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Departures mount for city directors

Springfield officials have yet to name successors for three open positions

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Three department directors have left the city of Springfield in as many months.

The departments affected by the vacancies are Building Development Services, Emergency Communications and Workforce Development.

Each position has been upheld by an interim director, though no permanent replacements have been found for the three jobs, according to city spokeswoman Cora Scott.

Two director jobs opened last year – in moves by Mary Ann Rojas and Zim Schwartze – and Harlan Hill represents the third, this year.

“We have over 20 departments, and it’s not uncommon to be in transition with more than one director,” said City Manager Jason Gage. “We look forward to … getting those positions filled permanently and moving forward.”

From city to nonprofit
The most recent exit was Harlan Hill, the Building Development Services director for the past two years. Hill accepted a job as CEO of Eden Village immediately after leaving his post with the city on Feb. 14. The city did not issue an announcement upon his departure.

Hill stepped into the newly created position for The Gathering Tree nonprofit’s program Feb. 17 as the tiny home development concept for the homeless seeks to grow to a national level. He assumed the position after giving his two-week notice to the city, he said.

Hill said he’s responsible for overseeing the development of Eden Village projects as they’re built across the country, as well as day-to-day operations locally. He previously served as a staff architect for six years at Ozarks Technical Community College.

“It meets my convictions for serving and helping others less fortunate,” Hill said of the new position. “They also have a need for an individual with my design and construction experience to help assist and advise these other communities in development.”

Eden Village Chief Operating Officer Nate Schlueter said he and Hill have been working to license the Eden Village model to interested organizations. The local nonprofit also is coaching groups through the fundraising and land rezoning processes, Schlueter said.

Officials from 26 cities have inquired about the tiny home developments, and Eden Village recently has hosted people from Little Rock, Arkansas; Jackson, Texas; and Lakeland, Florida.

“People are coming to our city for days at a time to get help,” Schlueter said. “In some of these cities, homelessness is growing quicker than they can do anything about.”

Schlueter said a 36-unit project is underway in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Organizations that license the concept pay a one-time fee, followed by monthly payments per occupied unit once the development is operational. Schlueter said the fee amounts are based on the size and scope of the project. The Eden Village of Wilmington organizers paid a one-time fee of $10,000, Schlueter said. The group’s monthly payments will be $20 per occupied unit, which will give the group access to marketing materials, employee training and website development from the Springfield team.

A second local Eden Village is being built near Chestnut Expressway and West Bypass at 3155 W. Brower St., and Schlueter expects the project to be completed by October. The first, a 31-unit housing project, is fully occupied at 2801 E. Division St.

Hill declined to disclose his current salary but noted it was a “significant cut” from his $114,000 compensation with the city. Schlueter said Eden Village’s 2020 operating budget is $300,000.

Deputy City Manager Maurice Jones was brought on as interim BDS director as the city conducts a search for Hill’s permanent successor. Jones, who’s been with the city for one year, could not be reached for comment by press time.

Gage, who started working at the city in 2018, said the BDS director position has not yet been posted, and the city is taking a look at the department structure as the budgeting process for the next year begins. He said he does not anticipate making any employee cuts at this time.

“It’s not uncommon when you have a vacancy to call a quick timeout, take a look if the structure is good and tweak it a little bit,” he said, declining to comment further.

Prior to his exit from the city, Hill said BDS ran into issues in 2018 implementing eCity, a cloud-based software for the permit application and review process. He said only about 20% of contractors currently are utilizing eCity.

In 2019, Hill told Springfield Business Journal that BDS lost roughly a fourth of its 32-person staff during the eCity implementation.

Hill declined to comment on whether the difficulty with eCity factored into his exit.

Moving away
The other two directors to leave their posts moved out of Springfield.

Mary Ann Rojas, former director of Workforce Development, retired in December 2019 and cited plans to return to Texas to spend more time with family.

Rojas said she made the city aware of her planned retirement a year in advance.

“Senior-level positions require due diligence … and I had a broad range of responsibility,” she said, noting that she also made the Workforce Development Board and the Council of Local Elected Officials aware of her plans to retire months in advance.

During her time with the city, Rojas helped lead the Missouri Job Center. She also was credited with leading the city’s Change 1000 initiative and the Momentum State of the Workforce survey.

Days after Rojas’ retirement was announced by the city, an audit requested by employees at the city’s Workforce Development and Finance departments was released that found the city had issued grant funding to ineligible students. The city received a $3 million U.S. Department of Labor America’s Promise grant in 2016 that was slated for use through 2020 to provide free education to students in high-demand fields. The audit found 28% of participants were ineligible for the grants.

Rojas said the audit was not related to her retirement.

Springfield Workforce Development Assistant Director Sally Payne, who’s worked for the city since 2008, was named the interim director.

“It was extremely easy and seamless for our department,” Payne said of the transition. “The community and the city have been so supportive.”

Gage said the Workforce Development director position has not yet been posted, but he anticipates the search for a permanent replacement to be underway soon. Payne declined to comment if she planned to apply.

Former Springfield-Greene County 911 Emergency Communications Director Zim Schwartze is now the chief of the Missouri Capitol Police. The city announced her planned departure in December. Schwartze was with the city for seven years.

Scott said the search for Schwartze’s replacement is underway, and in the meantime J.R. Webb is interim director.

Schwartze began her law enforcement career in 1991 at the Columbia Police Department. She previously told SBJ she was excited for the move back to mid-Missouri, where she would be reconnected with her husband, who’s been living in Boone County for three years.

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