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Janesville residents and officials say city manager was steadying influence during rocky times

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Marcia Nelesen
May 5, 2013

— Eric Levitt reported to Janesville as its new city manager Dec. 16, 2008.

One week later, General Motors, the city's largest and most-storied employer, ended production of full-size sport utility vehicles here.

Levitt had applied for the city manager job months earlier and saw Janesville as a stable community. But General Motors' financial situation deteriorated over the hiring process.

Janesville has since struggled with a crippled local economy aggravated by a national recession.

Many people interviewed said Levitt steered Janesville through turbulent times in his quiet, unassuming way.

Levitt said the community suffered an identify crisis that created a "huge" feeling of uncertainty.

"Pride is a big value in this community," Levitt said.

"There was a lot of pride in the town, pride in being from here. A huge value was its stability, the family community. It was prosperous.

"Whether people liked or didn't like GM, it was still part of the pride, the industrial base."

Levitt spoke before leaving for his new job as city manager in Simi Valley, Calif. Tuesday will be Levitt's last day as Janesville city manger, and Jay Winzenz will be interim city manager while the city council searches for Levitt's replacement.

Turbulent times

Levitt became the first city manager under a council-manager form of government to work here without General Motors.

His challenges didn't end there.

Within a month, Levitt and his staff hustled to master complicated federal formulas to capture as much federal stimulus money as possible.

In 2010, Levitt dealt with local fallout from Act 10, the game-changing state legislation that abolished collective bargaining for most public employee unions.

The chief of police and the public works director both quit during Levitt's first two meetings on his first day of work.

"The thing is—the bottom line is—if I were to do it all over again, knowing then what I know now, I would do it again," Levitt said, reflecting on the last 4½ years.

Levitt's style was different than his predecessor, longtime City Manager Steve Sheiffer.

Sheiffer was high profile and used a heavy hand in directing the city's vision. He accomplished much in 21 years, but by the time he left, some complained about a lack of accessibility and transparency.

People repeatedly praised Levitt for his accessibility.

Businessman Jeffrey Helgesen described it as "remarkable" when compared to Helgesen's previous experiences with the city.

"He would listen," Helgesen said. "And if he couldn't come up with a solution, he would (get) people who were problem-solvers to get it done."

Two residents with a history of dust-ups with the city—businessman and developer Jim Grafft and K. Andreah Briarmoon—praised Levitt.

"He operated differently," Grafft said. "Anytime we've wanted a meeting, we've gotten it. He's reasonable."

Levitt immediately started working through issues between Grafft and the city, Grafft said.

Briarmoon told council members she appreciated how Levitt encouraged resident input and consensus.

Those interviewed described Levitt as thoughtful, humble, willing to listen, creative, ethical and honest. He took the time to mentor interns. All appreciated his sense of humor. They describe him as a private man and a family man who shared his love for hockey with anyone who would listen.

Council President Kathy Voskuil offered a quotation to describe Levitt's lack of ego: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit."

She described Levitt as a fiscal conservative, but she said he never told council members they couldn't do something because they didn't have the money.

"He'd look at ways to try to figure it out."

Levitt also was accessible to the media and gave reporters his cell phone number. He urged staff to be honest, open and respect the media's job, Winzenz said.

Voskuil said Levitt's management style was one of empowerment.

"Eric allows his division and department heads a good deal of latitude in how they manage their respective operations," Voskuil said.

Levitt asked staff members to give their own recommendations on issues to the council, even if they differed from Levitt's.

Levitt, for example, didn't agree Janesville needed a new water tower, but he urged Dan Lynch, who at the time was utility director and a proponent of the tower, to try to convince the council otherwise.

It gave some staff members "a good amount of heartburn," Winzenz recalled. "There was a real concern about having two different recommendations."

Levitt's goal, though, was to give the council as many options as possible, Levitt said.

A list of accomplishments

Some projects completed or initiated during Levitt's tenure here include:

-- Millions in stimulus money captured to improve the city's older neighborhoods.

-- Renovations to the Tallman House, which had fallen into disrepair. The council agreed without a lot of controversy to spend $1 million in phases to repair the historic landmark, Levitt noted.

-- A new business incubator and a fledgling brownfield program, both made possible by about $1.8 million in federal grants. The grants resulted from a visit by the federal "auto czar" in 2010 and then a lot of "behind the scenes work" with contacts in Washington.

-- General obligation debt lowered from $82.5 million to about $74.2 million while keeping tax rate increases low. Both objectives were important to the council because the community was hurting, Levitt said.

-- Plans finalized to rehabilitate Main and River streets and the Jackson Street Bridge.

-- Renovations at the ice arena, a controversial facility since it was built decades ago. During the lengthy debate on whether to build a new facility or remodel, Levitt had his son play hockey in Rockford, Ill.

"There were just too many opportunities for one group or another group to say decisions were made because his (Levitt's) child was a hockey player," Winzenz said, calling it an example of Levitt's high ethical standards.

-- Relationships built to link scientific research in Madison to the industrial base here. It is one reason SHINE Medical Technologies, a medical isotope company, plans to open here.

"We made a lot of connections in Madison before SHINE really started looking at us," Levitt said.

In creating an incentives package to lure SHINE, Levitt insisted on benchmarks so the city wouldn't lose money. He did a "ton of research" on the industry to come up with the benchmarks, Voskuil said.

-- Wastewater treatment plant updated and energy efficiencies added, such as fueling vehicles with methane, innovations championed by Lynch and supported by Levitt.

-- A farmland preservation agreement inked with the county. Those involved in negotiations said Levitt was instrumental in breaking a stalemate between Janesville and the towns.

'Not about me'

Levitt said his goal was to empower the council, staff and residents. He invited the public to informal coffee outings.

"It's not about me," Levitt said. "What it is about is the community and a lot of different options. What I try to do is find out what the city council wants to do, and I try to create a strategy in order to get there," Levitt said.

"The council is elected because people value their opinions and what they want to do for the community."

Levitt said he got into the profession to help people.

"I try to treat people with dignity," he said. "I try to treat everybody with respect.

"I like to work with people and work through issues with people."

The council will choose what it wants in a new city manager. Levitt guesses those qualities might be different than what he brought to the city.

Perhaps members now want someone more "out there," he said.

"I'm a different type of leader," Levitt said. "My vision is a much quieter vision."

Levitt said he'll never regret his time here.

A pleasant surprise was the superior education his children received, Levitt said.

Another was the quality of people he worked with.

"I've had a lot of interesting twists and turns," he said.

"In the end, (Janesville is) a quality community."

WHAT OTHERS SAY

"He was very instrumental in helping me to bring customers to Janesville. He's going to be greatly missed by our organization.

"He was just a breath of fresh air." —Jeffrey Helgesen, Janesville businessman

"Eric was pivotal in bringing the (county's farm preservation program) agreement forward. … Eric was willing to negotiate, to meet in the middle and he was a very, very, big part of the PACE program.

"He did see the value in it, and it did go forward.

"I think the definition of a public servant would be Eric Levitt." —Al Sweeney, Rock County Board member

"Eric Levitt had a very thorough approach to examining alternatives and presenting recommendations to the council. He was very open to input from a variety of groups, including the business community. I think his coffee with the city manager series demonstrated his willingness to hear all points of view.

"I view him first and foremost as being willing to accept input from all sides of an issue, process that input and synthesize it for the benefit of the (council)." —John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville

"When I think about Eric, a couple of things come to mind, such as honesty and humility. He was very approachable and easy to communicate with. What I admire most about him is he's a good listener. He's very knowledgeable on a wide variety of issues, which is essential for a city manager.

"I'll always remember Eric's laugh." —Beth Jacobsen, assistant Beloit city manager

"Life in the public eye is a balancing act, particularly as it applies to keeping multiple channels of communication open. Whether generated from the silent majority or the vocal minority, Eric seemed genuinely interested in learning about their aggregate or individual perspectives—particularly as it related to addressing or resolving issues. If an unfiltered conversation was needed, Eric wasn't afraid to ask for frank and honest feedback ...

"While the city manager position often carries a certain unspoken level of authority per se, Eric seemed to generally favor the consensus decision-making approach rather than handing it down ...

"Even during some of the more stressful periods of his tenure as city manager, Eric would find time to share a laugh." —James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager



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