Our Views: Leadership qualities help Col. Mark Freitag seize Janesville city manager post

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Monday, August 26, 2013

City employees will take their marching orders from a military man after the city council named Col. Mark Freitag as our new city manager.

Saturday's announcement surprised observers who expected Acting City Manager Jay Winzenz to move up. Some residents even suggested the city was wasting time and money on a nationwide search when Winzenz would get the job. When an organization is looking to fill its top job, it's great to have a strong internal candidate. It's wise, however, to conduct a search and gauge who else might be available and make that candidate compete. You would open yourself to criticism by not doing so. If the in-house person rises to the top, it confirms he or she is the best choice.

In such a scenario, an outsider would have to possess special qualities to win out. The council must have seen these in Freitag.

Freitag has no experience in city management but holds a master's degree in management. Stationed in Alaska, he says he held the equivalent of a city manager's position as garrison commander at Fort Hood, Texas, from 2010-12. He made sure streets, utilities and facilities were in good order for 90,000 residents and about 400,000 others who lived nearby. He had 5,500 employees and a $400 million budget. In comparison, Janesville's operating budget is about $43 million. He said when he reflects on his career, he was happiest at Fort Hood.

Freitag comes across as likeable and even humble, not the hard-driving military officer you might imagine. He was matter-of-fact in his answers to a citizens committee that interviewed five finalists and advised the council. He didn't suggest he knows everything about managing a city but noted his success in military assignments.

Given the many hours the council spent interviewing and deliberating Friday and Saturday in closed sessions, it appears the decision was a tough one. The council did, however, vote unanimously for Freitag in open session Saturday without comment.

On Sunday, council President Kathy Voskuil said the council considered all the input from committees, residents and city staff throughout the search and interview process. She said Freitag's leadership success and growing responsibilities throughout his 25-year military career struck a chord. She believes he will take a strong city staff to the next level and connect easily with the community.

Freitag, she noted, has been part of team approaches and understands relationship building and growing teams to solve problems. Freitag led creation of a vision plan for Fort Hood, and Voskuil said earlier the council wants to craft a similar plan for the city. Perhaps the council senses he could take us in a new direction.

At Fort Hood, Freitag used Facebook to communicate and get feedback. He held regular meetings with neighborhoods and brown-bag lunches with employee groups. His abilities to connect with and engage people no doubt appealed to the council.

Still, his hiring is a bit of a gamble, given that Winzenz is a proven commodity who learned under the contrasting styles of our last two city managers. Winzenz impresses us as levelheaded and confident. He led a team that created a reasonable incentive package for a Seneca Foods expansion with public works that could entice more food processors.

Winzenz has stressed that he's invested in the community and plans to stay regardless of whether he got the manager's job. The Freitag choice no doubt is a bitter pill for him, but we hope he does stick around. He has the economic development and city budgeting background that Freitag lacks. Together, they could make a great team to lead Janesville forward.

Pending details on a contract, Freitag is expected to finish his military separation within 60 days and start work here Dec. 1. He says he and his wife, Patty, want to settle in the Midwest after decades of the nomadic military life. We hope their stay is long and successful, and we look forward to getting to know him better.

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