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Posted on Wed, Jul 13, 2011 : 4:05 p.m.

Ann Arbor officials say issues at city administrator finalist's former job not a concern

By Ryan J. Stanton

Related story: Ann Arbor City Council leaning toward Steve Powers for administrator job; vote expected Monday

Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje and other city officials say they don't see the controversy that surrounded Ellen Oppenheim at her last job in Nevada as a red flag.

Instead, they say she's still a serious candidate as the City Council moves toward making a decision on hiring a new city administrator Monday night.

Oppenheim, one of two finalists for the position, resigned Feb. 7 from her job making $234,000 a year as CEO of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority. She held the position since 2006 and is still on the payroll through Aug. 10.


Ellen Oppenheim

She's now seeking a job in Ann Arbor that's expected to pay somewhere in the range of $145,000 to $150,000.

Shortly before her resignation, an NBC news affiliate in Reno reported on Jan. 27 the RSCVA was responsible for a "major miscalculation" that could cost the local economy millions.

The RSCVA originally estimated the American International Choral Festival, held May 4-8 in Reno, would bring 6,000 room nights to Reno. But by January, after thousands of area hotel rooms already had been blocked off, a revised estimated showed the event would be significantly smaller.

Oppenheim resigned less than two weeks later, but she said it wasn't related to the miscalculation. Rather, she said she wanted to spend time with her ill mother in Texas.

An RSCVA spokesperson confirmed this week there were 400 participants in the Choral Festival when it came to Reno in May and 417 room nights reported in area hotels.

The spokesperson said the RSCVA provided $155,389 in funding to bring the event to town, all but $22,800 of which went to Interkultur, the Germany-based festival organizer.

Asked about the criticism she's taken over the festival, Oppenheim told this week she still considers it "a big success," though much smaller than expected. She said the RSCVA built all of its projections based on Interkultur's expectations.

"We worked very closely with them, recruited them for an event, they had very high expectations of how that event was going to roll out in the U.S.," she said. "We based our projections on the information they shared with us, based on their history in other parts of the world, and it didn't prove to be quite as optimistic as everybody had hoped."

Oppenheim maintains her resignation had nothing to do with the miscalculation or the bad publicity the RSCVA received over it.

"My resignation in Reno had to do with the fact that my mother became ill," she said. "And for the first time in my life, it became an issue of do I address a family need where my mother needed help. I felt I needed to put family first at that point."

Oppenheim said she's happy to say her mother is doing well now and has since relocated to another part of the country where her sister lives.

"So she's got a good support system and I'm now in a position to think about what I want to do with the next chapter of my life," she said.

In the past three years, the RSCVA budget, built mostly on room tax revenues, has been cut by 28 percent with dozens of jobs slashed, according to a recent report in the Reno Gazette-Journal. Oppenheim, the agency’s third CEO in the past decade, left behind ongoing financial struggles tied largely to the recession, which has shrunk visitor numbers across the Reno-Tahoe region, the Gazette-Journal reported.

Hieftje said he's aware there are people who are critical of Oppenheim for her past performance in Reno.

"I don't think it matters at all," he said. "Those issues, if they're important, will be coming up in discussions that we have and obviously there's people who are looking into all of that."

Added Hieftje: "I've been involved in some searches in my life, and a person who does something at their job, it's very difficult to do that without upsetting some people."

Council Member Marcia Higgins, D-4th Ward and head of the council's search committee, also said the issues surrounding Oppenheim at her last job are not a concern.

According the RSCVA's last audit, the agency's expenses in 2010 totaled $35.3 million while revenues totaled $31.1 million, a $4.2 million shortfall. The authority’s room license tax collections decreased by $863,354 or 4 percent from the prior year.

The liabilities of the agency exceeded its assets at the close of the fiscal year, translating to a total net deficit of more than $40 million.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's e-mail newsletters.


Chris Roces

Sat, Jul 16, 2011 : 5:36 p.m.

If she gets the job, feel very sorry for the people who will be working for her. They will not enjoy the experience.


Sat, Jul 16, 2011 : 4:58 a.m.

As a long time resident of Reno, I would like to pass on that no tears were shed when Ellen left town. Please note that the choral festival was the final act of a lackluster career that left the RSCVA in shambles. Her lack of leadership and her inability to work with others should be a concern to anyone involved with seeking a successful city administrator. To be polite, I would call her management style "imperial". She only listens to her friends and allies. Good luck.


Thu, Jul 14, 2011 : 8:14 p.m.

"she still considers it "a big success," though much smaller than expected." Smaller = Big??? Well guess she's not from Texas but she'd sure fit in with the Mayor and Council just fine...

tom swift jr.

Thu, Jul 14, 2011 : 4:43 p.m.

I keep thinking of Dr. Hope Jackson, whose previous "issues" were ignored when she was hired at Willow Run Schools... If we're not hired on our past record of performance, what ARE the criteria?


Thu, Jul 14, 2011 : 12:30 p.m.

This is criminal that our mayor and probably city council do not believe there are issues with Ms. Oppenheim and her prior employment practices. This is another indication that Ann Arbor lacks true visional leadership. Neither candidate is viable, yet we, as citizens and tax payers are powerless to make a change. City council and our leaders will do what they want, which does not seem to be in sync with good, sound practices or decisions.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Thu, Jul 14, 2011 : 11:05 a.m.

Ryan: I'd like to know who was involved in selecting the short list of three candidates from the entire field of applicants? Also, why not a poll on as to which candidate is preferred?

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, Jul 14, 2011 : 4:23 p.m.

Thanks for the suggestion, Stephen. Perhaps we will do a poll with my next story before Monday's meeting. As for who selected the short list, I described the process in a story earlier this week: <a href=""></a> As the story indicates, the city received about 60 applications for the administrator job. A consultant hired by the city, Affion Public, narrowed the pool of candidates down to nine last week and the City Council's search committee picked the three finalists from those nine. The search committee is chaired by Council Member Marcia Higgins. Other members include Tony Derezinski, Christopher Taylor, Mayor John Hieftje and Sabra Briere.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Thu, Jul 14, 2011 : 10:59 a.m.

&quot;An RSCVA spokesperson confirmed this week there were 400 participants in the Choral Festival when it came to Reno in May and 417 room nights reported ... RSCVA provided $155,389 in funding to bring the event to town...&quot; What a great use of the Reno taxpayers' money. That's $372.64 per room!

Jane Smith

Thu, Jul 14, 2011 : 2:40 a.m.

Again, as a Reno resident, I warn you about Ellen Oppenheim. Don't make the same mistake we did.


Thu, Jul 14, 2011 : 1:41 a.m.

Gotta agree with other commentators here! She seems like a perfect fit for Ann Arbor government given her track record of miscalculations!

John B.

Wed, Jul 13, 2011 : 10:52 p.m.

&quot;According the RSCVA's last audit, the agency's expenses in 2010 totaled $35.3 million while revenues totaled $31.1 million, a $4.2 million shortfall. The authority's room license tax collections decreased by $863,354 or 4 percent from the prior year. The liabilities of the agency exceeded its assets at the close of the fiscal year, translating to a total net deficit of more than $40 million.&quot; How does a tourism bureau end up with a net deficit of $40 Mil.? Yikes! Double yikes! Additionally, in the private sector, there are now companies that state &quot;no unemployed candidates need apply&quot; for any of their current job openings. I don't like that, it stinks, but that's reality. Given that rather nasty environment, how can these financial issues at her previous job, which she suddenly 'resigned from,' only to apply for lower-paying jobs soon thereafter, not be a major issue? I don't 'get it.'


Wed, Jul 13, 2011 : 10:45 p.m.

I'm truly sorry to hear of Oppenheims circumstances. However, as an ann arbor resident that excuse simply doesn't cut it. I would think that any good employee in good standing with a good company would get the time off they need, or at the very least be able to come back in an equivalent capacity. Applying for this job with such a huge pay cut is the bigger red flag to me. If ms Oppenheim had come out and admitted a mistake and vowed to learn from it and knew the necessarily steps to prevent it from happening again, then I would have had a lot better view of her as a candidate. Considering that this is arguably the most important governmental position in the city, I'm looking for transparency to go along with the competency.


Wed, Jul 13, 2011 : 10:11 p.m.

Why would it be a red flag to the mayor and counsel. They miss manage the city on a daily basis. Par for the course. Sounds like another sound decision on their part.

monroe c

Wed, Jul 13, 2011 : 8:59 p.m.

Responsible for a &quot;major miscalculation&quot; that could cost the local economy millions? Ms. Oppenheim sounds perfect for the job of Ann Arbor City Administrator! If nothing else, perhaps she can be put in charge of our recycling program.


Wed, Jul 13, 2011 : 8:41 p.m.

They are called red flags for a reason. Of course in a feel good society where such things as obvious and common sense doesn't prevail red flags are ignored. Red is such an angry feel bad color, why there are even parents out there that are outraged thier childrens school work is graded with a red marker. most people don't quit a job that pays that much after five years for a family obligation and then applies for another job so quickly, she just as easily could have asked to take a leave or used up some vacation time. Even if this one event wasn't the only reason it was the catalyst. we seriously don't need anymore miscalculations of significant porportions around here. this in no way means I perfer the dude seeking the job, frankly I don't like there only being two people seeking it (or the original three)


Thu, Jul 14, 2011 : 7:34 p.m.

Amen. Well said. I really wonder why the best candidate dropped out.

Bob Carlin

Wed, Jul 13, 2011 : 8:32 p.m.

Part of the reason an administrator hires a consultant, in this case Interkultur, is because if the project fails, the administrator just says, &quot;Hey, I followed procedure. I hired the best consultant and it's their fault, not mine.&quot; I'd rather hire an administrator who took responsibility.


Fri, Jul 15, 2011 : 3:35 a.m.

Blaming it on the consultant shows a significant flaw in personal character; that she's gotten this far in the search process is unacceptable!


Wed, Jul 13, 2011 : 8:15 p.m.

Gee, predicted 6000 room nights. Actual room nights was 417. With a track record of accurate predictions like that, she should fit in just fine in Ann Arbor City Government.


Wed, Jul 13, 2011 : 8:11 p.m.

Of course! Totally unrelated. Yikes.