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City's hire passes early test


Only a few weeks ago, most people in Colorado Springs had never heard of Penny Culbreth-Graft. Even when her name surfaced as one of three finalists to become the Springs' next city manager, it was easy to pass her off as likely window-dressing in the search to replace Lorne Kramer.

Culbreth-Graft was the well-qualified outsider to compare against the inside candidates who had been Kramer's top assistants: Mike Anderson, already serving as interim city manager, and Greg Nyhoff.

In the end, City Council chose that outsider, the city administrator in Huntington Beach, Calif., since May 2004. Huntington Beach, a city of about 200,000 people south of Los Angeles, has some big-name companies topped by Boeing, and its city government has an annual budget of $348 million with 1,200 employees. (Colorado Springs' numbers are $357 million and about 1,800 full-time equivalent positions.)

After the surprising news came out two weeks ago, the natural first impulse was to dig into the past of Penelope (her full name) Culbreth-Graft. Surely, it would be revealing to learn more about this 50-year-old Californian who has bounced around a handful of cities in her administrative career.

Revealing, yes. Controversial, no. In fact, the more you look, the more you understand why our City Council chose Culbreth-Graft. That's nothing against Anderson and Nyhoff, either of whom still might end up in the job someday. That's because, no matter what the new city manager might say, it wouldn't be smart to bet on her staying here until retirement.

When she went to Huntington Beach, Culbreth-Graft told media she hoped it would be her last move. Yet, when she broke the news there about leaving for Colorado Springs, she candidly said she had accomplished everything she had expected to do in that job. And when she interviewed here, she referred to herself as a "change agent."

Certainly, she was secure in Orange County. A year ago, the Huntington Beach City Council gave her an in-depth evaluation, and on a 1-to-5 scale in numerous categories, she had no score worse than 4.

Yes, there was some high-level turnover, and restructuring, after Culbreth-Graft arrived there. That's how change agents operate. They don't come in to be caretakers. They bring a fresh outlook, new ideas and an aggressive operating style.

They also often make enemies, because they aren't concerned about maintaining everyone's comfort level. Yet, you can dig very deep online, even into the volatile blogs that exist everywhere, and you won't find nastiness or sharp criticism toward Culbreth-Graft. If anything, it's the opposite. After it came out she was a finalist here, the consensus sentiment was that everyone wanted her to stay.

There was one negative in that evaluation at Huntington Beach. City leaders said Culbreth-Graft worked too many hours; they were concerned that, if she kept up that pace, she might burn out. That's the worst thing they could say.

One other question has come up, but it's based on lack of knowledge. People on that end in California wonder why Culbreth-Graft would take a $16,000 pay cut to come here, from $226,000 there to $210,000 in Colorado Springs.

Well, if you do a salary comparison at for someone moving here from Orange County, you'll find that given the huge difference in cost of living Culbreth-Graft's $226,000 in Huntington Beach would have the buying power of $342,656 in Colorado Springs. Even with a pay cut, she'll actually have a raise of about $100,000 in what her salary is worth.

In the past, back to when George Fellows was running the show (1966-85), our City Council preferred to promote from within for new city managers mostly with success. Either Anderson or Nyhoff would have fit that familiar mold, even without having previously been in charge of a good-sized city.

Instead, this time City Council took a chance. This was not somebody recruited by a headhunter. Culbreth-Graft learned about the opening while in the region on a trip and applied on the final day applications were accepted.

Now, come Jan. 7, Penny Culbreth-Graft will take over as the first woman and perhaps more significantly, the first stranger in modern times, if not ever to become Colorado Springs' city manager.

So what can a "change agent" do to make this city government better? Apparently, we're about to find out.

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