The Belgrade City Council hired a new city manager Tuesday night.
After a months-long, nationwide search followed by in-person interviews with four finalists last month, the council offered the job to 34-year-old Neil Cardwell, deputy city manager of Forney, Texas, a city of about 33,000 people.
He will start work in Belgrade on Oct. 18.
Cardwell has served in his current position since February, after serving for two years as Forney’s director of operations and two years prior to that as its director of technology.
Cardwell said this week that he is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public administration. He holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Texas A&M Commerce.
Cardwell’s starting salary in Belgrade will be $145,000. That’s $25,000 more than the current salary of retiring City Manager Ted Barkley, who came to Belgrade in 2013 after serving as city manager of Ellensburg, Wash., for more than a decade. Barkley held administrative positions in city government in Colorado and Kansas prior to that.
Belgrade Mayor Russ Nelson said Wednesday that the city needed to offer more money to Barkley’s successor to compensate for the high cost of housing in the Gallatin Valley. The salary range for the position was advertised as $125,000 to $150,000.
Nelson said the council was unanimous in its decision to hire Cardwell, in part because he was younger than the other three finalists for the position.
“Some council members thought he was a good mesh” for Belgrade, which demographically is a fairly “young town,” Nelson said.
Even though he was the youngest candidate for the job, Nelson said Cardwell’s experience also impressed the council.
“For his being the youngest of the bunch, he has been through a lot of different issues down in Texas … he has grown up pretty quick,” Nelson said.
Cardwell alluded to some of those issues in an interview with the Belgrade News, saying the “volatile environment” in city government in Forney accelerated his plans to seek employment elsewhere.
“Not every city is as fortunate as Belgrade, which is diverse but unified,” he said. “Forney is a case study in the opposite of that.”
According to a local news report, the Forney City Council declined to appoint Cardwell to the city manager’s position when it “signed a separation agreement” with the former city manager earlier this year. Cardwell said the report was inaccurate.
“The actual truth is I turned (the job) down on the advice of the city attorney,” he said this week, adding that he would not have applied for the city manager’s position had he intended to stay in Forney.
Cardwell said Belgrade was one of the first jobs he applied for upon deciding to leave Forney, and that he and his wife Nicole researched the town extensively before he applied.
The favorable impression the couple formed during the research process was confirmed when they visited Belgrade last month, he said. They were particularly impressed by the community’s interest and participation in the interview process, the airport and its proximity to the city, and the combined growth potential of Belgrade combined with residents’ commitment to the area’s rich heritage.
Cardwell said he wants Belgradians to know he intends to listen to them – “the good, the bad, and the ugly” – and that he is “in it to make long-term relationships.”
On the job, he promises to “be that voice between the staff and the council” rather than to assert himself as “the boss.”
Barkley will stay with the city on as a consultant for a few months after Cardwell starts his new job.