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HIRED – Harrenstein is an interim no longer

July 9, 2024

The City Council of Webster City voted unanimously Monday to confirm John Harrenstein as city manager.

Harrenstein has worked as interim city manager since January 2. His contract called for a formal performance review after nine months on the job — October 2 — but the council moved forward with his promotion after just six months.

“We saw John as city manager material from the start,” Mayor John Hawkins said. “His performance over these six months is such we don’t have to search for another candidate.”

Hawkins was referring to the city’s past use of professional placement firms to recruit and hire city managers, an effort that has proven to be expensive, lengthy and less than successful.

Councilwoman Megan McFarland put it this way: “We could spend $80,000 on a search firm to find a new city manager, then make a decision on an unknown candidate after a 30-minute interview, or we can hire John Harrenstein. It was an easy decision.”

“We gave ourselves nine months to evaluate John’s work, and, if necessary, begin a new search,” Councilman Logan Welch said. “That’s a long, hard road — one we know very well — and, happily, don’t have to follow this time. John showed us lots of on-the-job promise, so we could shift our focus to retaining and working with him on a long-term basis.”

Councilwoman Abbie Hansen said she was “excited to have a city manager for the long haul. He’s a hard worker and thinks about the taxpayer when he makes a decision.”

“We met in closed session three times to get this contract right,” noted Councilman Matt McKinney. “When John arrived in Webster City, there were a number of major projects in motion. He got right to work and didn’t miss a beat. He’s done a great job. I feel the final contract is fair to both sides.”

As Interim City Manager, Harrenstein’s base salary was $160,000, about $21,000 more than his predecessor, Daniel Ortiz-Hernandez. The new contract will see his salary rise to $175,000, which Hawkins said, “is significantly more than we’ve paid a city manager in the past.”

McFarland added, “Council looked at this carefully. Losing a city manager is disruptive to staff, council and community. We’ve had too much turnover in recent years. We needed and wanted stability. It’s worth a lot to have a city manager who’s driven, loves Webster City, has family here, and is more personable than previous city managers.”

Welch concurred on the last point. “In a very short time, John has integrated into the community. He’s introduced himself to downtown business owners and people all over town. To a person, they’ve been delighted with his friendliness and approachability.”

One reason Harrenstein’s compensation is higher than previous city managers is the City’s lack of a public works director who manages a city’s assets, water and waste-water plants, electric utility, streets, sewers, street lighting and are well-paid in their own right. Since arriving in Webster City, Harrenstein has done the work of a public works director as well as that of city manager. His original contract recognized this was the case, and compensated him with that in mind.

An example of Harrenstein working as public works director is his management of the design of Webster City’s new wastewater treatment plant. From virtually his first day on the job, Harrenstein had serious doubts about the elaborate wastewater treatment plant planned for Webster City by Ames-based consultant Bolton & Menk. With Council approval, Harrenstein fired Bolton and Menk and went to work with Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant Supervisor Nick Knowles on a new plant which would be both effective and affordable.

Not enough information is available at this writing, but there’s a strong indication the new plant will cost far less than the one-time estimate of $79 million.

Similarly, Harrenstein and Electric Utility Supervisor Adam Dickinson have collaborated on planning and buying components for the Reisner electric substation. Dickinson’s solid competence in his field, and Harrenstein’s experience in other cities and expertise in budgeting and costs, are steadily advancing a big, complicated, important project to the city’s future.

“We don’t expect anyone to do two jobs at once, but that’s what John has been doing,” Hawkins said. “Part of his package includes doing the work of a public works director. He’s qualified to do this, and he’s doing it well.”

There are no plans to hire a full-time public works director, so this situation will continue into the future.

McFarland expanded on the situation, adding, “Daniel (Ortiz-Hernandez) had an assistant city manager, but John doesn’t have that or a public works director, either. He’s managing the workload well; he never really seems to be off duty.”

Hansen added, “He says he can handle the load, and so far he has. This is a tough job; we found the right guy for it.”

In some ways, though, Harrenstein has three jobs. Now that Webster City has joined the Ames Regional Economic Alliance, he’s the city’s point man for economic development, as well as a member of the Alliance board of directors. The Alliance now has official responsibility for economic development in Boone, Hamilton and Story counties, with a mission to stem Hamilton County’s slow, steady loss of population, stimulating investment, employment and housing in the process.

As a man with five bosses — members of the City Council of Webster City — chemistry plays an out-sized role in Harrenstein’s ultimate success.

Hawkins notes, “We’re a pretty young council looking for change and new ideas. John matches that with a ‘glass half full’ approach to problems. He brings a positive attitude to the job every day.”

Welch agreed. “In the last six months, I’ve witnessed more community involvement and common-sense project management from a city manager than in my entire 11 years on City Council.”

For his part, Harrenstein expressed gratitude to the council for having confidence in him.

“Early on, it was clear to me this could be a career move,” he said. “I saw a forward-thinking council, experienced staff, and, everywhere, a warm welcome. It all came together to help me see myself here into the future.”

He sees that future as busy and full of potential.

“We have lots of work to do: build the wastewater plant and Reisner substation, promote new housing and industrial growth, revitalize downtown, and promote the tourism potential of our region, including the Boone River, Hamilton County Fairgrounds and Briggs Woods.”

Welch said at Monday’s meeting, “Webster City can finally move out of an era of dreaming and into an era of doing. I encourage the community to stay tuned for more progress to come, and remind them their input is the most important part of Webster City’s future.”

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

Last modified: July 9, 2024

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