Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 20, 2013

Departing city manager talks about himself, reluctantly

By BRIAN McGILLIVARY bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Ben Bifoss said he came to Traverse City as a city manager without an agenda. He leaves pleased he didn’t garner a reputation for initiating changes, just managing them.

City commissioners praised Bifoss, 59, for his professionalism, low-key approach, and an ability to present issues fairly and completely without personal bias. He sat down with the Record-Eagle on Tuesday, his last day in office prior to starting his retirement. His comments have been edited for space.

Record Eagle: What would your rather do, have a tooth pulled or be interviewed about yourself?

Bifoss: Have a tooth pulled, and I’ve had them without anesthesia and it is a very uncomfortable experience.

R-E: What do you consider your signature accomplishment or accomplishments?

Bifoss: I don’t keep lists. I think helping to lead this organization, it’s a high-quality organization. I’m not personally responsible for any of it; we are all team members. One of my jobs is to help coordinate the team.

R-E: From the outside looking in, it appears you rarely initiate any major change. Is that accurate?

Bifoss: I’m glad it looks that way. The way the commission-manager form of government works is that the commission sets the policy and the priority and the manager implements it. I did not come in with an agenda of things to fix.

R-E: The proposed consolidation of the city’s fire department with the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department has been one of the most controversial items during your tenure. Did you initiate it?

Bifoss: I don’t think that matters.

R-E: Any prediction on how consolidation is going to end?

Bifoss: I do not.

R-E: Do you think consolidation can work?

Bifoss: I think it could work, yes.

R-E: Do you think the citizens of the city will support consolidation?

Bifoss: I will not make a prediction on that.

R-E: What do you think are some of the major stumbling blocks to consolidation?

Bifoss: I don’t feel an overwhelming need to go there.

R-E: You’re leaving after four-and-a-half years. What didn’t you get done that you would have liked to accomplish?

Bifoss: There’s always a new list of things to do ... but most of the big projects are coming to a conclusion, the (Brownbridge) dam removal and Clinch Park. One of the really cool things about this job is there is always something new.

R-E: Did the fervor (the) removal of the miniature train at Clinch Park aroused and the time it took to resolve the issue surprise you?

Bifoss: No. There are so many things that eat up time and process. The food trucks took nine months. I think the commission came to the absolutely correct conclusion. The train made sense when the zoo was there but it really didn’t fit in the long term future of Clinch Park.

R-E: Your replacement, Jered Ottenwess, begins July 22. What’s your opinion of him?

Bifoss: I spent all day Friday morning with him and I was very impressed. I think he will do well. I think he approaches the job the same way I do, with the same ethics and the same mentality in understanding the role of city management.

R-E: What do you think will be some of the major challenges facing him?

Bifoss: The fire department is certainly near the top of the list, improving infrastructure, continuing to provide all of the day-to-day services that we do. City operation is really two, almost completely separate operations. One is all of the day-to-day services, and the other is the policy issues the commission addresses.

R-E: What are your future plans for your retirement?

Bifoss: Travel. First the Soo (Sault Ste Marie), then around Lake Superior, Canada for fishing, and then the great western trip ... to see my children, and I need to be back by deer season. I recognize it’s a difficult schedule.