyn, is a native of Fort Dodge. He fondly recalls visits to Webster City as a boy, remembering; “I walked your streets, swam in your swimming pool, went to your Dairy Queen.”

He’s also a long-time fan of Daily Freeman-Journal columnist Arvid Huisman.

“I’m really excited about this,” Harrenstein said. “This is a homecoming.”


View this article as it originally appeared in the Daily Freeman-Journal.

Last modified: January 2, 2024

Comments are closed.