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Montgomery to replace Ashcraft as Duluth city administrator

Michael Ashcraft, right, was shown the door over the weekend. David Montgomery, left, will assume the city administrator's job.

The revolving door at the Duluth city administrator's office took another spin over the weekend when Mayor Don Ness parted ways with Michael Ashcraft.

Ness said Sunday that Ashcraft has been terminated, after just eight weeks on the job, and that city Chief Financial Officer David Montgomery will take over as administrator.

Montgomery will be the fifth person to hold the job in the past two years.

Ness noted that Montgomery and Ashcraft started their jobs on the same day in May and that Montgomery emerged as better able to make more "decisive, tangible and detailed decisions."

"Dave has impressed me with his ability to move from the private to public sector ... and his ability to give specific direction to managers and set expectations," Ness said. "He's the perfect fit for the CAO position."

Ness said Ashcraft's resume and references were impressive but that "a change needed to be made."

While Ashcraft has a "strong background as a facilitator ... and with organizational leadership on a broad, theoretical level," Ness said he met with Ashcraft within one week of his arriving on the job to remind the new administrator that more specific direction was needed.

When that didn't happen, Ness said he made the move sooner rather than waiting.

"I think it's a case of his [Ashcraft's] skill set, and he is very skilled, not matching with the immediate needs of the position and the organization," Ness added. "I know some people will put me through the wood chipper over this in the coming week or so ... but it's in the best interest of the city."

There appears to be no single event or immediate issue forcing the change to be made quickly. Ness said he reached the decision last week and was going to inform city councilors and staff on Sunday, before making a public statement, but moved up the announcement as the news leaked.

Montgomery said he will handle both finance and administration for 2009, and that the chief financial officer position will not be filled until 2010.

"It wasn't something I was looking for or even thinking about. But when the mayor asked, I said I'd accept the challenge. Getting us on a budget course, the financial foundation for the city, is the key priority for either position. That's not changing," Montgomery said.

Before he was hired as Duluth's CFO in April, Montgomery served in the same role for the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis and, before that, for Advanstar Communication in Duluth.

In a statement released through the city, Ashcraft said he appreciated his time in Duluth.

"Unfortunately, it was not the right fit and I understand the decision to go a different direction," he said. "I will think fondly upon my time in Duluth. I wish the Mayor, Council and City staff the best in their efforts."

Ashcraft had been on the job only since May when he replaced Mark Winson, who left to return to teaching.

Winson, in his second stint in the position, had been on the job only since February when he replaced Lisa Potswald, who now holds another city position.

Potswald had been on the job only one year. She took the job from John Hall, a holdover from Mayor Herb Bergson's administration, who worked shortly under Ness. Hall had replaced Winson, who had been fired by Bergson.

Ashcraft came to Duluth from Kansas, where he was a consultant for a market research company and, before that, was former deputy city manager for Olathe, Kan. He had been a finalist for the city job in 2008 when Ness ultimately picked Potswald, a St. Louis County official.

When Winson left on short notice earlier this year, Ness opted for Ashcraft.

"I'll take responsibility for this and for having high expectations of my managers, with the highest of the administrator. But I don't think they are unreasonable expectations." Ness said. "And I think there's been a unique dynamic in each case. This isn't the same problem re-occurring."

Some councilors surprised

City councilors reached Sunday night were divided, with some surprised and others saying Ashcraft

didn't seem to quite fit with Ness.

"Mike Ashcraft is an absolute gem. He's hardworking and personable and dedicated. But it was clear he wasn't working out for the mayor," said Jim Stauber, At Large city councilor. "Sometimes you just don't know until you actually work alongside someone for some time."

Stauber praised Ness' choice of Montgomery for the administrative roll, saying the financial officer has worked well with the councilor and has performed well. "It's a great choice. He'll do a great job," Stauber said of Montgomery.

Councilor Gary Krause said he had no indication that Ashcraft wasn't working out and said two months may not have been enough time to learn the job. "Transitions take time and I kind of wish the mayor would have given him six months to adjust," Krause said.

Todd Fedora, 1st District councilor, said he "was absolutely taken by surprise" at the news and hadn't seen any problems with Ashcraft.

The mayor officially will need the approval of the City Council to get rid of Ashcraft, probably at the July 27 council meeting, and for approval of Montgomery's new contract. After Bergson fired Winson in 2005 by posting a note on Winson's office door, Duluth voters changed the city charter to require council approval before terminating the chief administrative officer.

Stauber said the council isn't likely to stop Ness from hiring his choice.

"We all realize that the mayor has to have a CAO that meets his needs," Stauber said, adding that Ness has been "humbled" by going to a fifth administrator in just over two years. "He's [Ness] a little bit young and hasn't run a business with 800 plus people before. ... He might not have known what he needs or may have thought he needed something that he didn't."