Dennis R. Sparks, one of two finalists for the village manager job, during an interview on Saturday. Photo by Michael Romain for the Village Free Press. Below, Willie Norfleet, Jr., the other finalist for the manager position, during an appearance at an event in Socorro. Photo by Socorro News.
Monday, September 29, 2014 || By Michael Romain
MAYWOOD — At a Saturday, September 27, 2014, special board meeting, Maywood’s Board of Trustees interviewed the final two candidates in contention to take over as the next village manager in Maywood. Dennis R. Sparks and Willie Norfleet, Jr., were the last candidates standing in an initial field of six who were selected to go through the interview process. According to Acting Village Manager David Myers, the open position was posted in the publications of leading trade organizations such as the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and its Illinois affiliate, the Illinois City/County Management Association (ILCMA).
At Saturday’s meeting, both Sparks and Norfleet were interviewed in person and a selection was tentatively approved by the Board of Trustees. There’s been no official word yet on which candidate the Board selected.
Dennis R. Sparks, who once served as village manager of Maywood for a year between 2002 and 2003, has been a semi-retired management consultant based in Hopewell, Virginia, his hometown, since 2005. Prior to that, he was city manager of the City of Silsbee, Texas for three months in 2005, and temporary executive director for the County of Lander, Nevada for a little less than a year between 2003 and 2004. Sparks’s longest serving tenure in government is as a fiscal officer for the State of Virginia from 1992 to 1999.
A certified flight instructor and airline transport pilot, Sparks has a BS in Business & Law and an MBA from Virginia Commonwealth College. According to his resume, he has “more than 30 years of experience in team building, lobbying, performance management, tourism, and budgeting.”
Willie Norfleet, Jr., is currently the city manager of the City of Socorro, where he’s served since 2012. Prior to holding that position, he was the city manager and controller for the City of Compton, California, from 2007 to 2011. His longest tenure in municipal government was with University City, Missouri, where he was director of finance from 1985 until 2006. Norfleet, who said that he has strong family connections to Maywood — his mother lived here and his sisters attended Proviso East — has a BA in history and an MA in public affairs from Northern Illinois University.
According to his resume, Norfleet’s core competencies include planning & strategic development, finance & budget analysis, project development & launch, and operational analysis. Norfleet won the Government Finance Officers Association’s (GFOA’s) Excellence in Financial Reporting award in 1998-99 and 2003-05. He was president of the GFOA’s St. Louis chapter for two terms between 2003-2005.
Below are summaries of answers each candidate gave to questions that were asked by the Board either on last Saturday, or on the opening round of interviews that took place on July 28, 2014.
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On leadership and management styles
Sparks described himself as a collaborative team leader who believes in bringing the department heads together in a team manner to accomplish the goals and objectives of the Board. He said he believes in supporting the employees and keeping the Board fully informed by working closely with each member, in addition to the village attorney when necessary, on a daily basis.
Norfleet said that his leadership style depends on the people he is leading, noting that “different people react to different sorts of styles.” He said he has a variation of styles, depending on circumstances and personalities. “I can be straightforward and direct,” he said, but noted that he tries not to be offensive or a bully. He noted his leadership style is generally open and that he hopes to win most people over with reason and by providing services to the community.
On methods of assessing employee performance
“I asses their performance based on whether or not they are effective and do so with integrity,” Sparks said. He noted that during his short tenure as village manager in Maywood, he implemented an employee assessment system. “I sit down with department heads at the beginning of the year and map out what it is they think they can accomplish and what they should accomplish and [in] what time frame,” he said. He said that he conducts quarterly evaluations, in addition to end-of-year final evaluations, making adjustments and corrections as time goes on. He said that, in turn, he expects department heads to deal with employees under their supervision in a similar manner. “Everybody is on the same page,” he said. “They know what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Norfleet said that assessment “starts on day one.” He mentioned that even on the day of his final interview, he made some critical observations about Maywood’s staff performance. “It’s real easy. I can come right to the door of the city hall and see the state flag tangled up in the twine of a tree where it’s ripped.” Norfleet also noticed that the box of plants surrounding the signage of the Fred Hampton pool was “full of weeds.” “Those sort of assessments are day one and you keep going until you don’t see the day-to-day scenario that shows neglect,” he said. Norfleet also said that he takes lots of pictures to evaluate employee progress and celebrates employees on their anniversaries and birthdays to keep morale high.
On dealing with residents
Sparks said that the manager has a responsibility to serve the citizens in accordance with goals and objectives of counsel. “I represent you,” he said to the Board. “I am your person that puts forward the good foot and helps make you look good by accomplishing things such as street paving, cleaning up trash, making sure lights are changed,” he said, noting that when dealing with angry citizens, he believes it’s best to “always listen” and always be truthful with them “whether they want to hear it or not.”
Norfleet said that he would hope that residents hold him to task for communicating their concerns and ideas to the Board, which may or may not elect to authorize policy changes. “If there’s something on the book, expect me to do it,” he said. “If it’s something not on the book, expect me to go over to the council,” he noted. He said that, if hired, he intends to provide the community with services it can afford. He also noted that he intends to keep a clear line of communication with residents. “If people can’t talk to you then that’s an element that causes failure in the long run,” he said.
On dealing with the Board of Trustees
Sparks said that he’ll utilize all forms of communication to update board on staff progress. When he was in Maywood, he said that every week at staff meetings, he had department heads turn in written reports showing their accomplishments, their problems, and any opportunities they see. They then aggregated that information and he gave it to the board. “If it’s an emergency, I’ll call,” he said.
Norfleet’s particular question on this matter was about his approach to handling different personalities on the board. “My whole attitude is very simple,” he said. “I’m here to provide services as long as you want me to.”
“Never is it going to be the manager trying to buddy up with a council person to save a job,” Norfleet said. “That never works and I’m not that kind of person anyway, so it doesn’t matter. If I’m in one day and fired the next, that’s the way it is…All I’m going to ever do is tell you the truth…it’s not whether we like it or not…My role is to provide you with the best professional opinion I can give you…A lot of times managers tend to get kicked out simply for doing too good of a job. I would love to stay in that category.”
On dealing with labor negotiations, unions and employee disciplinary methods
Sparks said that his collective bargaining and labor employment experience was most intensive in Ohio and Maywood, where he had ongoing relationships with the SEIU, the Teamsters, and the Police Benevolent League, among other union organizations. He said that he is certified by the Supreme Court of Virginia as a mediator and used his mediation skills when he was in Maywood. He’s also mediated on behalf of private individuals in court. He recalled that one of his most memorable experiences with disciplining an employee was in Maywood.
“I like to use progressive discipline and give people a chance,” he said. “In emergencies, I take the bull by the horns and do what I need to do. In Maywood, one of the public works employees got high on dope and cocaine or marijuana, got in one of those trucks with a snow plow on it, went on the road and hit a man in an SUV. We ended up firing him. The HR director got together with public works director and they fired the guy without telling me. The teamsters and union people got upset and came to me, because they said the guy had a get out of jail free card. I talked with their lawyers in Chicago…make a long story short — I hired the guy back, kept him for 10 minutes and fired him for traffic violations, which stuck like glue.”
Norfleet said that his most difficult labor negotiation occurred when he was in Compton. The city had a severe budgetary crisis and it was millions in the hole in the general fund. They had to cut a lot of employees that particular year. In Compton, Norfleet said, everyone is apart of a union, including directors, so there were five union groups who consolidated themselves to see if they could hold off cutting. Ultimately, however, 61 people were let go. Norfleet said the city is in a better place today. They avoided bankruptcy, but that the decision to let those employees go was difficult for him.
On their respective successes
Sparks touted the renovation of an old school building for a county administrative office in Washington County, VA, which saved that governmental entity $6 million by not having to build a new one. He also touted a regional water park that he helped developed while in Ohio. He said that during his tenure in Maywood, he reduced the crime rate by employing a variety of strategies such as forming block clubs and increasing police patrols. He recalled that there was also a task force comprising Cook County Sheriff’s deputies and the Illinois State Police.
“In my career, I don’t think I’ve ever been late on a budget and that’s going back about 30 years,” said Norfleet. With respect to economic development, he touted the redevelopment of a key street in University City that was formerly desolate. The redevelopment was spurred by a Community Development Block Grant. Norfleet said that 4-5 major corporations have located to Socorro during his tenure there. He said that the development of a second McDonald’s, a Wal-Mart, and a dollar store, among other businesses, helped increase sales taxes in that community by more than $200,000. In Compton, Norfleet recalled, the city council put together a five-minute marketing package to recruit investment to the area. The economic development team went across America showing the package to prospective businesses and individuals, he said. They even showed it to Chinese investors. He noted that a similar strategy could work in Maywood. “I think’s it’s just a matter of talking, meeting and greeting and showing what you literally have to market in the community,” he said.
On the importance of code enforcement
Sparks said that this is a subject “I’m very interested in.” “People are getting kind of sloppy and it’s running property values down,” he said, before sharing some pictures with the Board that he took of various Maywood locations — a street that needed to be repaved on 4th and Wilcox, sand that need to be cleaned up on another street, a tree that had fallen down on Prairie Path, overrun grass on one property. “All of this causes assessed property [values] to go down and devalues the community,” Sparks said. “Code enforcement is very important,” he said. “The [village] needs to clean up some of the public property.”
When asked to rate the importance of code enforcement on a scale of 1 to 5, Norfleet said ‘5’ without hesitation. “Enforce your code,” he said. “If you don’t like it, change it. If you’ve got weed lots, how do you recruit others to invest?” He noted that if the Village enforces its code rigorously, it will be further ahead in attracting people to invest and move here. VFP
Further reading on the two finalists:
Willie Norfleet, Jr.:
“Compton fires third city manager in five years,” Los Angeles Times, Sep 29, 2011
“City council fires Norfleet,” The Bulletin, Oct 5, 2011
“City manager candidate not afraid of challenges,” Journal-News, May 17, 2014
“Socorro City Council fills city manager job,” El Paso Times, March 2, 2012
Dennis R. Sparks:
“City manager applicants offer diverse experience,” Tri County Leader, Feb 2, 2010
“Administrator job draws crowd,” Tampa Bay Times, Nov 23, 2007