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Merced City Council may reveal new city manager at next meeting

The person who will lead Merced through one of its worst economic crunches will likely be revealed at the next City Council meeting, Mayor Ellie Wooten said Friday.

The pick is going through a background check, which should conclude well before the council’s Sept. 15 meeting, she said.

“You want to know how the guy’s done in the past,” Wooten said. “I think it’s a wise thing to do. This person will have a lot of power in the city.”

The decision will be the most critical one made by the council this year because the new city manager will be grappling with a tight budget that may need to be reworked whenever the state approves a spending plan.

Whoever is hired will be tested at the start, as an internal memo from Interim City Manager Jim Marshall warns that more jobs may need to be frozen since the city is collecting less in sales tax and building permits than expected.

It’s unclear at this point whether the next city manager will be at the meeting, she said, which points to the possibility that the candidate isn’t from the immediate area.

The background check all but rules out Bill Cahill, Merced’s assistant city manager since 2001, as succeeding Marshall.

The council had narrowed the search to three candidates in early August and seemed poised to make an announcement within weeks. However, it has continued to meet behind closed doors, even on a Saturday two weeks ago and during Tuesday night’s meeting, to discuss hiring a city manager.

Wooten said the delay was caused by the council's last-minute decision to have a background check done. She declined to name who’s looking into the candidate’s past, only saying that it’s neither the city nor the consultant.

During interviews with candidates, the council looked at how well they work with others, their knowledge of technical city issues and their attitude toward the job, Mayor Pro Tem John Carlisle said.

The council, he said, wants someone who can guide Merced out of the dark tunnel lined with foreclosures and unemployment into the light of economic prosperity.

“What we need is someone who can continue with the positive things,” he explained. “We are at the top of a lot of ‘worst’ lists.”

Merced’s City Council, with the help of a professional headhunter, has been seeking a new city manager since March, two months after Jim Marshall announced his retirement. He’s led the city since 1992, a remarkably long stretch.

Most city managers don’t last that long because the politics of the city council, which hires and fires them, are constantly changing.

Since retiring, Marshall has been working on an interim basis and earning an hourly wage of $113.49. His top yearly salary as city manager was $171,653.

Since adopting the interim status, Marshall seems to have become more frank. He sent a memo to all employees Aug. 21 telling them that the city isn’t collecting as much revenue as anticipated. He encouraged employees working in departments where funding is shaky and tied to growth to consider more stable jobs within the city should they become open. Many more positions need to be frozen, he noted.

“You are valued employees and we want to protect you and your family,” Marshall wrote. “However, you must also be aware and be prepared to take the initiative to fully consider your options also.”