Pauken the main focus of Benson City Council meeting

Negotiations continue for City Manager position

BENSON — If a second round of contract negotiations between the Benson City Council and Steve Pauken go well, Pauken could be Benson’s next city manager.  

With his wife, Peggy at his side, Steve Pauken attended Monday’s council meeting where he listened to comments from the community and extensive council discussion about the possibility of being offered the position, which is currently being filled by interim city manager Jim Cox.

The decision to continue negotiations with Pauken was made during an executive session following a lengthy discussion among council members.

Pauken, who is the current Bisbee City Manager, is considered the lead candidate in a selection process that has been going on since May. It’s a process that involved a 10-member recommendation committee made up of the current council as well as three former council members. Recommendations also involved an initial weeding out process by the League of Cities and Towns, where Benson was provided a list of 10 prospective candidates by the League for final consideration. Of those, the field was whittled down to six by the recommendation committee, with Pauken emerging as a top candidate.

However, Councilman Ron Brooks wants to interview more candidates, stating he is not comfortable making a decision with Pauken as the only recommendation. He also stated that he had spoken to Pauken after articles ran in the Sierra Vista Herald and News-Sun where it was stated that an offer had been made to Pauken for the position. Brooks claims, based on a phone conversation he had with Pauken, the City Manager position had been offered to him. Asserting that if such an offer had been made, it was done without council approval, something Brooks said “should not have happened.” It’s an assertion that erupted into a heated exchange between Brooks and Cox, with Cox adamantly denying any such offer being made, at least by him.

Following an Aug. 15 city manager recommendation committee meeting, Pauken was the committee’s first choice for the position. Cox said he made a telephone call to Pauken and told him the results of the committee’s vote, but no negotiations occurred at that time. Following a special meeting of the city council on Aug. 21, Cox said he was directed by the council to contact Pauken with an offer (job offer), which was done on Friday (Aug. 23). However, contract negotiations are ongoing and Cox has had no other conversations with Pauken since Friday.

Pauken comes heavily endorsed by Cox, city department heads and most council members as well as the likes of Southeast Arizona Economic Development Group Director George Scott and Arizona’s G&T Cooperatives Public Relations Manager Geoff Oldfather.

Both Scott and Oldfather spoke in support of hiring Pauken for the position during Monday’s call to the public.

“You have the best qualified candidate in Mr. Pauken,” said Scott prior to launching into the positive economic benefit a good city manager will bring to the community. “Benson has a chance over the next couple of years to move rapidly ahead when it comes to growth in business, new residents and staying ahead of other communities throughout the region…It is my hope that the council will hire Mr. Pauken so we can get on with improving Benson, bringing in new business, jobs and money.” 

Oldfather told council members that he has worked behind the scenes on rural economic development in the past, and has been involved in the hiring process for chief executive and management positions for ensuring the best candidate. “I would encourage you to look at the process that is occurring and try to expedite and facilitate this to make a decision quickly,” Oldfather said, adding that he has confidence in the council. “I see a lot of potential on the horizon (for Benson).” Oldfather also noted that he made phone calls regarding Pauken and found him to be well respected and professional by those he contacted, reaffirming he would make good choice for the position.

Along with the endorsements, there are those in the community that spoke out against hiring Pauken. Local business owner JT Moffett addressed the council with, “The whole City Manager selection has been a disaster. First, we should never have involved the League of Cities in our business, especially at a cost of $5,500 – that, in addition to the $10,000 we already pay the League of Cities each year.”

Moffett pushed for what he believes is a “logical alternative” for the council position, recommending that the council “…ask Jim Cox to stay on board and offer him at least $97,000 and a vacation package he can live with.” Arguing that Cox should have been offered the position from the start, Moffett stated, “…Jim Cox has proven to us time and again since April that he is more than capable and worth every dime.”

Kathy Suagee urged the council to consider more candidates. “In my experience multiple candidates should always be personally interviewed because it never pays to consider only one candidate,” she said.

During the council meeting, discussion of whether to continue contract negotiations with Pauken continued, with Councilman Jeff Cook stating that of the final four candidates, Pauken was the top choice. Cook also noted that at the Aug. 15 recommendation committee meeting, eight of the 10 committee members who attended the meeting recommended Pauken for the position.

However Brooks and Councilman Peter Wangsness objected to the Aug. 21 special meeting, stating the meeting process was handled in violation of Open Meeting Law, claiming the council entered into an executive session illegally. Wangsness cited seven reasons for calling an executive session during an open meeting, none of which he said apply to the Aug. 21 session.

Along with the executive session issue, Wangsness, who boycotted the Aug. 21 meeting, said there was a problem in how the agenda was written. Because of the objections to the special meeting, Brooks moved to declare the meeting void, but the motion failed by a 4-2 vote.

Meanwhile, contract negotiations between the City Council and Pauken are underway.

Pauken, who has been Bisbee City Manager since 2006, says he wants to make the transition to Benson because of the potential economic growth the town has to offer. As a tourist town, Bisbee is not poised for the same economic potential that Benson has, he said.

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