Off the Cuff: Rob Hillard, City Manager


Photo by Rick Yu, Photo Editor

City Manager Rob Hillard listens to residents at a forum in October.

Oliver Bok, Editor in Chief

Rob Hillard began his job as Oberlin’s new city manager Monday. In his new position, Hillard will run the city administration and make recommendations to City Council. Hillard served as the city manager for Allegan, MI, from 2005 to 2016. Previously, he worked as the city manager for Yellow Springs, Ohio — home of Antioch College — from 2000 to 2005. The City Council unanimously selected Hillard for the job Oct. 27 after a 10-month search. After narrowing the search to two candidates earlier — Finance Director Sal Talarico and Lowell Crow, a city manager in Monmouth, IL — the City Council couldn’t agree on a final selection, leading to a reopening of the search process and Hillard’s hiring.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What have the first few days been like?

Full of meetings, listening to a lot of individuals regarding Oberlin, its history and projects. Working closely with city staff to get up to speed on procedures. In a nutshell, it’s been very busy, very informative.

Does it feel very different from your previous job?

Most of my experience was in Michigan. I’ve had experience in Ohio before. It’s more reaffirming my knowledge from my previous position in Ohio. Very, very impressed with the staff and the procedures and the organization so far.

What kinds of things are you most excited to work on?

I’m excited to work with the City Council on their goals and objectives. they’re working on environmental sustainability issues, social justice issues, and I’m very excited to work with city staff. There’s a lot of expertise here that will be very valuable moving forward.

What attracted you to Oberlin?

My experiences are primarily in smaller communities. Oberlin, with its downtown business district, of course Oberlin College and the diversity the community, offers were quite attractive to me.

How do you deal with suddenly working with a whole new set of city staff? How has that transition been going?

It’s been great. Again, my observation is that Oberlin has a very knowledgeable, experienced staff in many departments. They’ve been open, they understand the role of the city manager and their roles as department heads. It’s been a real joy to interact with them.

Has there been any awkwardness between you and Sal Talarico [the current finance director and former interim city manger, who also applied for the position on a permanent basis]?

Not at all. Sal is a professional. He’s been so supportive. I’m a big fan.

There’s been some division on City Council for a while now — in terms of the city manager search but also other issues, such as what to do with the Renewable Energy Credits. Do you think that’s something a city manager can help with?

Again, part of this is respect for the roles and the process. I do have a collaborative style of management that I hope will be helpful. At the same time, I respect the City Council, I respect their deliberation process and I’m here to serve them.

What does a collaborative style mean?

Just as an example, part of my first goals and objectives is to listen to the individuals of the City Council, understanding what their goals and objectives are, understand why they’re serving so I can better approach creating competent direction as they see fit. So collaboration is listening; collaboration is understanding what’s possible; collaboration is also acknowledging the roles that we play — me as a city manager, council [in] their roles.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

No, I’m just very appreciative of the opportunity to serve the citizens of Oberlin, and I appreciate the support I’ve received.

Have you moved to Oberlin permanently?

Yes, I have.

What was that transition like on a personal level?

Moving from Michigan to Ohio, we’re still sorting out the process, but Oberlin’s been a great community to move into. I’ve been very impressed by the restaurants and the people of the town, and of course, the council and department heads. It’s been very welcoming.

Your last job ended rather suddenly. Can you speak to why the City Council asked you to resign?

I worked with [the] council on the resignation. I’d been there for a number of years; they were looking to go for a different direction. It was amicable. I’m very supportive of the city of Allegan.

Is being a city manager strange, in that you’re an apolitical city employee who nevertheless is in the center of city politics? Have you ever deeply disagreed with a decision by City Council at a city that you’ve managed?

No, the objective of being a good city manager is to be thorough in your research to provide the strongest recommendation possible, but also knowing that the City Council develops policy. So as we do our jobs, we just need to respect our roles and create a trusting relationship that can assure that we’re working towards the betterment of the Oberlin community. I’ve been very, very impressed with the knowledge of City Council and department heads and I’m looking forward to continuing to work.

Why do you think City Council chose you for the job?

I believe my over 28 years of experience in municipal government was helpful. I believe my experiences working as a collaborative city manager was important. And those are just two [reasons]. I’ve had a number of opportunities to work with granting programs. And the vast majority of my experience is with working in smaller communities and dynamic communities. I have experience working in a college town; I have experience working with diverse staff. And again, I feel that Oberlin is a great opportunity.