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Csokasy interviews for administrator

Published 10:25am Friday, February 12, 2010

By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News

CASSOPOLIS – Cass County commissioners interviewed Road Commission Manager Louis R. Csokasy Thursday night before about 20 people.

With a legal opinion obtained from Kalamazoo civil counsel Douglas Callander in the week since Csokasy expressed interest that in a county the size of Cass the positions of Road Commission manager and county administrator-controller cannot be combined, he detailed his qualifications for the job Terry Proctor leaves effective March 12 after 20 years.

Although there was much debate and discussion at the 10-commissioner Administrator-Controller Recruitment Committee meeting chaired by Commissioner David Taylor, D-Edwardsburg, more focused on “the process” than Csokasy, 62, of Diamond Lake.
He was accompanied by his wife, Donna.

“I’ve retired twice and I didn’t like it. God willing, I’ll be around for awhile,” he said. “I have the utmost respect for Cass County, which has been very well run. Terry’s done an outstanding job in that capacity. My job is simply to try to run it better.

“The board I work with at the Road Commission is as good as any I’ve ever worked with. In setting goals for me and the organization, we went one step further and created goals for every person who works for the Road Commission,” then aligned them. “That’s all been accomplished in the last year.”

Csokasy and Chairman LeRoy Krempec joined the Road Commission when it grew from three to five members in 2008. He became manager about a year ago.

He does not have a contract there. “If they don’t like me, I’ll leave.”

“You’ll have to look long and hard for someone who has more budget or financial experience than I do,” going back to 1973. “There are also some things I would bring that would be unique to the county,” Csokasy said. “First of all, as a business executive, I can talk to other business executives about creating some jobs by bringing forward the advantages Cass County offers. I believe I’m uniquely positioned to do that with my background.”

Csokasy, calling the past few weeks “the most interesting I’ve had in some time,” with considerable “input” – “some I’ve enjoyed, some I haven’t enjoyed. Two things I’d really like to address that came through sincerely. First, my qualifications. I’ve simply applied for this job. It’s up to the board to determine if they are adequate. Second, there is a misconception about my style. This is probably the oddest interview I’ve had in my life – a public interview of this magnitude.”

Csokasy teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in business ethics, economics and organizational behavior.

“In my humble opinion, I feel I am qualified,” he said.

In addition to aeronautical engineering, Csokasy holds a master’s degree in business administration.

He has also done some doctoral work in economics at the University of Notre Dame.
Csokasy started his career at Boeing, then went to Lockheed and Bendix Systems Divisions before winding up at a smaller $40 million company where he worked for 28 years. “When we sold it we were doing about $1.2 billion. There was a lot of growth that I was part of.

“In that career, my primary responsibility was management. I’ve managed operating divisions and individual departments up to 200 people. I managed nine different manufacturing plants at one time (in the United States, Mexico and Europe). I managed relationships with our German, Brazilian and Japanese operations. For those people who want to speak harshly of me, I can simply say I’ve been spoken harshly of on four continents.”

Next, he worked for a private equity group, buying and sellings companies. “A lot of financial analysis.”

“In that capacity, I ran two of their operations,” Csokasy said. “I went to one in Salt Lake City that made bailer twine. Maybe that’s where I get my interest in growing alfalfa. The other operation made signs. I’ve been in Cass County for a number of years. The Road Commission is my first public sector activity. I’m very detail-oriented and numbers-driven.”

One issue which surfaced given his resume is that “my primary skill set is to reduce head counts and overhead and to lay off people. Candidly, I don’t like to respond to these types of things because it gives them a life of their own, but my whole career has been based on growth – growing people, growing organizations,” Csokasy said.

“I went to Detroit one time and grew our engineering area from three people to 200. There’s no doubt we’ve had to make some tough choices at the Road Commission. We haven’t had any increase in our tax rate since 1998 and our cash flow in was less than our cash flow out.

“However, we have not done any reductions in the last year. Our whole focus on working with the townships is increasing our growth area.”

He has experience working with “15 to 20 boards,” such as at Trine University in Angola, Ind. “I have worked at the university with boards that had 28 members … multiple opinions, even multiple cultures.”

Commissioner Bill Steele, D-Calvin Township, commented, “I wasn’t a fan of putting on two more persons. I’ll eat those words. You’ve been very open and honest with me and I like the idea that you’re local. I like the experiences I’ve had with you. I’m opinionated, and I thought you handled me well. You addressed questions I had and I’m very comfortable with you.”

By that, Steele indicated he made anonymous complaints to the Road Commission.

Steele also acknowledged that Proctor felt the commission was “micromanaging.”
Csokasy said the five-member Road Commission became “very active,” with five-hour meetings and divided votes.

“We made a mistake we all recognized,” he said. “As a board, we went beyond policy and went into actual management. We decided we had to make a management change to back off that micromanaging of the Road Commission. When my board says we’ve got a problem, and they do, it bothers me because nobody wants to be told they’re doing a bad job. You can ask me whatever you like and be as critical or complimentary as you like. That’s your right as a board. I would work for this board.

“However, if you hire a professional manager, let me manage. If you don’t like the way I manage, you have the option of getting rid of the manager. You have a fiduciary responsibility and you hire and fire the manager.”

Csokasy told Vice Chairman Ron Francis, R-Cassopolis, his engineering background “is the basis for who I am,” giving him natural curiosity and a desire to run a lean operation that continuously improves.

“How do you prove it?” he asked. “With lots of statistics and math, which I primarily learned in engineering. Curiosity can be how to build a bridge or road or how to structure an organization in the correct manner.”

Csokasy has dealt with union strikes “multiple times. Twice I’ve even been held captive in a plant. You go back to the bargaining table until you resolve it. You open contracts early, sit across the table and honestly deal with issues and resolve them before it gets there. Bad strikes, I’ve been brought in after that situation has arisen. I was the ‘Mr. Fix-It Guy’ sent in to plants where there were problems.”

Commissioner Johnie Rodebush, also no fan of expanding the Road Commission, told Csokasy, “I don’t feel comfortable hiring the first person who shows up. I’ve got a lot of respect for you, but I want to look at some more people.”

“It has been brought to my attention that my position was a little controversial,” Csokasy said. “I have no problem with this board, in its wisdom, going out and hiring a search. I’m perfectly happy at the Road Commission,” which he announced to his entire staff at 7 a.m. last Friday. “But I stand by if you go for a headhunter to bring in candidates, that’s a very costly proposition and I would drop out at that point. The reason for that is if you spend the money for a search and then select me, you’d look rather foolish to yourself and to the community. I don’t want to put you or me in that position.”

Commissioner Dixie Ann File, R-Cassopolis, disagreed.

“I don’t think the board would look foolish to have a company do some searching for us. I would think you’d feel quite proud of yourself if you rose to the top of that and got the job after all.”

“To tell you the truth,” Rodebush said, “I’d hate to see you leave the Road Commission – no matter where you go – because you are doing a good job. I’ve heard good reports about your presentation in Frankenmuth.”

Csokasy told Rodebush he would “not feel very good” if he came aboard in a 9-6 vote. “I look at this as the last stop of my career, so I’d like to have a little bit more confidence. It’s your right to not vote for me. I don’t know what my decision would be.”

County Treasurer Linda Irwin said answers he volunteered to 23 questions were “very impressive,” but she was concerned at his admission that impatience is a weakness. “I had a big adjustment curve,” she said, “because this is a political animal and the wheels turn slowly. Here, you’re dealing with 15 different egos.”

“I recognize that government doesn’t move as fast as private industry,” he said, “but I have to be honest. I am an impatient individual. My management theory is I don’t do stupid. If a situation requires patience, I’ll be patient. When I was on the Road Commission, I was absolutely convinced that having the four remote garages was a mistake and that having an asphalt plant was a mistake. I ran numbers and did everything in my power” to support those positions, but since “went back to everybody within the Road Commission multiple times and told them I was just plain wrong. I am willing to admit when I’m wrong.”

Against his strong background in business management and budgeting, he lacks local government experience in local government.

“I see that as a problem,” Commissioner Carl Higley Sr., R-Ontwa Township said. “Do you?”

“What I do very well – and have had to all my career, particularly when you get into the upper levels of management – you have to listen and ask a lot of questions of the experience base sitting in that office. I tend to be a pretty good researcher. I didn’t know much about roads, but I’m a pretty quick learner.”

To blunt criticism not enough preliminary work had been delegated, effectively shutting some commissioners and elected officials out of the broad, transparent selection new Chairman Robert Ziliak, R-Milton Township, envisioned, Taylor appointed three subcommittees to spread the workload.

Taylor tapped Ziliak to chair the subcommittee to produce a description of Proctor’s duties necessary to advertise the position.

The panel also includes Commissioners Bill Steele, D-Calvin Township, and E. Clark Cobb, D-Dowagiac.

Carl Higley, who was a member of the board which hired Proctor in 1989 as second county administrator, will chair the subcommittee to develop a salary range, along with Commissioners Johnie Rodebush, D-Niles, who also helped select Proctor, and Debbie Johnson, D-Niles.

“I think department heads and the competent staff Terry’s put together, working together like they did before we hired an administrator, we could probably get by two to three months without an interim director, but I’m not going to fight against it,” Rodebush said. “But getting somebody on board before Terry leaves ain’t going to happen.”

The third panel, chaired by Vice Chairman Ron Francis, R-Cassopolis, and including Commissioners Goodenough and Charlie Arnold, R-Cassopolis, is tasked with recommending an interim administrator.

Taylor called a third meeting of the Recruitment Committee for 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, before the full commission’s next regular meeting.

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