Retiring FW city manager has served well; work begins to find strong new leader

Posted Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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When Tom Higgins joined the Fort Worth city staff 27 years ago as the sole employee in the Office of Economic Development, the population was 439,000.

During his tenure, the Detroit native saw Cowtown grow in area and people to become the 16th largest city in the country with about 778,000 residents today.

Through his commitment and many contributions at City Hall, Higgins helped contribute to that growth and the economic efforts that fueled it.

He was part of the team that worked to land major projects and new development for the city, including: Texas Motor Speedway; the U.S. currency printing plant; expansion of the Fort Worth Convention Center, along with the new Omni Hotel; Mason Heights in southeast Fort Worth; the Evans/Rosedale project; and the booming West Seventh Street corridor.

He also worked with former Fort Worth Cats owner Carl Bell to bring baseball back to LaGrave Field, and with federal officials on projects in the Stockyards and along the Trinity River.

Higgins was named interim city manager in 2011 to replace Dale Fisseler, who retired.

Later that year, after exhibiting deft skills with handling the city’s challenging budget, the council appointed him to the position without conducting a search.

For the last two years, he and his staff continued to face the demanding task of finding ways to provide city services while wrestling with the ever-frustrating demon called budget constraints.

Add to that the responsibility of negotiating contracts with the city’s two public safety unions (police and fire), pension reform and designing a streamlined but effective new bond program, and it’s clear that the city manager and those who work for him have had their hands full.

Higgins, who has performed well under difficult circumstances, last week announced he is retiring as city manager, but will stay on the job until a replacement is found.

Although his measured, non-confrontational style of leadership will be missed, his leaving affords the city an opportunity to redefine what it wants in a city manager at a time when Fort Worth, one of the nation’s fastest growing municipalities, will be faced with a lot more change and challenges.

Mayor Betsy Price is on target in insisting on a national search even though there are possible in-house candidates who would qualify for the job.

She already is on record outlining some qualities she’d like to see in a new manger, among them a “dynamic change agent,” an “innovator who is tech savvy” and someone “who is able to be transformational while also taking care of the daily transactional tasks.”

The mayor already has taken a look at the current job description for city manager and made some adjustments which are only in the draft stage, Chief of Staff Jason Lamers told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board.

He said that Price and the council will have more input on the job description in coming weeks “in order to mold the city manager position to fit the current needs of the city.”

Price said in statement announcing Higgins’ retirement:

“The challenges for Fort Worth’s next city manager will be great: Building a lean and responsive organization while meeting needs of our growing population … Keeping our eye on redeveloping our city’s urban core, while responsibly managing growth in outlying areas … mobility … water and, we must continue our momentum to improve customer service, expand the use of digital technology and strengthen public engagement.”

That’s a tall order.

The residents of Fort Worth have a right to expect that the mayor and council can and will fill it.

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