Carter says it's time to go
The Vince Lombardi of city managers is leaving.
City managers, like football coaches, are hired to be fired.
That's why Steve Carter's 28-year run as Champaign's city manager is so remarkable. It's a testament to his skill as a manager, his ability to work with all kinds of people and his dedication to the community.
But all good things must end. That's why Carter's announcement that he'll retire in March comes as no great surprise, although it poses a big problem for the city's elected officials.
They'll be filling big shoes and, frankly, history shows that even the best-laid plans for a search process are no guarantee of making a good selection. No matter if it's at the University of Illinois or local and state governments, job searches are crapshoots that all too frequently result in bad hires.
No one is irreplaceable, but ...
What is it about Carter that made him such an effective city manager? Previous city managers found themselves drawn into political battles among the elected officials they served and came to be identified with one side or another. When Gene Miller was Champaign's city manager, it seemed that he perpetually faced a council divided on the merits of his continued tenure.
Carter avoided that dilemma, and the only explanation can be that he was viewed by council members of different viewpoints as a neutral arbiter of city policy. He set out alternative approaches to municipal issues and indicated his preferences while at the same time making it clear that the final decision rested with the eight council members and the mayor.
That's a fine line to walk, but Carter did so with apparent ease.
Carter also presided over a vigorous response to a variety of city problems, everything from the continuing renaissance of the downtown area to more intractable issues related to low-income housing, flooding, capital development and the budget shortfalls of recent years. He acquired talented subordinates to run various city departments and emphasized the importance of customer service and financial stability.
In short, Carter was just about everything elected city officials want in their professional manager. Everyone, of course, would prefer he stay. But the 66-year-old Carter has made his decision to go, and now the mayor and council members must decide how they will go about hiring a successor.