Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since its original publication.
A committee of city officials will interview six applicants for the city’s chief operating officer position, three of whom currently hold other positions with city government.
Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell told The Dispatch she is in the process of setting up interviews with the six candidates. She did not release their names but said the internal candidates are the city’s information technology director, the Trotter Convention Center director and a captain with Columbus Police Department. She said one of the external candidates does not reside in Columbus.
Greg Drake is the city’s IT director, and Rogena Bonner is director of the Trotter. There are two CPD captains, Anthony Nelson and Rick Jones. Nelson declined to confirm to The Dispatch whether he applied for the COO position. Jones said he did not apply.
Mitchell said at least she, Mayor Robert Smith and two council members will make up the interviewing committee, though she said it may also include other city officials, such as outgoing COO David Armstrong, who will retire at the end of June. He has been with the city since 2006.
“When we interview, we will make a recommendation on the final person (to the city council),” Mitchell said, though she added the timeline on when that recommendation would be made depends on when the applicants can interview.
She said she plans to ask Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones and Vice Mayor and Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin to join the committee. Neither of them returned messages from The Dispatch by press time.
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said they want to hire someone with administrative experience in local governments, even if that candidate is from outside Columbus.
“That’s probably one of the most important jobs that the city has, is the COO,” said Box, who will leave the council July 1 after deciding not to run for a fourth term. “I won’t say he runs this city, but he has to know something just about all the phases of it, and so I want to put somebody who’s got some experience in that job, not just somebody who has been working for the city and wants to move up.”
Mickens said the city should try to get someone with the experience level as close to Armstrong’s as possible, pointing out that Armstrong has a law degree and was a former mayor in Natchez prior to working as Columbus’ COO. Like Box, he said that candidate may need to come from outside the city.
“I’m looking for somebody that has done this,” Mickens said. “Not somebody that can learn this.”
COO duties, qualifications
The COO oversees general procedures and operations of municipal departments, with all department heads except chief financial officer and chief of police reporting to the COO. In the city’s official job description, it requires the candidate have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year college or university in business, public administration or a related field, with a preference for a candidate with a master’s in the same field. The candidate should also have at least some administrative experience.
The salary range for the position is between $70,000 and $79,000 annually.
Smith said the ideal candidate will have experience with people and finances and that he wants the “most qualified person for the position.”
“You want a person that has good people skills, good management, managerial skills, someone very familiar with finances, someone familiar with doing budgets,” he said. “Those are just some of the top priorities that hopefully we’ll be looking for.
“Every department head pretty much reports to David with the exception of the CFO and the chief of police, so that’s why … it’s very important … that whoever ends up with this position (has) a knowledge and experience as far as managing people, as far as dealing with people,” he added.
Armstrong, who previously said he wanted to be involved in the search for and training of his replacement, said he plans to sit in on the interviews if asked, though the final decision on who to select will not be his.
“I want to be very involved in it because I care who takes this position,” he said. “I’ve been in it a while.”
Armstrong said when he first started, he already had experience with operations of local government, having been Natchez mayor from 1988 to 1992 and DeSoto County administrator from 1999 to 2005. He added having a law degree has been helpful for him, though he said he always defers to City Attorney Jeff Turnage’s handling of legal matters that come up.
“You get your hands involved in a lot (as COO), everything from going out to look at clogged-up ditches to a lot of complaints of this and (trying) to put a budget together,” Armstrong said. “It’s kind of a broad spectrum. … There’s a lot of different things to do, trying to deal with the public, trying to assist the mayor as much as I can, trying to handle things so he won’t have to handle them for various reasons.”
Conflict disclosure: Managing Editor Zack Plair took part in editing this article. He is currently in legal proceedings that involve the city of Columbus, and specifically city employee Rogena Bonner, who is mentioned in this article and who previously filed an affidavit that led to Plair’s arrest. The Dispatch is funding Plair’s legal defense in the matter. Details are available in previous reporting.