Monroe’s new mayor takes charge

  • Thu Jan 21st, 2010 10:43pm
  • News

By Andy Rathbun Herald Writer

MONROE — The walls were bare in the new mayor’s office, outside of some push pins and nails.

“I’m not much for decorating,” Mayor Robert Zimmerman said. “Actually, to me, this is OK.”

Family pictures will go up — of his wife, Rita, and their four kids — but for now, the mayor has more pressing concerns.

Zimmerman, 44, had to hit the ground running after being sworn into office on Jan. 5. He needs to improve the budget for the cash-strapped city, find replacements for top-level directors and calm staff members anxious about his talk of “efficiencies.”

With a 20 percent margin of victory in November, Zimmerman ousted Mayor Donnetta Walser, who held the seat for eight years. He sums up his style by comparing himself to the captain of a ship: He needs to guide it to calm water, but doesn’t need to be in the engine room.

That means Zimmerman won’t be at City Hall as often as his predecessor. Practically speaking, he can’t be.

Walser often was at City Hall five days a week. Zimmerman has a full-time job as district sales manager for a manufacturing parts distributor, a role that involves traveling around the state.

He plans to visit City Hall about three times a week, relying on staff to carry out day-to-day business.

That schedule has posed no problems in Zimmerman’s first couple weeks on the job, interim city administrator Tim Quenzer said. The two men communicate daily.

“We’re in touch,” Quenzer said. “We’re e-mailing, telephone calls and the like.”

Zimmerman wants to rely on top-level directors such as Quenzer, but that plan has one big wrinkle.

The city’s staff has been stretched thin by unfilled vacancies. Some directors are wearing two or three hats, managing multiple departments until the budget can cover new hires.

Brad Feilberg, the city’s new interim finance director, is also the engineering director and the emergency services director.

Quenzer is also the police chief. Zimmerman wants Quenzer’s successor as city administrator to be public works director Gene Brazel, who also may need to double up his workload.

“It’s certainly presenting some challenges, in that learning curves are very steep right now,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman remains optimistic the budget will get relief soon. He points to the spring construction season and the development of city land along N. Kelsey Street as potential cash streams.

In case those fall through, he is talking with department heads about other “efficiencies,” a term he emphasized is “not code for cut and slash.”

“There are some things that we can do to become even leaner,” he said. “This is just preliminary information that we’re looking at. I’m not going to make any definite statements.”

While Zimmerman’s position is nonpartisan, he does not hide his conservative streak.

For instance, after taking the oath of office, he thanked the Seeds of Liberty, a local group connected to the conservative Tea Party movement.

Zimmerman said he is not opposed to taxes. Instead, he supports the careful use of those dollars. He pointed to the Monroe Family YMCA, built with public and private money, as an ideal project.

He related a recent conversation he had with a woman who said she was a liberal. Zimmerman told her that he was a conservative, and the solution to their political differences was clear.

“We work together for the betterment of this community,” he said.

The budget poses Zimmerman his biggest challenge, said Councilman Tony Balk, who holds seniority on that seven-person body.

This year’s $10.67 million general fund was balanced using a $150,000 loan from the public works department, which lies outside the general fund. The plan passed by a 4-3 margin in December.

Supporters said the loan would act as a placeholder until Zimmerman took office and made more cuts.

Balk was among the plan’s opponents. He has not always been Zimmerman’s biggest supporter. The two served together on the council for four years, and sometimes were at odds.

Still, Balk has seen signs of growth in Zimmerman. He pointed to the mayor’s willingness to listen to residents at council meetings as one example.

“At this point, let’s see how he does,” Balk said. “Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, arathbun@heraldnet.com.