TRAVERSE CITY — Jered Ottenwess described himself during his interview for Traverse City manager as soft-spoken, lacking years of experience and perhaps not the most charismatic person.
His humble, self-depreciating style worked, because Traverse City commissioners are expected to officially name Ottenwess their next city manager when they meet Monday at 7 p.m.
Ottenwess, 34, will go from managing 32 employees and a $3.2 million general fund budget for the Upper Peninsula city of Ishpeming to 150 employees and a $15 million budget in Traverse City. He’ll be paid $100,000 annually to start and can earn up to $110,000 after two years.
He won’t begin the Traverse City job until at least late July.
His former employers have no doubt he’s up to the task.
“He can do so much for you,” said Elaine Racine, Ishpeming’s mayor pro tem, who described Ottenwess as intelligent, hard-working, honest and humble.
“When he travels, he pays for his own meals because he tells me he has to pay for them at home, anyway,” Racine said. “I’m very happy for Jered, and very, very sad for our city.”
Michigan native Ottenwess has a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan and worked for a private planning firm when a friend suggested he apply for the city manager’s job in the small town of Trenton, Fla., near Gainesville.
“I found my calling,” Ottenwess said. “I find it really fulfilling, both personally and professionally, to work in the public’s interest.”
He helped that city transition from a state-declared emergency financial condition to a plus-fund balance in three years. But when asked about his top accomplishments, he noted a grant that allowed the city to install playground equipment in city parks.
“To see the kids really enjoying the playground equipment, it was really rewarding,” he said.
Ottenwess spent five years in Trenton, and city Commissioner Arlene Wilks said she wishes he hadn’t left.
“He was a very fine man and we were proud to have him,” Wilks said. “He built up this city and did things that hadn’t been done in years.”
“He’s a very hard worker and ... I think y’all be proud of Jered,” she said.
Ottenwess and his wife, Kristina, a public health educator, decided to move back home to Michigan to be closer to family -- and winter.
“I love winter ... and we love northern Michigan,” said Ottenwess, whose family now includes two pre-school-age children.
Ottenwess described his start in Ishpeming as a “trial by fire.” Employees picketed city hall his first day because they had been working without a contract. Within a month he learned the city was under a court order to reroute a creek that ran through a mine into the city’s storm sewer system. The creek picked up mercury in the mine and polluted a nearby lake.
The city’s storm sewer couldn’t handle the creek and there was no money available to fix the problem.
“It’s almost a $9 million project and that was not economically feasible for a city in Ishpeming’s condition,” Ottenwess said of what he calls his most notable accomplishment.
Ishpeming will reroute the creek this year with the help of federal funding to reconstruct its storm water system.
“We have had major problems in our city, very complicated issues, and most of the time he can tell you the numbers and details right off the top of his head,” said Racine. “He can sit down and explain it so a common person can understand it.”
Partridge Creek may have been Ottenwess’s most notable accomplishment, but it was the firing of the city’s police chief that drew the most attention.
“If you Google my name, it’s one of the top results that comes up,” he said.
The police chief subsequently sued the city; his attorney declined to comment for this article.
Ottenwess said he wouldn’t do anything differently, but declined to revisit the issue.
The police chief was accused of harassing a city council member, and Ottenwess responded with a letter of reprimand.
Racine said the police chief ignored the letter and sent an “intimidating” email to the council member. Ottenwess fired the chief after consulting with the city’s attorneys, she said
“It was a very, very messy situation ... but he did what he had to do,” Racine said. “There was no anger or malice, he did it with regret.”
Ottenwess said his family loves Ishpeming and the Upper Peninsula, but called Traverse City a special opportunity that will place his family closer to the metro Detroit area and medical specialists who are needed to provide care for his son.
Ottenwess spoke confidently of his ability to address the challenges of running a bigger city during his job interview. Other applicants had more experience in years, but commissioners said Ottenwess impressed them with his knowledge of the city and matters he addressed as a city manager elsewhere.
“I’ve come a long way in eight years working as a city manager, and I have the gray hairs to prove it,” he said.