The announcement in late September of a change in leadership at the top of the Lee County Economic Development Group caught many off-guard, including the local governments that fund the organization. Now, LCEDG is defending its decision while its former leader is speaking out.
LCEDG issued a statement on Sept. 23, 2016 that Joe Steil would take the reins of CEO on Sept. 27.
Steil replaced Steve Bisenius, who had been with the group for more than eight years. Steil was Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors at the time of his hiring, and the board chose him without the use of a search firm or even going through a formal search process.
That seemed to trouble the city of Keokuk, which contributes $50,000 annually to local economic development efforts. Enough so that it sought further details from LCEDG’s Board about the hiring process and the overall management of the organization.
LCEDG answered the questions in writing in late October before attending the November 17 Keokuk City Council workshop to further clarify its actions.
Kathy Gabel, President of Keokuk Economic Development Group and a member of the LCEDG Board of Directors, told aldermen the Board of Directors has full confidence in Steil as CEO because of his hard work and attention to detail. But she acknowledged the backlash that has followed the hiring.
“Is it what everyone wanted? Obviously not,” said Gabel. “Obviously we disappointed people. I have talked to the [rest of the board] about the potential to look at our hiring practices in the future.”
The hiring process seemed to be the greatest point of contention for city leaders in Keokuk.
Mayor Tom Marion said there should have been a formal search process, whether regional or national, for which Steil would have put his resume up against others in the economic development field.
“I have a problem with the quality of the person you hired,” said Marion. “I can’t tell you how to do anything and I would be presumptuous to do that. However, again, [the city is] putting money into this and I want to know we are getting the bang for the buck.”
Marion also questioned the Board’s decision to elevate one of its own members to CEO.
“I think I told you guys this, that in the legal realm, we have canons of ethics and one of them is you always avoid even the appearance of impropriety. When you get someone off of your own board, to me, that’s an appearance of impropriety,” said Marion.
Dave Schwarz, Chairman of the LCEDG Board of Directors, said the board understands Marion’s concerns about the appearance of the hiring.
“We appreciate that and totally understand it,” said Schwarz. “At the time, it did not seem from our perspective that we were, I guess, creating a negative out there. We felt we had a really strong candidate that everyone in the community knows.”
He said the board discussed the matter during a roughly four hour meeting before deciding to forego a lengthy search process and hire Steil based on his experience and his ability to hit the ground running.
“I’m having a hard time looking at it from a perspective that it should have been opened up nationwide and we would have spent 3-4 months going through that process,” said Schwarz, adding that time was of the essence given the effort to re-open Keokuk Steel Castings.
LCEDG’s board did acknowledge during the discussion that it created the vacancy filled by Steil by terminating the employment of Steve Bisenius. Members said Bisenius was not on the same page as them in terms of workforce development and the overall vision for LCEDG.
Bisenius did not hold back when asked by Tri States Public Radio about the comments made during the Keokuk City Council workshop held Nov. 17.
“That is absurd,” said Bisenius. “There are two other people in the office who all they did was focus on the workforce development issues. No one else [but me was] focusing on helping industrial start-ups or helping the other industries on various issues.”
Bisenius said he was hired eight years ago to focus on business development and he feels he’s done a good job of that, pointing to:
- Iowa Fertilizer Company’s new plant near Wever (with thousands of construction jobs)
- AMJET Turbine Systems start-up in Keokuk
- Keokuk marketing a former industrial laboratory for commercial/industrial use
- Keokuk Steel Castings potentially re-opening by early 2017
“I think the key thing right now is, ‘Where’s the beef?’ Let’s show what I’ve done and show what they’ve done and the jobs they’re creating are just not there,” said Bisenius.
Bisenius said he thought he had a good relationship with the board, until he was called out of a meeting regarding the re-use of the laboratory space in Keokuk to meet with the board, which terminated him.
He said he even received a positive job review this year. He said the only indication he received was that the board was trying to help Steil find work after he lost his job during a merger of several local banks and insurance companies.
“It’s the only answer I have ever gotten,” said Bisenius. “That was the only thing that was ever commented on so that’s the only impression I have to go on.”