Pelham council interviews 3 finalists for city manager job

PELHAM – The Pelham City Council recently conducted second round interviews for three finalists in the city’s quest to hire a city manager.

During the final round of interviews, each candidate participated in a roundtable discussion with the city’s department heads prior to their second interview with the council.

The interviews took place over a three-day period from Monday to Wednesday, June 19-21. The candidates are listed in the order they were interviewed.

Gretchen DiFante

-DiFante, an Alabama native, is currently the assistant city manager for the city of Batavia in New York. During her roundtable discussions with city department heads, DiFante said she was most impressed by the fact that department heads realize “that a big change is coming and they’re embracing it and not running from it.”

“That asked some hard questions, as they should’ve,” DiFante said. “It shows that they’re invested. There was also a lot of collaboration between the department heads, which is great because that’s my leadership style. They seem to like each other an awful lot and that’s exciting to me.”

When it comes to marketing a city, DiFante said “you have to market what you have, not what you want to be.” She said there are several different aspects that go into successfully marketing a city. One of those aspects is forming public opinion, meaning a city has to pick out key points that it wants the public to know about and then use various methods, such as getting community leaders involved, to help spread the message.

For example, in her current role as assistant city manager, DiFante said she sought the assistance of local pastors to help get the word out about programs offered to residents by the city. DiFante said public opinion about some services being offered were mostly negative, but since local pastors have gotten involved and have begun educating their congregations about the programs and their intent, attitudes have started to change.

When it comes to marketing the city of Pelham, DiFante said Pelham has a little bit of an identity crisis.

“What is your identity?” she asked. “How do you tell your story? You have to start by figuring out to whom do you want to convince to do what differently.”

If selected for the city manager position, DiFante said she would measure her progress and success by developing a dynamic plan with goals that can be measured. She said expectations would be clearly outlined at each step.

Patrick Bryant

-Bryant, a Shelby County native, is currently the city manager for the city of Talladega. Bryant said he appreciated the opportunity to meet city department heads because it gave them an opportunity to get comfortable with him and “see him as a human being and someone they can talk to and trust to go to bat for them when times get tough.”

“It was a fantastic opportunity and a unique process that I’ve never been a part of before during an interview,” he said. “I’m big on heavy and open communication so it was in line with my leadership style. We didn’t really dig into the details. I wanted us to get to know each other on a personal level.”

When it comes to conflict resolution, Bryant said it’s a part of a city manager’s role.

“There’s constantly some level of conflict,” he said. “My approach is to listen because if I understand where the person with whom I’m having a conflict is coming from, then I’m better able to resolve the conflict.”

Bryant said it’s important not to make impulse decisions and to understand both sides in an effort to resolve the tension and come up with a solution.

In reference to how he would go about advising the council on policy, Bryant said he would first have to spend some time understanding the goals and vision of the council before making any recommendations.

“Once I understand I can provide the council with information to help them make informed decisions in an effort to reach those goals,” he said. “I will be present to answer any questions and offer guidance.”

Bryant said he is a fan of the strategic planning process and would be interested in brainstorming ideas with people from various demographics throughout the city.

“It’s an inclusive process,” he said. “I did that in Talladega during the city’s rebranding process. We gathered demographics from all areas of the city and got them all together to brainstorm and figure out the identity of the city.”

Once a city’s identity is developed, Bryant said it is used to market the city.

Kevin Cowper

-Cowper is currently the assistant city manager for the city of Auburn. Cowper said he was “very impressed and pleasantly surprised by the amount of stuff going on” in the city. While talking to city department heads, Cowper said he could see that they are “emotionally invested” in the city and take their jobs seriously.

“I was really impressed with that and impressed with the discussions about the city’s finances and impressive bond rating – it’s the result of very good governance.”

When it comes to conflict resolution, Cowper said dealing with conflict is something that happens almost daily.

“I believe in talking through concerns,” he said. “In general I have a calm demeanor and I use that during confrontation to try to calm the situation.”

If hired as city manager, Cowper said there would never be a shortage of ideas.

“My mindset is, ‘We’re doing good, but what can we do better,’” he said. A city manager’s job is to be a visionary.”

Cowper said he learns best by getting out in the community and talking to residents and by visiting other cities to see what practices they’ve implemented.

Based on his first impressions of the city, Cowper said some of Pelham’s best assets include the environment and the beauty of the area, Oak Mountain State Park, Ballantrae Golf Club, a strong school system and an active business community.

However, he said he also sees some areas of concern, such as the lack of a city gathering place.

“Pelham doesn’t have the traditional city center or Main Street,” he said. “That’s missing for residents. How do we create that for them?”

He said the look and function of U.S. 31 could also benefit from enhancements. Cowper said he knows the city is already taking steps to address both of those issues, which is a good sign. He suggested surveying the public to see what their concerns are and what ideas they have to address those concerns.

Cowper said he views himself as a fairly adaptable person who can shift his approach based on the situation. If chosen for the position, Cowper said he would “take things slowly, grow into the position and focus on building relationships, credibility and trust.”