BILLINGS -- Calling local government “where the rubber meets the road," Ron Alles, the Helena city manager the past eight years, is one of four finalists for the open Billings city administrator position.
"People expect services and we have an obligation to fulfill that,” he said.
The four will be in town for interviews, tours, some time with the news media and a public meet-and-greet Nov 30.
On Dec. 1, the city council is set to make its decision on who will succeed Tina Volek, who retired Sept. 30.
Alles, a 1979 Billings Central High School graduate who played Legion baseball for the Royals, was chief administrative officer of Lewis and Clark County for nine years before accepting Helena’s top position.
“I have had overwhelming support, and that’s what makes it difficult to consider leaving,” he said. “Anywhere you find a good city manager, he is surrounded by good professionals.”
Longtime Helena Mayor Jim Smith said the city’s nearly 300 employees “all look to (Alles) for leadership and inspiration. He’s the MC at the annual employees’ lunch, and you can tell how well he is regarded by the city’s workforce. He gets that extra mile out of just about everybody.”
“He and I came to the city at about the same time in 2009,” said Helena City Commissioner Dan Ellison. “I’ve been impressed with Ron from the first day I met him. He’s a very inclusive guy who listens and is even-handed. He delegates extremely well, but he doesn’t hesitate to give direction when and where it is needed.”
Ellison said Alles “has been right on top of some big infrastructure challenges we have had. We went through a water rights challenge that went all the way to the (Montana) Supreme Court. He shepherded that process, found outside counsel with expertise and kept a steady hand on the tiller. ...When there was bad news, he told the commission. When there was good news, he gave credit to the people doing the work.”
Helena Police Chief Troy McGee said there are “times when (he and Alles) disagree, and more often than not he’s right."
Once a month, Alles spends an hour with each department head. “He gives advice, and he wants very much to know what is going on,” McGee said. “It’s a smaller department and the officers all know him, and he knows them all.”
It’s not unique to Billings or Helena, but a lot of what we do as city managers is to build relationships, Alles said. “When you’re working with people to find solutions to problems they might have, sometimes it’s a collaborative process, and sometimes you’re just building on ideas that pop up.”
Issues including last summer’s removal of a Confederate memorial fountain in Helena’s Hill Park can turn into a situation where the city’s commission directs Alles to do something, and it’s up to the administrator and city staff to figure out the timing. In Helena’s case — and following a long public hearing — that turned out to be days after the hearing.
According to Alles, the proper role between the city manager and city commission is that the administrator “provides guidance” on the policies the commission sets, along the way determining whether certain things work and whether there is capacity to meet those needs.
"I see us as partners. I try to give (commissioners) a heads up and talk to them about ideas," he said. "It’s the administrator’s job to listen and then critically think about it. I like to present all the options, and I will have a recommendation as well, but not without showing them the potential options.”
“I am about sunshine, both good and bad,” he said. “We have an obligation to be open with the public.”
City officials use social media to help funnel residents’ comments to the commission, Alles said. That’s proven an effective way to connect younger residents with city government.
“I don’t think you can ever replace a face-to-face public meeting with just a comment section,” he said. “You still have to get people into (city hall) to make their comments known.”