EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsmakers 2013 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.
TRAVERSE CITY — City officials turned to younger, newer, and less experienced voices to fill their top two administrative positions in city government.
Jered Ottenwess took over for Ben Bifoss as city manager in July and Tim Arends replaced Ed Rice in May as Traverse City Light & Power's executive director.
In both cases, the predecessors had decades of experience in their fields. The knock against both Ottenwess and Arends was their lack of experience, respectively, in leading a city the size of Traverse City or an electric utility. But to date, those who hired them are pleased with the results.
"I think Jered's doing a fine job," said Mayor Michael Estes. "This city had a lot of things put on hold ... and there was so much on his plate when he entered this position it will likely take six more months before he is truly functioning at full capacity."
Ottenwess inherited several problems upon his arrival, including construction failures at new-look Clinch Park and problems with an agreement to convert the Con Foster museum into a movie house for the Traverse City Film Festival.
"Anytime you take over a city manager position there always issues like that, projects not finished or issues unresolved," Ottenwess said. "I guess that's part of the nature of the job."
The Clinch Park water feature may be the most difficult to resolve. The new splash pad sprayed sewage contaminated water on unsuspecting children when a sewer line backed up just days after it opened. City staff resolved that problem but discovered drainage issues have made the feature a high-maintenance addition to the park.
"There's only so much we can do realistically," Ottenwess said. "We can't rebuild the water feature, so we'll do what we can."
Two things thus far have surprised Ottenwess: the level of public engagement and the incredible number of ongoing and planned city projects.
"The projects are exciting, but it's also a huge challenge," he said.
Arends was a long-time city employee and controller for Light & Power when he took over on an interim basis in October 2012 after the utility board fired rice.
He said his lack of an engineering background, a concern initially expressed by some board members, has not been a disadvantage. He relies on the expertise of staff and the utility's engineering consultants.
"To be a successful director you have to work well at managing people and ultimately be able to work with your board to reach their goals," Arends said.
Arends eliminated six positions, causing some anxiety among his staff. The cutbacks saved about $860,000 in salaries and benefits, though some of those savings are offset by contracting for services on an as-needed basis.
"Now we're doing more with less, but everyone is very accountable to each other and the staff is very much on the same page with what we are doing at Light and Power," he said. "I think for the most part, people are now comfortable."
The utility has worked on increasing reliability and engaging staff and board members in goal-setting in preparation for deciding whether to pursue local power generation.
"Arends has been doing a phenomenal job," Estes said. "He's addressed all of the issues the commission had expressed concerns about."