By JOY BROWN
A longtime Fort Wayne city employee and U.S. Air Force veteran is Findlay’s new human resources director.
Don Essex began working last week in a role that had not been filled since Jim Barker left two years ago. Hiring a replacement had been postponed until the city’s budget stabilized.
Mayor Lydia Mihalik said Essex was one of five who interviewed for the position during vetting that included face-to-face interaction with city department heads.
Essex, 47, rose to the top because of his work experience and personality, Mihalik and Service-Safety Director Paul Schmelzer said.
Findlay’s two-page job description includes duties such as evaluating department management, development of best practices based on other cities’ successes, assisting administrators with maintaining fiscal stability, and supervision of health and life insurance programs.
Communication will be an additional component of the job. Essex will be assuming some duties that Mihalik had proposed last year when suggesting that a communication director be hired.
He has been tasked with:
• Working with the mayor to develop and implement external communication strategies that highlight city successes.
• Supporting city leadership efforts to increase civic engagement and grow innovative partnerships.
• Leading three internal and two external groups that will focus on improving communication within city government and throughout the community.
• Working with Mihalik and Schmelzer to manage sensitive and controversial issues.
Since 2008, Essex had supervised staffing and recruitment for Fort Wayne’s Human Resources Department. He had also been records bureau manager for that city’s Police Department from 1996 to 2004, and worked as a judicial assistant and jury manager for Allen County Superior Court in Fort Wayne.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in human resources administration from Saint Leo University, Shaw Air Force Base Extension, in Sumter, S.C.; and a master of business administration from Indiana Institute of Technology in Fort Wayne.
Essex said he accepted the position here because he clicked with administrators and likes the community.
“I didn’t really know a lot about Findlay when I applied,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But when I came in to interview with the mayor and (Law Director) Don Rasmussen and Paul, I just liked the vibe, I liked how they were.”
Essex also enjoyed speaking with department supervisors, who told him about their organizational methods and departmental culture.
“I feel good about the people, about the ownership they take over their work,” Essex said.
He said Findlay “is like a smaller Fort Wayne” because of its primarily conservative politics.
The kicker for Essex, he said, was the friendly atmosphere. While waiting in line at the downtown Subway restaurant one day while he was in the midst of interviews, he said a customer in front of him randomly bought his sandwich. He regretted there was no one in line behind him so that he could “pay it forward.”
Essex said he recognizes his job as a “balancing act,” necessitating careful hiring, targeted retention measures, strategic money-saving, and training that ensures optimal efficiency.
“There’s an art to it,” he said.
He said he also expects time will be needed to gain co-workers’ trust, particularly since he is a community outsider.
He said he expects to immerse himself in organizational involvement just like he did in Fort Wayne, where he was a Greater Fort Wayne YMCA board member, African-American Museum board member, and participated in other groups.
“I think it has a lot to do with his excitement to be a public servant, and with his excitement to be in Findlay,” said Mihalik. Some other job applicants indicated they’d be willing to commute, she said, but Essex expressed interest in moving to the city.
Schmelzer said he is impressed with Essex’s experience as an “HR generalist” who hasn’t just specialized in particular areas; with his military background, which “spoke to discipline and commitment to a goal;” with his longevity in past positions; with his desire to take on more responsibility; and with his demeanor.
Fort Wayne’s 2012 population was 254,555, making it the second-largest city in Indiana after Indianapolis. The city employs more than 1,500.
Essex will be paid $72,000 annually in Findlay, a significant increase compared to Barker’s negotiated $59,883 pay rate, which reflects Essex’s heavier workload and expertise.
Barker’s 2012 appointment was controversial because some decisions he had helped former Mayor Pete Sehnert make, while he was Sehnert’s safety director, were unpopular. In particular, renegotiated union contracts that resulted in pay and benefit changes, and reductions for safety forces in the wake of the Great Recession were not well received.
Mihalik initially stood by her decision to retain Barker, but two months later he resigned. Barker cited his lack of human resources experience as the reason. Mihalik blamed “philosophical and professional differences, which were unable to be resolved.”