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September 17, 2014

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New city manager ready for challenges facing Henderson

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun

Henderson City Manager Mark Calhoun sits in his office at City Hall as he discusses the challenges facing the city.

Mary Kay Peck

Mary Kay Peck

Sitting in his office on the fourth floor at Henderson City Hall, newly appointed City Manager Mark Calhoun smiled as he talked about a conversation he had with City Attorney Shauna Hughes during contract negotiations.

She asked him if he was sure he wanted the job. It was meant as a joke, of course, but if there was ever a time to prove the old adage that there is truth in jest, this could be it.

With almost $60 million cut from the current budget year, millions more in additional cuts being considered and the controversy surrounding his predecessor’s tumultuous departure, it’s at the very least a fair question.

Calhoun, however, said he’s ready to help the city weather the economic storm. “We will do whatever we have to in order to keep the city viable, keep services in place for our citizens and minimize the impacts as much as possible,” he said.

Calhoun moved to Henderson from Michigan in 1983 to take a job as city engineer. In 1988, he was hired as public works director, and in 2001, he was appointed as assistant city manager, a position where he was tasked with overseeing public safety, utilities and development.

As city manager, he replaces Mary Kay Peck, whom the City Council unanimously fired last month after listing a number of grievances, including that she mismanaged the city budget, directed staff not to talk to council members and created a “culture of fear.” Peck disputes the allegations and has filed a lawsuit against the city, saying she was never made aware of any problems with her job performance.

Calhoun and Peck know each other well, having worked closely together in various capacities at the city for almost 14 years.

But given the nature of their relationship now, Calhoun is mum on the issue of Peck’s departure. “I think I’d better leave that one alone for a while,” he said.

When former Henderson City Manager Phillip Speight left in October 2007, his two assistant city managers — Peck and Calhoun — were the only two candidates the city considered to replace him.

When Calhoun withdrew his name from consideration early in the process for personal reasons, it opened the door for Peck to sail into the position on glowing references from Speight and the entire City Council.

When things didn’t work out as planned between the city and Peck, Calhoun said he felt ready when the Council came calling.

“It was because of the situation we’re in with the economics that I’d figure I’d have something to contribute,” he said.

Calhoun already has made some changes in the city’s upper levels. Assistant to the City Manager Richard Derrick, who previously served as the budget director, has moved to be assistant finance director under Steve Hanson.

Hanson had planned to retire in July but agreed to stay on until February, given the city’s economic challenges.

In addition to streamlining operations in the city manager’s office, Calhoun said the move will bring extra experience to the city’s financial planning and assure continuity in the finance department when Hanson retires.

Earlier this year, the city tasked each department with coming up for a plan to cut up to 15 percent of its budget. This week, those recommendations begin coming into Calhoun’s office, where he and his staff will begin the process of evaluating and prioritizing them.

Though the city’s budget is balanced at the moment, a further decline in tax revenue or hits from the state Legislature in its effort to balance the state budget could require additional cuts.

“Once we have a plan put together, we will be meeting with the council to get their positions and their priorities,” Calhoun said.

Despite all that has happened and all the work that remains to be done, Calhoun still retains an engineer’s enthusiasm for working and planning the growth of what has been, during his 25-year career, one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. Henderson has mushroomed from a population of 31,000 in 1983 to an estimated 265,000 today.

“It’s been a blast,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of fun being here, and it’s been a great career move.”

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