Finalists for new Bemidji city manager position share experiences, visions for the future
The position was vacated after a turbulent first quarter of 2023, that included a formal vote to remove the former city manager in April. Three candidates were identified as finalists out of a pool of 30, with the Bemidji City Council's hiring decision to possibly come next week.
BEMIDJI — Three candidates had their second interviews this week to fill the city manager position with the Bemidji City Council.
Sharon Eveland, Mark Lemen and Richard Spiczka were all interviewed twice by the City Council, once virtually and again in-person, traveling to Bemidji at the city’s expense.
The city manager vacancy was created when former City Manager Nate Mathews resigned three months after At-Large Council Member Audrey Thayer made a motion to discuss his continued employment in January, a process that ultimately involved an hours-long closed session and outside legal counsel with Flaherty and Hood.
Mathews’ resignation came 10 days after a formal vote by the Bemidji City Council to remove him as manager in April. City Clerk Michelle Miller has been acting city manager since.
“It’s really important when the manager has the level of autonomy that they do, that communication is there, because when that communication fails, trust will start to fail.”Sharon Eveland
Sharon Eveland is currently the village administrator in Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin. She was also recently named a finalist in Milton, Wisconsin, for city administrator, according to the Milton Courier.
Eveland boasts a military background, serving as a cryptologic technician interpretive in the U.S. Navy for eight years. She also has a Master of Public Administration from Georgia Southern University.
In her second interview, Eveland — in response to a question on what diversity means — emphasized having open door policies and reaching out to marginalized communities, and admitted she grew up in a much different environment in Georgia.
“When I was 21, I got a tattoo with the Confederate flag on my back. I was in the military, and I was raised that this is history, it isn’t racist,” she said. She shared that she read a book, Ty Seidule’s Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, that inspired her to cover up the tattoo.
Minnesota has an interesting history with Confederate flags. Minnesota’s 1st Infantry captured the 28th Virginia Regiment’s battle flag during a momentous point for the Union in the Battle of Gettysburg, and repeated requests for its return to Virginia have been notoriously denied.
“It was definitely an evolution for me to go from where I was raised to where I am now,” she said. “I’m not going to stand up here and pretend to be an expert in diversity and inclusion. ...
“We’re going to need to bring people in to help guide those conversations, and that when we are having meetings or informational sessions with the public, we’re doing more than lip service with the feedback that comes in.”
Eveland said trust and communication are essential components to working relationships.
“There definitely has to be a level of trust between the council and the manager,” she said. “It’s really important when the manager has the level of autonomy that they do, that communication is there, because when that communication fails, trust will start to fail.”
Eveland said she would encourage more community engagement with the city manager and council members, stressing the importance of building relationships and engaging with the public.
“It's one of the things about having that longevity here with the department heads really brings me comfort because I know that I'm going to walk into an environment where the work’s already getting done,” she said.
“I truly believe that nobody signs up to be on the City Council with poor intentions and I don't think anybody signs up to be a city staff that doesn't care about the city or doesn't care about the people in it."Rich Spiczka
Rich Spiczka is currently the city administrator for Pequot Lakes, moving to that position in 2021 after several years in community and activities education. Spiczka earned bachelor degrees in elementary education and business management.
Spiczka said he prided himself on his lifetime career in the public sector, citing examples of trust building in his prior experience.
“I feel like there's a disconnect between the business community and the city building staff," said Spiczka. “We want the community in general to understand the city hall is here to serve you.”
Spiczka emphasized that need for trust and understanding in creating city policy.
“I truly believe that nobody signs up to be on the City Council with poor intentions and I don't think anybody signs up to be a city staff that doesn't care about the city or doesn't care about the people in it,” he said. “Everybody has good intentions, but we don't always understand where those line items are or what those action items are.”
Spiczka said he would work to educate the public on city issues to be more in tune with the public.
“The more you educate and the more you’re in tune, the fewer surprises. Surprises don’t always sit very well in the general public or in the public sector,” he said. “And the key there is staff. The more staff know, the better the chances the policy will be successful than if they don’t know, you get less buy-in, less productivity, and you get more resistance.”
Spiczka said the city’s strategic plan is a working document for how Bemidji can grow into the future, with room for changes.
“You have to keep tabs on all of it. And the toughest part I would say in today, all of these plans can be great, but the public can be volatile at times,” he said. “You’re reacting more than you’re working on a plan.”
Spiczka’s comments referenced the recent Red Pine Apartments vacated due to structural issues in July.
“You don’t have a choice but to react to that,” he said. “You have to be fortuitous on that length of plan, and receptive to the immediate needs to work them at the same time.”
Mark Lemen Jr. is currently the director of Public Works in the city of Glencoe. During his 20-year career, he has worked in department leadership for cities with over 90,000 residents, also working for the cities of Plymouth and Becker. He earned a Master of Public Administration from Ohio University.
Lemen identified challenges in Bemidji included transparency and citizen engagement.
“I think that there needs to be a a bridge that's gapped and the city manager needs to be very integral in that process," he said. “There needs to be an air of transparency and open lines of communication with the community, and that starts at the top, that starts at the city manager's office.”
Lemen also spoke on providing more opportunities to underrepresented demographics within the city.
"I am very transparent in what our goals and objectives are. I'm very forthcoming about the things we need to do, what our mission is, what our values are and what our responsibility is to the Council, to the stakeholders and to us as people.”Mark Lemen
“I think that our city needs to be all inclusive and I think there is a little bit of a divide there, and there needs to be some trust that's built throughout the different demographics of the city, and that starts at the city managers office as well,” he said.
In response to a question on strategies to overcome council or staff resistance, Lemen said he would use his prior experiences in leadership to develop strong lines of communication throughout city departments.
“I think the reason that I've had the success I have is I have an open-door policy, from the top to the bottom," he said. "I am very transparent in what our goals and objectives are. I'm very forthcoming about the things we need to do, what our mission is, what our values are and what our responsibility is to the council, to the stakeholders and to us as people.”
Lemen is already a frequent visitor to the Bemidji area, with family nearby.
“Bemidji is near and dear to my heart. I've said it 10 times today and I truly mean it,” he said. “This is a community that I want to raise my family. This is a community that I wouldn’t want to leave, this would be the last stop on my resume if given the opportunity.”
As a home rule city, the Bemidji City Charter establishes city government with a council-city manager structure. This means the Bemidji City Council has one employee, the city manager, who must be appointed by the council. All other department heads are under the supervision of the city manager.
Home rule cities allow residents to create local governments and constitutions separate from standardized plans created by state law.