By Jack Mayne
James Nichols was unanimously selected Thursday night as Des Moines’ new city manager, pending usual contract negotiations.
The selection was after a five-month national search that ended with Nichols and current Des Moines Assistant City Manager Michael Mathias as the top two finalists.
Nichols has 21 years of local government experience and recently was the county manager of Douglas County, Nevada, located south of the Nevada state capitol of Carson City and adjacent to southern portions of Lake Tahoe.
Started career in Washington
Before Nevada, Nichols was assistant city manager of Midland, Texas and the deputy city manager of Las Vegas, Nevada and Goodyear, Arizona.
Nichols had his first city management jobs in Washington state for the cities of Chehalis and Olympia.
Councilmember Back said he wanted a city manager who would take Des Moines up to the next level of cities and complimented retiring City Manager Tony Piasecki.
Mayor Pro-Tem Victor Pennington said it was the first time in a “very, very long time” that the city hired an outside city manager, but particularly because the city’s residents had a part in the hiring process.
Former Mayor Kaplan said there were 37 applicants and “18 or 19 didn’t meet the minimum qualifications” but there were eight in the top tier, and four finalists that “warranted further investigation.”
He said the finalists had to go through five interview panels, including City Council’s, and the others were city department heads, city employees, a citizen’s advisory committee and community leaders.
Need ‘great communicator’
Reviewing the process, Kaplan said there were two skill sets that were needed, one being leadership and “the last and most important one is communications … we need somebody who is going to be great communicator.”
After reviewing the candidates, Kaplan said, “Jim Nichols fits the leadership and the communications skill set above all others.”
Kaplan said Nichols had a process of learning the specifics of a task or job by working with and riding along with city staff members and that during his tour of the city, he got out and talked with city staff workers.
“None of the other candidates did that,” Kaplan said, and that Nichols sat down and talked with residents at an open house, who “spoke highly of his ability to communicate.”
The councilmember also praised Assistant City Manager Michael Matthias for working on and laying a solid groundwork for economic development.
“We are really looking for some exciting leadership because that is what it is going to take … the city of Des Moines is really going to be on the map, really, really huge.”
Councilmember Melissa Musser said that during the problems the city faced in the past year that many residents believed that the mayor made all the decisions and the city needed a “great communicator that can coach the citizens” as well as being heavily involved in meeting citizens at city events and celebrations.
Mayor Matt Pina said it was “quite a journey” from the start of the city manager process to the selection of Nichols.
“We had a very strong top-end candidate pool,” Pina said, along with help and support of the advisory group, citizens and city staff.