Mark Alexander Jr.’s original plan when he agreed in July to become Columbus’ interim chief operations officer was to work, for free, through Sept. 30.
By then, the city would have its budget approved for next fiscal year, which starts Thursday. By then, the new administration planned to be well on its way to implementing an effective and efficient operational gameplan.
Things haven’t gone exactly as expected.
Chief Financial Officer Deliah Vaughn resigned this month to take a job in West Point. In mid-September, Alexander discovered a $1.5 million budgeting error that forced the council to approve a budget significantly trimmed down from the original draft — slashing plans to purchase needed equipment and address long-deferred facilities maintenance.
So when Thursday comes, Alexander will continue doing what he has been for the last three months. Not indefinitely. He’s very clear that he does not plan to become the permanent COO.
But when asked how much longer he will stay, he doesn’t have a hard-set date like he once did.
“I’m ready to go now,” he told The Dispatch on Thursday. “We have to get over the hump of additional issues that have come up that need to be resolved. As a citizen, the operational dysfunction of the city is so much worse than what I would have imagined. … I’m not going to leave the city in the lurch.”
That dysfunction, Alexander said, is driven by an ongoing battle with “reactive” policies and attitudes from the past that are bogging down the new administration’s long-term planning efforts.
“It’s like you’re living with a foot in both worlds,” he said. “The day-to-day things still have to get done. So you’re having to deal with those things that are all done in the reactive way they have been done for years, all while trying to come up with proactive, forward-thinking plans.”
Alexander wants to have some of those plans at least somewhat formed by the time a new COO starts — whenever and whoever that will be. But before the city even advertises that job opening, it may redefine it.
New organization structure
Mayor Keith Gaskin, who took office July 1, is crafting a plan he said would revamp the city’s organizational structure and make the COO job more attractive to highly qualified candidates.
He said Friday he has a tentative agreement with Mike Bernsen to serve as interim CFO and would meet with Bernsen Monday to iron out the details. The council must approve his appointment.
Bernsen previously served as the city’s CFO before moving to the same position at Columbus Light and Water. If appointed, he will maintain his role at CLW while also assisting the city, Gaskin said.
While Gaskin said last week the interim CFO would “likely stay through the end of the year,” the mayor’s new organizational structure, which the council also must approve, would not include a dedicated CFO position. That slot would be replaced with a treasurer/clerk position and much of the chief financial duties folded into the COO’s responsibilities.
Gaskin wants to raise the pay for COO to the $120,000 to $125,000 range, hoping to attract someone with experience as a certified public accountant who can take a more prominent role in supervising the city’s finances. That pay is a more than 50-percent increase from former COO David Armstrong’s salary of $79,800.
“What I’ve been told is that in the past they didn’t want to put the COO’s salary above the mayor’s, and I think that’s ridiculous,” Gaskin said. “The bottom line is if you want your city to run efficiently and effectively, you’ve got to have someone in that role who is well experienced and has the credentials to do that work. So that’s my goal.”
Downgrading the CFO slot (Vaughn’s salary was $75,000) to a clerk position will fund part of the pay bump for COO, Gaskin said. He also does not plan to replace Brenda Williams, who retired as city registrar and action center coordinator June 30.
Under Gaskin’s plan, coordinating city elections will also fall under the COO’s purview, and the mayor’s executive assistant Angela Jones is already running the action center — where citizens can call with complaints or concerns.
Gaskin said he plans to provide the council and the public his full organizational chart proposal by Oct. 11. While he didn’t offer any more specifics, he said it would revise positions and reporting structure in several city departments.
“(We’re wanting to make) City Hall more transparent and running more efficiently financially,” he said. “In order to do that, you need to take a hard assessment of the entire structure of the city to make sure the right people are in the right positions and that the departments are running effectively.”
Timeline for Alexander’s departure, new COO
Once the council approves the new organizational structure, or at least the new job description and pay range for COO, Gaskin plans to begin advertising for the COO job as soon as possible.
In the meantime, he said, the COO search has been anything but stagnant.
“Just because we haven’t advertised the position yet doesn’t mean we aren’t actively seeking qualified candidates to apply,” Gaskin said. “The assumption should be that we are being very proactive in trying to recruit qualified candidates for that role.”
As for when Alexander is leaving, that’s “to be determined.”
“When he came on board as interim, we had discussed a three-to-six-month time period,” Gaskin said. “He would rather be gone sooner rather than later.”
Gaskin noted Alexander is “doing an excellent job” and that several city leaders would like to see him stay on full-time, even though Alexander is not a CPA.
Vice Mayor Joseph Mickens, who represents Ward 2 on the city council, is among that number. He has twice told The Dispatch on the record he would support appointing Alexander to the permanent role. Last week, he said he “would vote five times for it” if he thought it would convince him.
“That’s very unlikely,” Gaskin said of Alexander staying. “It’s not going to happen. He has a business he needs to run and a family he wants to spend time with, and as you can imagine the COO job is very time consuming.”a
Still, he doesn’t see Alexander leaving until a permanent COO is in place.
“He says he’s not going to leave us until we are prepared for a replacement,” Gaskin said. “So I’m working toward getting that in place.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.