SHERIDAN — Mark Collins wrapped up his tenure with the city of Sheridan last week, ending his term as the community’s first city administrator.
Though the role itself has been controversial, it put Collins in a position that helped shape many of the developments in Sheridan over the last three years and created a template for what will remain an influential position in the city going forward.
Several members of Sheridan City Council said Collins was a key contributor to the city’s progress and growth over the last three years.
“From the public’s perspective I know they probably think, ‘Ah, they just fight all the time up there,’” said Councilor Patrick Henderson. “But if you look at what’s being done, a lot has been accomplished, and a lot of that was due to his work and of course the staff and the managers the city has.”
Council Vice President Thayer Shafer, a member of the council that passed the ordinance creating the city administrator role and approved the hiring of Collins, said he saw significant improvements to the way the city functions.
Before the creation of the administrator role, Shafer said managing the city’s day-to-day operations and budgeting was the mayor’s responsibility which, in addition to the mayor’s other responsibilities, proved to be too much for one person to handle.
In some cases, previous mayors had been simply unable to perform some of their duties and they were assigned, usually on an ad hoc basis, to members of city staff. Having to take on that extra work often led to staff members falling behind on their own work.
As the city continued to grow, Shafer said members of council and previous mayors agreed that those issues would only grow worse. With that in mind, the council passed the ordinance that created the city administrator role in 2015 and hired Collins in 2017.
When Collins first came on board, he said he didn’t see the need to make drastic changes to how city staff operated but set about trying to create efficiencies through reorganization.
For example, Collins said Sheridan’s public works director had historically been tasked with a broad range of responsibilities that could pile up and become overwhelming. To ease that burden, Collins said he set out to delegate some of the public works director’s duties to other members of staff. That lead to the creation of the city utilities director to focus on what Collins said was a crucial aspect of the city and let the public works director concentrate on other duties.
Shafer also said the previous council thought having a city administrator would create more continuity in city government.
Elected official turnover is an inherent challenge in government. New officials bring new ideas and represent the voters’ will, but often lack institutional knowledge about how a government functions.
Collins said he instituted several changes in Sheridan that he hoped would make the transition into city government easier for new elected officials.
His first step toward creating that continuity was to streamline the city’s budgeting process in a way that would make the city’s finances more transparent and accessible to both the public and city staff. That effort included periodic updates on budgeting throughout the year and a comprehensive study session where city staff went over every section of the budget with council.
“We wanted to make sure there was a clear understanding of what was going on in terms of the very important finances for the city,” Collins said.
Collins said he also worked with staff to create a more detailed orientation program for new elected officials.
Councilor Jacob Martin, who took office in January and had never worked in city government, said those programs were an immense help in adjusting to his new role.
Henderson, who was appointed to council in 2017, also said Collins helped ease his transition onto council.
“He’s been in that industry for 30 years — he’s seen a lot — so when you have someone who’s really almost a neophyte coming into it, it was very beneficial to have (Collins) to call or meet with,” Henderson said.
Collins has frequently praised Sheridan’s city staff and attributes much of the city’s productivity during his three-year tenure to staff members’ efforts.
But like many public institutions — particularly in a strong economy — the city sees significant turnover, often because staff members find jobs with higher salaries.
“We’re like a Double-A farm club,” Shafer said. “A lot of times the major leagues call up your best people and offer them more money.”
Collins said hiring and retaining staff was a constant concern while he was in Sheridan, but he thought the city did a good job of hiring judiciously, even if it meant a longer search, which resulted in new hires who were up to the task of taking over for their talented predecessors.
And he added that Sheridan itself, with the quality of life it offers and the nearby outdoor attractions, has been a powerful recruiting tool.
“Sheridan is such a phenomenal community and has so many wonderful assets — it’s education opportunities are fantastic, both K-12 and the college,” Collins said. “I think it’s an opportunity for professionals to come in and really feel comfortable to move their family and really feel rooted in the community.”
Of course, those amenities also come with a higher cost of living, and Collins said staffing will be an ongoing, and critical, concern for Sheridan’s city administrator.
“(The administrator) is only going to be as strong as the team that he or she has around them,” Collins said.
Working with council
The creation of the city administrator role was contentious in Sheridan and remained controversial during Collins’ time working for the city, controversy that culminated earlier this year with a special election that some framed as a symbolic referendum on the position.
Mayor Roger Miller, who took office shortly after Collins began as administrator, had made his opposition to the city administrator clear during his mayoral campaign and said his experience working in the city government has not changed his mind.
Since taking office, Miller said he has been consistently frustrated by the lack of input he’s had into the city’s operations.
“As far as working with the administrator, the only things I really did over the last three years is I would get once a week a meeting with the administrator to go over the (city council) agenda and I would get updates as needed,” Miller said. “…Really it was kind of a separation of the mayor from all things operational of the city.”
He noted that he was able to work with Collins on implementing council study sessions to ensure both he and the council members were informed on the various topics they would vote on at regular meetings.
“That’s something that was implemented and that’s something that did make the council and the staff work a lot better, so that was a positive thing,” Miller said.
Overall, though, Miller said he felt the role of the city administrator marginalized his input into how the city is run.
Members of city council said they had a very different experience with Collins, however.
“I found his accountability to council really pretty amazing,” Martin said. “Personally, any time I called Mark he either answered right away or got right back to me.”
For example, Martin said Collins’ help was instrumental in putting together proposals for a waste management program — which council implemented last month — that he wanted to bring before council, despite being unsure whether the programs would be effective.
“When we were going through it, honestly Mark was skeptical,” Martin said. “But he understands that his job is to execute the policies you want to see come through. He was very helpful in helping me explain that policy to council and waste diversion as a whole.”
Councilors Richard Bridger and Henderson also said Collins was approachable and quick to respond to both questions and feedback.
The city is currently working to find Collins’ successor. At a recent meeting, city Human Resources Director Heather Doke said she expects to have an interim city administrator in place by next month, at which point the city will move forward on finding Collins’ permanent replacement.
Collins said he believes all of the planning work the city undertook in the past three years will provide a good roadmap for the next administrator to items in progress and the priorities identified by elected officials.
“I think it’s going to be a matter of (the next administrator) pulling some of those planning items out and developing implementation strategies,” Collins said.
Councilors largely said they don’t see a need to assign new priorities to the next administrator and hope they will build on the foundation Collins and city staff have built and keep the city on its present course.
“There’s already a direction,” Henderson said. “…I think whoever is hired for the city administrator, I think the biggest thing they have to do is of course get to know just what’s going on, and the way to figure that out is look at the projects that are in the pipeline as well as the priorities from council’s strategic retreats.”
Bridger said he felt similarly.
“I don’t think there’s a specific priority, I would just like to see us keep moving forward,” Bridger said. “…I look forward to having a full-time city administrator back on track so we can focus on the goals we’ve set for the city and the projects we’ve set for the city.”
Miller said he sees the hiring of a new administrator as an opportunity to try and correct what he felt were communication issues.
“I think with the new administrator, we should be able to work that out so that the mayor is more informed and more asked about, what are the directions and what is the overall policy and what are we trying to accomplish together as the mayor and the administrator,” Miller said.
For his part, Collins said his decision to leave Sheridan was primarily motivated by family reasons, but he said he also wanted to return to teaching. He will be teaching classes at the University of Wyoming, the University of Colorado Denver and participating in a mentoring program for the International City Management Association.
“Those are very professionally fulfilling for me and I’m very happy to get those opportunity,” Collins said.