City enters new post-Prosser era

  by Tim Kenyon

CEDAR RAPIDS – Rockwell Collins Chairman CEO and President Clay Jones holds a unique perspective on running large organizations considering his company has more than 20,300 employees globally with 8,500 of those in Cedar Rapids and another 800 in Coralville.

Mr. Jones said Cedar Rapids and its workforce of about 1,400 is in better shape organizationally than before Jim Prosser started as city manager nearly four years ago.

Not everyone agrees, and among those who don’t are several members of the city council who voted 6-2 last week to accept Mr. Prosser’s resignation. He leaves with a separation package of one year’s pay ($165,000) and health insurance coverage for a year unless he receives it under another employer sooner.

His resignation came about 4 1/2 months after residents elected Ron Corbett as mayor over incumbent Councilor Brian Fagan. The council accepted the resignation on a 6-2 vote, with at-large member Tom Podzimek not voting as he walked out before the count.

Mr. Corbett has displayed a more hands-on, direct leadership style in contrast to the council team theme of his predecessor, Kay Halloran. That is part of a campaign pledge to seek quicker resolution to city issues.

All this backdrops the situation as Iowa’s second-largest city continues numerous post-flood recovery projects while the economy begins to show signs of stabilizing.

Given those challenges, Mr. Prosser’s performance before and after the June 2008 flood would be hard to match, according to Mr. Jones.

“His guidance led the city’s thinking in very productive ways. His strategic-planning strength was very clear and increased community involvement and consensus building was productive,” he said. “Organizationally, he was one of the best managers I’ve ever seen to apply efficient lean techniques.

“He was extremely professional, approachable and responsive, all qualities anybody would want in that position going forward.”

On the other hand, Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp. board member Pat Baird said Mr. Prosser could have been more open to business leaders.

“As far as it regards the flood-recovery efforts, Jim never reached out to the business execs nor did he respond in any meaningful way when execs reached out to him,” said Mr. Baird, who retired as Aegon Companies CEO on Dec. 31. “I think he honestly felt that flood recovery was solely the city’s responsibility and not that of the broader community. It was never personal.

“At the end of the day, I’m satisfied with the council’s decision,” he added. “If it was working or was going to work, we wouldn’t be looking for a new city manager.”

The flood made a prime difference and led to the recent changes in the council and Prosser’s departure, said commercial real estate agent Scott Olson, a previous mayoral candidate.

“I think Jim Prosser would have been successful in finishing reorganization of city government if the flood hadn’t affected that process,” Mr. Olson said. “A new city manager will need to interact on more of a regular basis with the public so they feel more comfortable that somebody is listening to them and is responding. Over the next two to three years, there are needs to speed up the recovery decision process and bring the city back to normal as quickly as possible to restart growth of the city and job creation.”

Mr. Jones and Councilor Kris Gulick are two community leaders who thought expectations for Mr. Prosser were not in place during and since the flood.

“Expectations were not conveyed well. Nobody plans for a natural disaster of that magnitude,” Mr. Jones said. “When something unexpected happens, you hope to be adaptable and flexible to change to what’s needed at the time because there is going to be lot of hindsight to follow. I’ve never known any incident at a city, company, state or national level where everything was done perfectly ;that’s not a reasonable expectation.”

He added that flood recovery went well by any measure of crisis management, particularly given the changing landscape and extraordinary bureaucracy from the state and federal levels.

“I don’t think we could have hoped for a person better than Jim to handle that; at best, maybe someone as good,” he said. “He was never anything other than committed to the task to satisfy all constituencies. He didn’t wait around for guidance. He turned around and did what was best for the community.”

Mr. Gulick said he voted against accepting the separation agreement because job performance objectives for Mr. Prosser were not clearly defined previously by the council.

Brad Hart, Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce chairman, said he hopes Mr. Prosser’s replacement can continue momentum on several projects where he played a key role.

“Leadership in place before, during and after a large disaster usually changes quickly as people in leadership wear out or residents expect change,” Mr. Hart said. “I do think this community for a bunch of reasons from Jim’s work took some great steps forward that will be noticed more in the next two to five years.”

Specifically, groundwork on the proposed U.S. Cellular Center expansion project, new library, renovations of city facilities and new medical district are examples in which Mr. Prosser had an impact, Mr. Hart said.

“He (Mr. Prosser), like many of us, sees the economic potential of that and I hope a new city manager continues that kind of momentum,” he said.
Mr. Corbett said City Finance Director Casey Drew will be interim city manager for the short term.

The mayor said the council’s personnel committee will discuss searching for a replacement but Human Resources Director Conni Huber might lead it rather than seeking additional guidance from an outside consultant.

“Jim will move on and do a good job at whatever he decides to do and we will move the process to get a new city manager,” Mr. Corbett said. “Cities go through this kind of change. Casey is overworked now as a finance manager, so I can’t see him being in a three-, four- or five-months interim extra role.”

As for Mr. Prosser, he said last week he is just starting to consider future options.

“I don’t know yet. I’ve been so focused on my job that my next move hasn’t rose to the top until the past couple of days,” he said.