After months of searching and multiple closed-door meetings, the city of Topeka’s governing body Tuesday approved a contract filling the vacant city manager position.
Brent Trout, city administrator in Mason City, Iowa, will lead day-to-day city operations starting Oct. 30 with a starting salary of $195,000.
The decision, a unanimous vote, came after a less than 30-minute executive session. Councilwomen Elaine Schwartz and Karen Hiller were absent from Tuesday’s meeting, but Mayor Larry Wolgast said both approved of hiring Trout.
Trout’s three-year contract includes a city-owned vehicle, 15 days of vacation and up to $15,000 to cover moving expenses. If temporary housing is needed, the city will pay a one-time supplement of up to $3,000. The contract also stipulates that Trout will maintain a primary residency in Topeka.
“There was a good feeling that developed that he could take us forward, that he could be a leader for the council and where we are as a city,” Wolgast said.
Trout has nearly 25 years in city management. The city, in a release, touted his experience securing grants for downtown projects and overseeing renovations of the Mason City’s downtown and library. He holds degrees in public administration from Drake University.
Reached by phone Tuesday before a Mason City council meeting, Trout said he had three goals for getting started in Topeka: learning about the city’s staff and current project, identifying way the city can improve and ensuring the city moves forward with its role in the Momentum 2022 strategic plan.
“I’m very impressed with the direction the community is going,” he said. “(Topeka) has a lot of people working hard to make the community better and I’m excited to work with them.”
Trout said he planned to visit Topeka within the next month to meet with interim city manager Doug Gerber and other city leaders.
He was among five finalists for the Topeka city manager job: interim Topeka city manager Doug Gerber; Jeffrey Dingman, deputy city administrator since 2011 for Fort Smith, Ark.; Jason Gage, Salina’s city manager since 2005; and David Hales, city manager since 2008 for Bloomington, Ill.
Topeka has gone without a permanent city manager since last October when Jim Colson resigned to return to Arizona. Gerber, Topeka’s former deputy city manager, has served as interim city manager and was among candidates considered. In February, the city contracted with Keller, Texas-based Strategic Government Resources to help recruit city manager candidates.
The council met repeatedly behind closed doors to discuss the hunt for a new administrative leader. Last Tuesday, the council met for about 30 minutes, but took no action. On July 22, the body met for more than 12 hours in executive session to interview finalists. They discussed hiring a manager for nearly four hours on July 28, about 35 minutes on Aug. 8 and about an hour on July 11.
The council believed the next city manager should live within Topeka’s boundaries, councilwoman Michelle De La Isla said. Colson was criticized for vague living arrangements and Gerber has maintained a home in Silver Lake.
“I think it’s active engagement and being a part of the community he’s leading,” she said. “I think it shows the level of commitment we were looking for.”
Mason City vs. Top City
Mason City, with a population just under 30,000, sits in northern Iowa, about two hours from Des Moines and just south of the Minnesota state line. Trout has been the city administrator there since 2007 and previously worked in the smaller Iowa towns of Boone and Eagle Grove.
Managing Topeka, which has a population of nearly 130,000, will be a jump in scale and responsibility, but De La Isla voiced confidence in Trout’s ability to lead. The council considered multiple qualifications beyond city management experience, she said, and pointed to Trout’s military career. He spent nearly 30 years in the Iowa Army National Guard before retiring in 2015 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Trout deployed to Iraq in 1990 during the Gulf War and again in 2004. His career largely focused on leading logistics operations, which he equated to running a city.
“A lot of what you do in city work is handle the logistics of meeting people’s needs,” he said.
Because of Mason City’s smaller staff size, Trout said he has been responsible for “basically everything” within the city.
“It’s obviously going to be different, but I’m ready,” he said.
Trout hit the ground running 10 years ago when he came to Mason City, said Robin Anderson, president and CEO of the Mason City Area Chamber of Commerce.
At the time, Mason City was participating in a multi-million dollar statewide economic development program called Vision Iowa. In Mason City, the program involved a roughly $20 million revitalization of the historic Park Inn, a hotel designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a renovation of the city’s library, a streetscape redevelopment and the construction of a architectural interpretive center.
Though the project was underway when Trout took over as city administrator, Anderson said he led the city through its completion.
“The city was really the linchpin in that whole thing,” she said. “There was quite a lot to manage at a time when he was also just getting his feet wet in a new job.”
Trout has also worked to bring economic development to the area, Anderson said.
The Mason City council was scheduled Tuesday evening to consider a development agreement with Cargill Kitchen Solutions, that would result in $10 million investment in the company’s existing plant and add 40 new full-time jobs. Cargill employs about 240 in the city already, she said.
During Trout’s tenure, the city also joined a pilot program to improve health and well-being of Mason City residents. With the aid of a city coordinator, schools, workplaces and restaurants worked to establish healthier practices, Anderson said.
“It has moved the needle in Mason City,” she said.
Contact reporter Luke Ranker at (785) 295-1270 or @lrankerNEWS on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/lukeranker.