The four candidates for the position of Ann Arbor city administrator discussed their backgrounds and approaches to management — particularly the management of relationships between local communities and universities in large college towns — during a meet-and-greet event Thursday evening.

The city has been seeking a replacement for Steve Powers, the previous city administrator, after he left to be city manager of Salem, Ore. last October. Tom Crawford, the city’s chief financial officer, has served as interim manager since Powers’ departure. The four finalists — Thomas Couch of Georgia, Paul Fetherston of North Carolina, Howard Lazarus of Texas and Christian Sigman of Ohio — were chosen through a nationwide search and will be publicly interviewed by City Council Saturday before a hiring decision is made.

All four candidates emphasized their experience working in local government in large college communities, and said the presence of a large research university such as the University of Michigan presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities to the surrounding community.

Lazarus and Fetherston noted public universities are tax-exempt and can therefore eat into the tax base of the local city whenever they expand.

“As the University grows, there’s this balance between taxable properties and non-taxable,” Lazarus said, adding he has been able to maintain a beneficial relationship between the University of Texas and the city of Austin while the city’s director for public works and interim city manager.

Couch — the county administrator of Bulloch County, where Georgia Southern University is located — also noted large universities can act with significant autonomy from their local municipal government, referencing his experience maintaining his county’s relationship with its university.

“You have to develop intimate relationships with university personnel,” Couch said.

He also noted that Georgia Southern has experienced tensions with its surrounding community over issues such as land development.

However, despite the challenges they cited, all the candidates agreed a large university is a major asset to its local community, and meaningful relationships between all levels of local government and university administration need to be built for mutual benefit.  

Lazarus said cities and their local universities need to work toward their common interests rather than take an adversarial stance, which he said he’s done in his roles in Austin.

“Ann Arbor prospers because it (has a) great university, and you can’t lose sight of that,” Lazarus said. “University administration wants to have that fuzzy edge between the University and the town to be seamless. They want the kids to be safe and they want the parents to know their kids are safe. They also want a town that supports their desire to recruit and retain a top-notch faculty … great cities and great universities have a relationship where a city provides opportunities to the students and the university provides research and input for the town.”

Fetherston discussed his experience as an assistant city administrator in Boulder, Colo., saying he made an effort to work with not only the top administration of the University of Colorado, but also the lower level staff and the student body.

“For some time we were shooting to interface at the chancellor level, and based on the dynamics at that time it was the wrong place to try to influence,” Fetherston said. “So we worked more with the vice-chancellor, more with the housing department.”

Sigman — the county administrator of Hamilton County, Ohio and former budget director of Cincinnati and Washington D.C. — added that as city administrator he would want to build relationships with not just the University administration, but also the other largest local stakeholders.

“If you don’t have a relationship when an issue comes up, it’s hard to work with the issue,” Sigman said. “Job one for the city administrator is to get to know the public stakeholders … you’ve got to develop a rapport with not just the University president, but the bank president, the editor of the newspaper, the union officials.”

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