Written by Brad Karger
As part of its commitment to be open, honest, and communicative about the topics Marathon County leadership and staff get comments and questions on the most, this month’s article in our “I’m Glad You Asked . . .” series features:
The Top-5 Questions the Marathon County Administrator (Brad Karger) Was Asked on the Eve of His Retirement
On New Year’s Eve, I’ll be officially retired.
I was only 30 years old when I was hired by Marathon County to be its Human Resources Director back in 1988. About a decade later, I became the Deputy Administrator, and another decade later, I became the County Administrator.
On my last day in 2019, I will have worked for Marathon County for 31 ½ years.
It’s a blessing to have had a government job that spans so many decades (really 3 different jobs, 1 employer). Now in the final month of my career here, the process of reflecting on all our accomplishments and celebrating our work together has begun…
Because there are over 700 County employees — plus all the board and committee members, 1,200+ subscribers to this publication, and tons of people whom I have worked with in the community (way too many to count!) — I can’t get around to everyone to share my appreciation and good-byes. So, I’ve put together this summary of the 5 things people have been asking me about most often during this final month of my decades-long employment with Marathon County.
Hopefully, this answers most of the questions you might have. If not — or if you’d like to send me a personal message — feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’m really busy wrapping up projects, but I’ll make time to read what you have to say and respond.
#1. What do you see as your biggest accomplishments?
I don’t know that I have many individual accomplishments — most everything I’ve done has truly been a group effort.
One success story that’s dear to my heart is the restoration of the fishing pond at the County’s Bluegill Bay Park (located at 226300 Bluegill Ave., Wausau). This was a massive project led by both Marathon County and the Rotary Club of Wausau. In the end, several community partners came together to create a beautiful, scenic fishing pond for adults and children in our community to enjoy for years to come.
The project was — and continues to be — a great teaching tool to educate residents about threats to our local water systems, as can be seen in the video below featuring drone footage of this local pond-cleanup project.
While I’m on the topic of parks, I’m proud to have had my hand in the building of the Eastbay Sports Complex on the site of a recovered landfill (602 E. Kent St., Wausau). Had the County not been open to taking ownership of the property, the land would have just sat idle. My role was in helping the County Board understand both the risk of taking ownership of a landfill site and the benefit of hosting one of the finest tournament soccer facilities in Wisconsin. The state-of-the-art Eastbay Sports Complex has 15 irrigated fields — including a lit championship field; parking for 430 vehicles, plus 176 overflow; a concession building; and a playground.
The Eastbay Sports Complex also hosts the annual Hmong Sports Festival, which involves soccer, but also volleyball, music and dancing, and a whole lot more. This community event alone brings in 9,000 attendees and adds an estimated $3 million to our local economy!
Check out drone footage of the Eastbay Sports Complex in the roughly 90-second video below:
Finally, I’ve been involved in a number of initiatives that have helped make Marathon County more inclusive of and appreciative toward our diverse populations. One example is the annual Martin Luther King “Day On” event each January, during which County staff and public servants take a collective break from their normal duties to spend the day together learning more about the various people who comprise Marathon County — the people we serve — such as Indigenous Peoples, the Amish and Mennonites, the Hmong, the LGBTQ+ community, people who are differently abled, and more.
Over the years, Marathon County has become increasingly more welcoming to diverse groups of people. For example, we’re a long way from the divisive “partner schools vs. neighborhood schools” debate of the 1990s, and most people I know applaud the progress that has been made in our communities regarding that issue — even though it’s clear that there’s more work to be done in that regard.
Several new cultural festivals — such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Pow Wow, Hmong New Year Festival, Diwali Festival of Lights, and the upcoming FREE Chinese New Year Celebration at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point (UWSP) at Wausau campus and East Gate Hall at Marathon Park on January 24–25, 2020 — that have emerged in recent years are fascinating and fun, for sure, but they also help to foster new perspectives on diversity and what it means to be part of this wonderful community.
I’d like to think that I had a small role in moving social change forward in Marathon County.
I’m proud to share this video of an interview I did with Kham Tong Yang, former president of the Hmong American Center (now the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association) Board of Directors. The video was recently shown at a retirement party hosted by the Hmong community of Marathon County in my honor. What a heart-warming treat that event was!
#2. Is there anything you’d have done differently in your Marathon County career?
To tell the truth, I’d do just about everything a little differently if I had it to do over…
My career followed a path described in a famous Maya Angelou quote:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
I didn’t get involved in a lot of things where there was a tried and true path to success. But the discovery was part of the fun.
Learning, trying, failing, and trying again is all part of the process. Anyone who takes a community leadership position needs to embrace the ambiguity and recognize that there are few right and wrong answers and that it’s not about individual success. Success comes from the efforts of teams and is defined by the impact that your actions have on the broader community.
#3. Has a new Administrator been chosen yet?
There is a Task Force in place to recruit applicants, conduct interviews and complete other tests, and to ultimately recommend a small group of finalists to the County’s Executive Committee. Once the pool of candidates is winnowed down to 5 or less, you’ll be informed of who they are and receive some background information on the candidates.
Wisconsin law requires the release of application materials once the selection process is down to a small group of finalists. (This is actually true for all government positions, but the media rarely has an interest in requesting such documents in all but a few exceptional hiring cases. I suspect that the County Administrator recruitment will be one such exceptional case and will be widely reported on.)
I presume that Lance Leonhard, Deputy County Administrator, will apply for the position and certainly will be one of the finalists. Although I won’t be involved in the selection process, I do think that Lance has the personal characteristics, job knowledge, and technical expertise to be very successful in the job.
If it were up to me, I’d just pick him and move on to the task of selecting someone to replace Lance for the Deputy County Administrator position. But I guess we’ll just have to let the process play out…
I don’t expect that a new County Administrator will be in place much before the 4th of July, 2020, though.
#4. What are your future plans?
To start with, my wife Linda and I will officially become “snowbirds” and will be leaving for Cape Canaveral, FL, in January and returning to our home in Marathon County when the Wisconsin winter is over. For a number of years now, we’ve owned a modest condominium near Cocoa Beach, and Linda has made good use of the place during the winters. I have been, at best, a “frequent visitor.” The permanent residents recognize me, but can’t remember my name. In fact, one time I was returning from a 5-mile jog on the beach, and I overheard one of the residents saying to the other:
“Do you know who that is? That’s Pierre’s dad.”
Pierre is our family’s Papillion and apparently a much better-known resident than I am!
Florida is a magical place, and I love to walk the beach at daybreak and sundown. The ocean is such a complex place — you never know what you might see.
Once I get enough clichéd retirement “beach, pool, and golf time” in, I plan to look for an opportunity to teach college courses as an adjunct faculty member. In the past, I’ve taught Human Resource Management courses for Upper Iowa University – Wausau Center. I enjoyed the interaction with the students, and I loved the idea that the classes lasted for 2 months and then they were over. In my Marathon County career, almost all initiatives we started we were still talking about 10 years later!
I’ve also been invited to join a number of community boards and groups doing community service, but I’ve decided to hold off on making any commitments until I’ve spent some quality time with my family first. One possibility that has piqued my interest is being a site leader for the LENA (Language ENvironment Analysis) Start Marathon County program that helps build early language and literacy and improve school readiness. I’ve been a LENA graduation speaker for the past 2 years, and this is a program that I know truly makes a difference. (Also, I love being in the company of the young parents and, of course, all the adorable children!)
#5. What advice would you give to the next County Administrator?
I’m not a follower of country music, but I heard a lyric from a Tim McGraw song that struck me as good advice for anyone, but particularly someone brave enough to lead a County Government:
“Always be humble and kind.”
In closing, it has been an honor to serve you as your County Administrator — and prior to that, as your Deputy County Administrator and Human Resource Director — for the past 31 years. I did my best to serve you well, keeping in mind (and reminding others) that it’s the many, diverse residents of Marathon County who need to be at the center of all County-level decision making. As I said in the Marathon County WorkStories profile video below regarding the people we serve:
“Let’s always keep their interests at the forefront of our thoughts. Let’s not talk about us.”
I hope the message you take away from that video was that throughout my 31-year career in Marathon County, I’ve always recognized:
Marathon County Administrator
In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $170 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday. Email Brad Karger.
(The above biography assumes that you’re reading this before 12/31/2019. After 1/1/2020, a title change from County Administrator to Beachcomber will be bestowed and I will become just another Yankee with no job, no schedule, and few responsibilities — frittering away time in the warm Florida sun.)
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