Traverse City News and Events

Five Candidates Interviewed for City Manager: Highlights

By Beth Milligan | Sept. 8, 2023

Five candidates – two from Traverse City, two from other Michigan communities, and one from Iowa – interviewed Thursday for the position of city manager, Traverse City’s top leadership position. The all-day marathon for candidates included 40-minute interviews with the entire city commission, rapid-fire one-on-one meetings with individual commissioners, and a reception in which all candidates were invited to mingle with each other, city staff/officials, and the public. The Ticker has background details on each candidate and key highlights from their interviews – with city commissioners set to meet Monday at 7pm to decide next steps or potentially choose a hire.

Candidates are presented in the order they were interviewed Thursday. Commissioners were each allowed to ask questions of their choosing in a round-robin interview format; not all candidates were asked the same questions, though there was frequent overlap in topics. Biographical information was compiled by Amy Cell Talent, a consulting firm hired to lead commissioners through the city manager search process.

Candidate 1: Elizabeth Vogel
Bio: Elizabeth Vogel has served as the administrator and chief financial officer for Missaukee County since 2021, where she oversees the preparation of the annual county budget, creates and annually updates the six-year capital improvement plan, supervises nine county departments, and is responsible for determining the strategy for the bargaining and administration of labor agreements. Vogel previously served as the deputy supervisor for Clinton Township. She is a graduate of Albion College and has a Master of Arts from Loyola University and a Master of Business Administration from Baker College. She is also an International City/County Management Association Credentialed Manager. Vogel is a member of the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club.

Interview Highlights: Working in local government for 10 years has helped Vogel realize public service is her “vocation,” she told commissioners. With two history degrees under her belt, Vogel humorously said she was “born a nerd” and loves research, including “looking at a subject from every angle.” That tendency – plus the belief that employees at all levels in an organization “bring something to the table” – prompts Vogel to extensively study issues and involve staff to help commissioners make well-informed decisions, she said. Vogel said she didn’t believe in making “change for the sake of change” without the support of good data, saying her initial approach as city manager wouldn’t be to immediately start altering policies or systems but to first build trust with staff.

When asked how she handles mistakes, Vogel said “bad news doesn’t get better with age. You need to be really transparent...I never point the finger. I think it’s very important that staff knows we’re all in this together.” Ultimately, “the buck stops” with the city manager, Vogel said. Community involvement is vital; Vogel said she recently joined Michigan’s Creative Coast and would become a Traverse City Rotarian if hired, as well as attend township and other surrounding municipal meetings to build relationships. While “tourism is the lifeblood of northern Michigan,” Vogel said it was important to also prioritize the concerns of year-round residents. If they don’t feel heard, “small issues can become big issues,” she said. “There is frustration when you see growth, growth, growth...I think you need to be sensitive to the people that are nervous or fearful of too much growth.”

In response to the city’s looming employment crisis – one-third of city employees will become eligible for retirement in the next five years – Vogel said that “succession planning is one of the most important things in any organization” but that the “public sector is really bad at it...you need to start getting ahead of it.” That includes involving current employees in planning for their future replacements and modernizing job descriptions as needed, she said. In addition to those internal challenges, Vogel said she hoped to work with community partners on complex issues like addressing housing and homelessness. As a student pilot, ceramics artist, and skier, Vogel said that practicing self-care and having outside interests helps create a healthy antidote to high-stress positions like the city manager. “I have bad days, I’m human...but motivates me is to get the hard work done, because in the end it’s worth it,” she said.

Candidate 2: Benjamin Marentette
Bio: Benjamin Marentette has served as city clerk of Traverse City since 2011, where he strategizes on organizational and public policy and direction, exercises financial oversight of over $150 million annually in financial disbursements, serves as chief election officer, and analyzes the city’s legal landscape and operational risk. He previously served as Traverse City’s deputy city clerk and as the Recreational Authority executive director for Traverse City and Garfield Township. Marentette is a graduate of Spring Arbor University and has a Master of Business Administration from Lawrence Technological University. He also has a Public Leadership Credential from Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a member of the Election Policy Working Group, a trustee and treasurer for Rotary Charities of Traverse City, and an advisor on the national election administration 2023 with the Pew Charitable Trusts Election Trust Initiative.

Interview Highlights: Noting that he has essentially served his “entire career in public service,” Marentette told commissioners that working in government “is an absolute calling. I’ve loved it. I love helping people. I love looking for opportunities to optimize, to level up, and to better serve people.” Beyond serving in a “key leadership capacity with a variety of responsibilities” for over a decade in Traverse City, Marentette said he has actively “worked to step out of these four walls” by pursuing national leadership training opportunities. “I can’t stand being stale,” he said. “I crave new knowledge and relationships and different ways of thinking.”

Marentette said one of his primary goals is to see Traverse City develop an “actionable strategic plan” that would outline a 10, 15, or 20-year vision for the city, helping align the city’s financial resources with its goals. “It needs to be an alive, constantly updated strategic plan” heavily shaped by public input, he said. Marentette also said he strongly believes the city needs “to have long-term financial forecasting,” which many other municipalities utilize. Having a “north star that guides our effort and our energy and our resources” will ensure Traverse City moves in an “intentional, thoughtful direction” and “bring people together,” he said.

Addressing city staffing issues could require offering more flexibility in positions, like hybrid or remote work arrangements, in addition to head-hunting and getting creative with recruiting approaches, Marentette said. As city manager, Marentette would prioritize a culture “rooted in feedback.” He said he dislikes the phrase “stay in your lane,” preferring instead an environment of “innovation” and “continuous optimization.” Marentette said he aims to listen to others “with a capacity to be changed...taking into account all of the perspectives.” Pointing out that he was already well-accustomed to the pressures of city politics, Marentette described himself as a “steady” hand at the wheel who would pour his “heart and mind” into the role. “I have had some pretty incredible opportunities professionally, and I’ve turned them down because I’ve been interested in serving this community in this capacity,” he said. “I’m not perfect, but I would bring my best self to it.”

Candidate 3: Christian Wuerth
Bio: Christian Wuerth has served as Milford’s village manager in Michigan since 2014, where he manages daily operations, capital and long-range planning, resource management, and labor relations, plus provides administrative leadership for a community of 6,520 with a $16.8 million budget. Wuerth previously served as assistant to the city manager for the City of Birmingham, Michigan, as well as a management analyst for the City of Birmingham. He is a graduate of Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Public Affairs. Wuerth is currently a member of the International City/County Management Association, president-elect of the Michigan Municipal Executives, Transportation, Infrastructure, and Technology Policy Committee member for the Michigan Municipal League, and a board member for the Carls Family YMCA, Huron Valley Chamber of Commerce, and Huron Valley Community Coalition.

Interview Highlights: Few communities have tempted Wuerth to consider leaving Milford, he told commissioners, having been happily ensconced in his position as village manager there for the last decade. Traverse City is one of the few opportunities he’s felt “could really meet that bar,” he said. Though Wuerth said he got into public service “accidentally” – starting as an intern with the City of Birmingham – it has since become “my calling in life,” he said. “I love working to build a stronger community. And I think I have done that everywhere I have stopped along my career, and I would love the opportunity to help do that here.”

Wuerth said much of the role of city manager can be “boiled down” to making sure elected officials have the right information to comfortably make decisions and that staff have the resources to carry out those decisions. “A lot of times, the right decision isn’t necessarily the most popular decision,” he noted. “Building trust” from day one with staff will be a key focus, he said, pointing out that local governments across the country are struggling to find employees, including in their police and fire departments. Investing in professional development and training and encouraging staff to obtain new skills and certifications “starts to build our bench up over time,” he said.

Wuerth said he believes in a “family-first” approach to life,” adding that a “work-life balance is important to the work that we do in local government.” Given that employees are subjected to “some very high-stress situations that require a lot of fast thinking,” making sure they feel valued, that their city manager is visible and accessible to them, and that “everybody feels comfortable around everybody else” is important, he said. Traverse City isn’t going to solve complex issues like housing and homelessness on its own, Wuerth said, pointing out that other organizations are doing “really incredible things throughout the community” to address those issues and that he’d look for ways to partner on – and not duplicate – those efforts.

Candidate 4: Jessica Kinser
Bio: Jessica Kinser most recently served as the city administrator for the City of Marshalltown, Iowa, where she worked with the mayor and seven city council members to develop and implement the city’s strategic plan, managed seven departments, and developed the five-year capital improvement plan. Kinser previously served as the city administrator for the City of Clinton, Iowa, the finance director/assistant city administrator for Clinton, and the city administrator for the City of Griswold, Iowa. Kinser is a graduate of Iowa State University and has a Master of Public Administration from Iowa State University. She is a member of the Marshalltown Rotary Club, the International City/County Management Association, and the Iowa State University Alumni Association, plus a board member of the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool and a committee member on the Professional Development Committee for the Iowa City/County Management Association.

Interview Highlights: Quoting Extreme Government Makeover – a popular book about improving government processes – Kinser said public employees “live to serve, and we should do it spectacularly.” That motto has influenced her leadership approach, which prioritizes focusing on common areas of interest to build consensus and looking at a wide range of viewpoints and possibilities when making decisions or recommendations. “I think the culture that I provide is...one of caring, generosity, thinking about others,” she said. “Honesty is a big thing with me...the more honest conversations that we can have with each other, the more we can all grow together.”

Kinser acknowledged she might have a “learning curve” coming into the city manager position as an Iowa resident compared to the other four Michigan-based candidates, but also said she’s a “hands-on” researcher adept at tapping into resources and learning new information. She noted she has 13 years of “proven management experience” – including working in disaster response situations in Marshalltown – and embraces a “spirit of working for the community” in whatever position she holds. “Every community has its challenges,” she says. “I’m a fast learner. I am quick to pick up things, and I am excited to learn about Traverse City and to find how I can fit in here and help move the organization and the community forward.”

Kinser espoused an optimistic view of the role of government in people’s lives, as well as an inherent goodness she believes resides in individuals who ultimately want the best for each other and their community. “One of the things I just love about government...is you get to take on really big projects that can change your community, and you see the impact of that,” she said. “That’s where I really thrive.”

Candidate 5: Christopher Forsyth
Bio: Christopher Forsyth has served as deputy county administrator for Grand Traverse County since 2018, where he is responsible for reviewing and drafting a wide range of policies, rules, resolutions, ordinances, ballot proposals, and agenda action items. He also leads special projects, including the county’s efforts to best use $4.6 million in settlement funds from national opioid litigation. Forsyth previously served as deputy civil counsel for Grand Traverse County. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan and obtained his Juris Doctor from Wayne State University. Forsyth is a member of the Local Government Advisory Team for the Michigan Department of Treasury, a Government Law Section Officer for the Governing Council, and a past chair for the Municipal Law Section of the Oakland County Bar Association.

Interview Highlights: Forsyth credited Grand Traverse County Administrator Nate Alger in modeling a “servant leadership” approach that has shaped how he thinks about public service. “Servant leadership really centers around – you look at that org chart, and you turn it upside down,” he said. “The city manager is not at the top. The city manager is really at the bottom.” The goal of the position is to help all the other roles in the chart be successful, Forsyth said.

Forsyth said it’s important to “set clear expectations” in the workplace, to acknowledge mistakes and ask for forgiveness when they’re made, to avoid injecting politics into decision-making whenever possible, and to use a data-driven approach to making recommendations. He said he prioritizes candor and honesty, even if it means telling a commissioner or constituent an idea isn’t pragmatic or possible. “I have that reputation for being a straight shooter,” he said. “My reputation is everything, and I do value that.”

Forsyth said he operates by two simple principles: “Be kind and be brave.” Being brave may mean making an unpopular decision if the data supports it and city leadership believes it’s the right one, he said. However, the city can also minimize unpopular decisions by prioritizing consensus-building, he said. Forsyth said many of the skills and experiences he’s learned at the county will translate to the city, from working on mental health and employee wellness initiatives to collaborating on regional projects to modernizing operations. He said he was “adept at turning plans into action” and could “hit the ground running” for the city without facing a steep learning curve. “You’ve developed very well-crafted, thought-out strategic goals and objectives,” he said. “Now let’s do the work.”

Pictured: Top row, left to right: Benjamin Marentette, Christopher Forsyth, Elizabeth Vogel; bottom row, left to right: Jessica Kinser, City of Traverse City logo, Christian Wuerth

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