By Per Peterson
The City of Tracy’s newly-hired city administrator doesn’t have a lot of day-to-day experience in city government, but he is confident that won’t keep him from performing at the highest of levels.
Kris James Ambuehl of Little Falls has accepted the Tracy City Council’s offer to become the next city administrator with an annual salary of roughly $68,000, plus benefits. Ambuehl will begin his duties in Tracy on June 25. Both Ambuehl and fellow finalist Andrea Aukurst were interviewed in front of the council on Thursday.
When questioned about his lack of expertise, Ambuehl said the only thing he hasn’t experienced is city governmental work on a daily basis.
experienced is city governmental work on a daily basis.
“I have vast experience based on owning a business myself, to working in the military, working with the fire department,” Ambuehl said. “The only thing about my experience is it hasn’t been day-to-day. I think I can cover that with my business experience and background.”
Tracy Mayor Pam Cooreman, who phoned Ambuehl on Monday to officially offer him the job, said it’s good to have a new city administrator hired. Public Works Director Shane Daniels has been filling the role on an interim basis since the resignation of Madonna Peterson last year.
“We appreciate the job that Shane did, but it’s a relief to have it over with,” Cooreman said. “Now we can move on and keep going and try to get Tracy back on track. We had two good finalists, and it’s nice to have someone who is so excited about coming here. I think the people of Tracy are going to fall in love with him. He’s a very personable person.”
In his final interview, Ambuehl, of Little Falls, described himself as someone with a “really diverse background.” He has military experience and has owned several businesses. He started his own body shop/parts/towing business six months after post-secondary schooling at Ridgewater College in Willmar and Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
“It ended up developing into a multi-million dollar business,” Ambuehl said. “I ran that for 11 years.”
Ambuehl had 32 employees under him at his high point with the business. He maintains a good relationship with all of his employees to this day, he said.
After he closed his business — which he called a low point in his life — Ambuehl found himself at Camp Ripley, where he became an instructor teaching leadership classes.
“It’s an experience in its own — dealing with the demographics that are coming from different area of the country,” he said.
Ambuehl is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Public Administration at Upper Iowa University.
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Ambuehl said he is familiar with the Tracy City Council’s recent vitriolic past, which included a failed recall vote to remove one of its members. He said he did a lot of research on the situation and actually wrote a paper about recall elections after studying the process. He said those kinds of situations can be avoided.
“I think you can work through anything with proper communication,” he said. “I think you can go to the source of 99 percent of the problems and see a lack of communication between people. And you need definite expectations for everyone.”
Ambuehl said he is confident he can help the council work through any similar challenges in the future.
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Councilman Tony Peterson asked Ambuehl what makes him the best fit for Tracy.
“I think my diverse background, and working with people in all levels of business and government to different levels of income — I have such a diverse background in that,” Ambuehl said. “I have been involved in projects like purchasing fire trucks.”
Ambuehl has 18-and-a-half years of working with the Little Falls Fire Department.
“I understand the logistics and I understand the money standpoint,” he said.
Ambuehl also said the city will never have another person work harder than he will — “I was literally forced to take vacation in my last job,” he said. “You have to be dedicated to your job. If you don’t like it and don’t like your work environment, that’s the beginnings of a hostile work environment.”
Ambuehl also touted his leadership experience.
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Councilwoman Jeri Schons asked Ambuehl about his experience working with budgets and grants.
“Running a business for multiple years and starting out small, I ran every aspect, from accounts payable to accounts receivable, to advertising,” Ambuehl said. “It was my money at that point. I understand money when it’s mine, I understand money when it’s someone else’s.”
Ambuehl said he’s worked as part of a team for grants — mostly related to the fire department.
“I’ve dealt with asking for a lot of money — you have to justify the cause, how it’s applicable, who benefits,” he said.
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One of Ambuehl’s first priorities, he said, will be to meet as many people as possible and ascertain what their concerns are and what their expectations of him are.
“I don’t want to just show up Monday through Friday, be in the job for eight hours a day, then close the door and walk away,” he said. “I want to be involved in my community.”
Ambuehl said he wants to be involved in as many community events as possible, but doesn’t want to micromanage them.
“If they need my help, I want to help,” he said. “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I want to impact people’s lives directly.”
Ambuehl said it’s also important to get city employees’ expectations of him.
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Ambuehl said controlling the day-to-day operations is key to the city administrator position. He said solving a problem immediately and keeping it from landing before the city council if possible is important. He said he would like to take care of every problem at his level that is appropriate.
“There are certain things that need to be brought to the council, but there are certain things that you don’t have time to deal with,” he said.
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Ambuehl and his wife, Jessica, have three daughters, Ava, Adella and Kinzlee. He said the family will begin house shopping soon. He said he loves the city of Tracy and thinks it has a lot of unique opportunities.
“I’m really excited to join the team and be a member of the community,” he said. “One of the things that caught my attention was you’ve got a knowledgable mayor and council that come from pretty diverse backgrounds. Their experience and their goals match mine.”