Savannah city manager candidate Wayne Cauthen: lots of big city experience

This is the first of several posts with some initial thoughts on the finalists for Savannah’s city manager post. While a Savannah alderman has already publicly called the search firm a “joke,” I think there is considerable merit to be found in the final field. I’ve seen lots of complaining online about the choices, but in those posts I hope to present a bit more balance. The full list of finalists and their bios can be found here. The public will get to meet the finalists on Tuesday night, although the ultimate selection will be made by the mayor and aldermen, probably before the end of March.

For the sheer length of his career in public positions, Wayne Cauthen is obviously a serious contender. He has credible experience in business development in the Denver area dating back to the 1980s and also worked in a variety of high-level city posts in Denver. He was also city manager in Kansas City from 2003 to 2009, when he was pushed out by elected officials.

I’ve already read numerous derogatory remarks by Savannahians about Cauthen’s departure from Kansas City — things like: “we don’t want a reject from somewhere else!”

OK, take a deep breath. A city manager is like a top-level coach or a corporate CEO. These folks come and go all the time — some have successful tenures for years before being pushed out, and then go on to success in other positions.

Kansas City is much, much larger than Savannah. It has about 1/2 million residents compared to our 130,000 or so, and the Kansas City metro area is about 2 million compared to our total of less than 400,000. If Cauthen was city manager for six years there, clearly he has some administrative skills. (Our former city manager Michael Brown was forced out of his position in Arlington after less than six months.) Kansas City is a big city, with a pro football team, a symphony, a professional ballet company (I knew several members of it many years ago), and other major attractions. In this glowing column from 2010 in the Kansas City Star, Cauthen reflects on a number of successes there, including preservation, the building of an arena, and the establishment of the Power & Light District.

Cauthen’s departure from KC seems to have been the result of ongoing tensions among him, the mayor, and a few key members of city council. In particular, there was apparently concern about the use of outside consultants and about budgeting as the economy soured. From Wayne Cauthen: The Back Story and What’s Next by KMBC:

In both public and private comments, City Council members said Friday that the city’s position in a deepening recession, and constant budget battles contributed to Cauthen’s dismissal.
“Things change,” City Council member Cindy Circo told KMBC’s Micheal Mahoney. She voted for Cauthen the first time Mayor Mark Funkhouser tried to fire him. “Situations change, and sometimes, city managers must change.”

It’s worth noting that the Kansas City city council was evenly divided on dismissing Cauthen, 6-6, with the mayor’s vote as the deciding one.

The more I read about Cauthen, the better he looks to me.

UPDATE, 1/16: You can find profiles of each candidate by the Savannah Morning News’s Lesley Conn here.