Bill Nicklas is back in charge in DeKalb, a positive development for a city administration in need of some good news.
There’s a lot on the list of priorities for Nicklas as he prepares to take over – for a second time – as DeKalb’s city manager.
The city faces a budget deficit, with a raft of fee and tax increases under consideration. The state’s attorney has taken a keen interest in potential misspending of millions in tax increment financing funds over several years. The finance director is on administrative leave and is suing the city.
And so on.
Nicklas can handle this. He’s not a miracle worker, but he has a track record of handling crises, cultivating relationships between government and the business community, and helping build – or rebuild – things from the ground up.
One top priority should be to identify his successor.
Whether that person already is working in City Hall or whether they need to be hired from outside, it’s important that the next city manager join the staff as soon as possible. Let them spend some years as part of the team with Nicklas at the helm before they’re asked to lead it.
Part of the problem in DeKalb in recent years is that there has been no clear succession plan for its most important job.
The city manager is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the government. They oversee all the city departments and are responsible for hiring and firing department heads. They oversee the budget process. They ultimately are responsible for making sure the snow is plowed and the buildings are up to code.
Since Mark Biernacki departed after nine years as city manager in 2013 (and more than 20 there altogether), DeKalb has had several “interim” managers. The only full-time permanent hire was Anne Marie Gaura, who had never worked in DeKalb before.
Had there been more stability and continuity of thought at the top, DeKalb would be in better shape today. Its elected officials might be under less stress, too.
Nicklas is a fine choice for city manager. There will be many ways to gauge his future success in his second turn leading DeKalb’s government. A key metric will be if, after his departure, the city can appoint the next manager from within – without another monthslong leadership vacuum.
• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.