Coleman one step closer
Council votes to start negotiations for city manager job
Tom Coleman is one step closer to becoming Newark’s city manager.
City council on Tuesday voted 5-2 to enter into contract negotiations with Coleman, who has served as acting city manager since May 2017.
“It’s the best decision for the city,” Councilwoman Jen Wallace said.
“Overwhelmingly, I’ve heard from constituents who are in favor of moving forward with Tom.”
Tuesday’s vote was the latest step in the lengthy process of replacing former city manager Carol Houck, but it did not come without controversy.
After 45 minutes of closed-door deliberations, council emerged for a tense vote.
Councilman Chris Hamilton repeated his previous argument that council should do another nationwide search. An earlier search turned up two finalists, both of whom were rejected by council in July. When council members voted to reopen the search process last month, they opened it only to Coleman.
“Tom may be the best thing, but we don’t know that. We don’t know who else is out there,” Hamilton said. “It’s our responsibility to cast as wide a net as possible.”
He said council “mucked up” the first search by going against the recommendations of the city’s consultant and putting parameters on the search, though he declined to elaborate because the discussions were held in executive session.
Hamilton was joined in opposition by Councilman Mark Morehead.
Morehead said his vote shouldn’t be seen as a vote against Coleman but rather a vote in favor of a broader search, one that could include Coleman as a candidate.
“If he were to rise to the top of a broader pool, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Morehead said.
Council will now engage in contract negotiations with Coleman and is expected to discuss the contract Dec. 10.
As acting city manager, Coleman earns $153,191 per year, slightly more than Houck was earning. He also received a $10,000 bonus in August.
Coleman initially did not apply for the permanent job but had a change of heart after council rejected both of the finalists in July.
“At the time, I didn’t think it was something I would be interested in long-term, but over the last 18 months, I’ve had an opportunity to work with even more employees here at the city, over in the police department, the electric department and the planning and development folks,” Coleman explained Monday night. “You get an attachment to the projects and get invested in their success. I want to stay on and give it my best to make sure all those projects are successful.”
Coleman makes his case for earning the job
When council opened the search process to Coleman, it decided to require him to go through much of the same interview process as previous finalists went through this summer, including a public question-and-answer session and a presentation to department heads.
In a 25-minute public meeting Monday, Coleman answered questions written by city council and asked by a consultant flown in from Illinois. The approximately 20 people who attended – about half of whom were city employees – could watch but were not permitted to ask questions or make comments.
Residents had just 16 hours after the end of the meeting to submit written feedback for city council’s consideration.
Coleman said during the meeting that he never envisioned a career in public service but was unsatisfied after several years in the private sector.
“There was something missing,” the 2004 University of Delaware graduate said. “It didn’t feel as rewarding as I expected.”
Coleman joined the city in May 2011 as assistant director of water and wastewater. In 2012, the Public Works and Water Resources Department was formed, and he served as deputy director for two years before being promoted to department director in March 2014.
Coleman said the most important job for the city manager is to provide city council with accurate, complete information to make decisions.
“As soon as staff gets in a position where people start to think they’re not providing the whole picture and only providing the parts of the data that support their objective, that means you’ve lost the public’s support and trust, and it will be very hard to get that back,” he said. “One thing I’ve tried to focus on is providing good data and providing my thought process behind a decision.”
Coleman calls for ‘smart development’
Coleman’s presentation to department heads was closed to the public, but the city released video of part of it. During the presentation, he said the city’s biggest challenge is the growth of the University of Delaware and its abrupt decision to close the Christiana Towers, which will eliminate 1,300 beds for students.
“If we don’t work with the university and our private developers to provide housing for these students, they’re going to flood into our neighborhoods, displace residents, drive up competition for those homes or, worse yet, move outside the city and commute by car because they won’t be able to walk, bike or take a bus to campus. That’s going to worsen our traffic problem, which I think most people will agree is already pretty bad,” he said.
He said the city needs to focus on “smart development” that gives the city a return on its infrastructure investment and “make it easy for developers to come in and develop where we want them to develop, as long as they build want we want in those areas.”
He noted the city’s planning commission is working on a proposal to upzone the area around Haines, Benny and South Chapel streets to allow higher density development in an area where student housing is already prevalent.
“If we can provide [UD] the housing they need for their students close to campus, where kids can walk, bike and get on a UD bus to get to campus, that will be a good thing for the city,” Coleman said. “We’ll have more residents, more people to share that infrastructure cost burden across, and it will help prevent them from moving into our neighborhoods, crowding out residents and negatively impacting the lifestyles of our current residents.”
He called UD’s STAR Campus the best opportunity facing any city in Delaware, but noted it also presents challenges. He said he plans to hold a public meeting to discuss what the community wants to see there and then work with council to develop a list of recommendations to provide to UD officials.
“We need to make sure that anything that gets built down there is complementary to the city and not in competition,” he said. “I know people have expressed some concerns that we’re going to have, basically, two main streets, one downtown and one on STAR Campus.”
Acting City Manager Tom Coleman talks about his interest in taking on the role permanently during a public meeting on Monday.