Slim pickings for GRU
Published: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 11:12 p.m.
In retrospect, Mike Kurtz was a great bargain. He ran an efficient public utility, returned a tidy profit to the City of Gainesville and did it for peanuts by the standard of his industry ... $166,000 a year.
Unfortunately, Kurtz had some liabilities. He spoke his mind, and he was bullish on "clean coal" technology to ensure Gainesville's energy future. These annoying traits angered city commissioners and citizen activists who longed for a "greener" energy future and deemed Kurtz too "retro" to remake GRU in their own image.
So Kurtz is gone, resigned under pressure, and city commissioners are trying to wrap up a search for a replacement. This weekend they will interview three candidates: Sanford Novick, CEO of the Lansing Board of Water and Light, Andy Ramirez, vice president for El Paso Electric, and David Richardson, who runs GRU's water and wastewater operations.
If that seems like a slim field of candidates, it is. And, predictably, some of the same commissioners and activists who wanted Kurtz gone are unhappy with the outcome of the search for his replacement. Commissioner Jack Donovan, among others, called for the search to begin anew even before meeting the finalists.
But what did commissioners expect? Last December, the consultant hired to look for candidates cautioned that "this has been an especially difficult position to market to qualified prospective candidates."
"From a candidate's perspective, there may actually be more going against this opportunity than in favor of it," said Scott A. Fry, of Mycoff and Associates, in a memo.
Among other things, Fry said that really qualified candidates will probably want a lot more money than the city may be willing to pay. (Kurtz told commissioners for years that he was underpaid; apparently he was right.) Also, a requirement that the GRU director live inside city limits is a problem, because "the housing choices are way too limited in Gainesville."
And then there's Gainesville's reputation as a community that likes to beat up on its public officials.
Kurtz's resignation came in the midst of a passionate, often angry debate over coal use. And many of those engaged in this running debate view this selection process as less a search for a highly qualified utility manager than a quest for an energy guru who will take GRU on a quantum leap into a new era of mega-conservation and alternative fuel use.
Among the obstacles to recruiting top notch candidates, Fry noted, was "Lack of resolution to GRU's power supply situation over an extended period.
"Many regional utility leaders do not feel confident there is a solution to the problem, which they view as a political issue."
Translation: The debate over Gainesville's energy future is likely to drag on for a long time to come, and many highly qualified candidates have little appetite for an extended war of words.
It's too early to pass judgment on the three candidates being interviewed this weekend, although the demands for a new search are already being voiced. If commissioners give in to those demands before fairly considering the candidates they have, it will only add to the impression that Gainesville is a quarrelsome city and further complicate the search for a new general manager of utilities.
But it's clear that Gainesville is not getting the rich field of highly qualified candidates that commissioners expected to attract to this university community after Kurtz was forced out. Bottom line: If Gainesville expects an energy guru who will work cheap, answer to many bosses and satisfy the demands and expectations of a host of environmental groups and citizen activists, it could be a very long search indeed.
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