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Szerlag tabbed to become new city manager

By Staff | Mar 26, 2012

It took three votes and nearly an hour of debate, but in the end, the city council voted to name Troy, Mich. city manager John Szerlag the new city manager of Cape Coral, pending agreement to a contract, during a special meeting Monday afternoon at city hall.

Szerlag, who has served twice as Troy’s city manager, was named over Mark Needham, current special assistant to the governor of Kentucky, by virtue of his experience working in Troy during good times and bad, and the fact that he was asked back by Troy in 2009 to deal with that city’s bad economy.

Needham, though most agreed was a great candidate, drew concern over his mostly military background and the perceived lack of dealing with issues similar to those in Cape Coral.

No matter how the vote went, the council felt it was in a good situation.

“Either one was going to be a fine candidate. Needham had warmth and Szerlag is in tune with what this town has gone through,” Councilmember Rana Erbrick said. “Szerlag jumped out at me with his experience when we started this, and that pushed the vote over to him.”

The vote was close, however, with Needham and Szerlag tied at four votes apiece after a second vote. The first vote, a straw vote where each council member named two candidates, had Needham, Szerlag and Ed Green, county manager of Garfield County, Colo. deadlocked at five votes each.

After eliminating Green with the second vote and consulting with Colin Baenziger, whose firm conducted the search and who said he had never seen a vote go like this, board members have their reasoning behind their votes.

Marty McClain was impressed with Needham by the way he answered Chris Chulakes-Leetz’s scenario question in Friday’s group interview.

“Needham thought about it and apparently was the only one who listened to the scenario,” McClain said.

Chulakes-Leetz, who was displeased with Szerlag’s levity when asked his scenario, ended up voting for him anyway.

“I have to take into account the response to all the questions, not just mine,” Leetz said. “Needham’s background lacked what Cape Coral needs most. That Troy wanted him back is quite a feather in his cap.”

Councilmemebr Lenny Nesta was impressed by Needman’s work as Garrison commander in Fort Knox, which Nesta compared to Cape Coral on a smaller scale.

“He has a federal background and has delt with the same issues and same staff,” Nesta said. “He can get us federal grant money.”

Eventually, it was Kevin McGrail who tipped the balance toward Szerlag.

“He’s been through the good times and the bad. They thought of him enough to bring him back,” McGrail said. “He stared down the lion and dealt with a tough situation.”

Szerlag, whose city lost its primary taxpayer, K-Mart, was saddled with a $20 million deficit when he returned to Troy in 2009 and was forced to not only reduce workforce, but also made the controversial decision to privatize many services prerviously done by the city.

Erbrick and McClain, both of whom voted for Needham, changed their votes to Szerlag, who was named the primary city manager candidate by a 7-1 vote, with Lenny Nasta the lone dissenter.

Needham will be the secondary candidate in the event Cape Coral and Szerlag cannot reach agreement on a contract.

Mayor John Sullivan was swayed to Szerlag by the way he answered questions pertaining to utilities and unions and the similarities between Troy and Cape Coral.

“He makes sure the lines of communications are opened at all times with the unions,” Sullivan said. “He’s dealt with the environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers and Troy is similar to Cape Coral in what we went through. Housing was our industry, K-Mart was theirs.”

McGrail was relieved that despite the logjam, the council made a decision rather quickly, as opposed to the vote for city auditor, whick took hours to settle. He also saw the parellels with Troy.

“We were going to throw out two candidates. Thankfully, Erbrick and McClain felt there weren’t enough negatives for Szerlag for them to stick to their guns,” McGrail said. “We’re like Troy. Much of Troy’s income left when K-Mart went away. We put all our eggs in one basket with housing and it killed us when it went away.”