ASHLAND, Ky. — Ashland's newly-named city manager said he's ready to leave the Pentagon and the Army behind and manage the city he's "always loved."
Michael Graese, 51, of Arlington, Va., was hired by the Ashland Board of City Commissioners Thursday in a unanimous vote after a lengthy executive session.
“I really want to be here,” Graese said in a phone interview with The Daily Independent. “I have always loved Ashland, from the first time I visited in 1986.”
Graese’s wife, Francie (Simpson) Graese, is an Ashland native. The two met in college at Eastern Kentucky University, and married at Rose Hill Baptist Church in 1989. The couple has three children, one of whom currently lives in Ashland with his fiancé. One of his wife’s brothers, Ron Simpson, is a sergeant for the Ashland Police Department.
Graese, who has served in the Army since 1984, has no experience working in city government. But he was the base commander for Fort Hill in Virginia, and for Fort Jackson in South Carolina for a combined eight years. As a garrison commander, Graese essentially had the same workload as a city manager, he said.
“It’s an almost identical structure,” said Graese. Garrisons, especially large garrisons like the two Graese commanded, are like city governments in that they are typically operated by multiple departments, such as public works and recreation.
City commissioners and Mayor Steve Gilmore said they backed Graese largely because of his leadership experience in the military, his ties to the city and his persistence.
Graese was considered the city's "No. 2" option when the commission picked Gary Huff, a city manager from Ohio, for the position in late March. Graese had interviewed with the commission and the rest of the city’s search committee the day before Huff’s interview.
After Huff backed out two weeks after accepting the job in early April, the commission did not hire Graese, but instead re-advertised the position regionally for roughly two weeks. The city received about 14 new applications, including four from candidates who had prior city or town manager experience.
The commission then narrowed the field down again to three and interviewed them in Ashland on Wednesday. One of the three was also from Virginia, another was from northern Kentucky and the third was a City of Ashland department head.
Commissioner Marty Gute, who previously said Huff “blew him (Graese) and the other candidates out of the water,” said Thursday none of the three interviewed could compete with Graese.
“The reason we didn’t go directly to Graese at the time was because we wanted to go back out and see if there was somebody who rivaled him,” said Gute.
The longest-tenured city commissioner said he’s impressed by Graese’s military pedigree and believes he will be able to unite the government “as a body.” Gute also said he has known Graese’s wife’s family for years, and they “are good people.”
“What also stood out to me about Graese is that he wants to be here. He has family here. His wife is from here. His leadership skills and willingness to want to live in Ashland for the rest of his working days are what set him apart,” said Gute.
“He’s got ties to our community, he’s got family here,” said Commissioner Matt Perkins. “That’s reassuring to me that he wants to be here.”
Gilmore said he expects Graese to be a strong motivator in the city building. “I think the department heads will flourish. I think he’ll take us to another level,” he said, touting Graese’s decorated military experience.
In addition to his work in the Pentagon as an executive officer to the assistant chief of staff for installation management, Graese was also the chief of staff for Force Strategic Engagement Cell in Iraq. As chief of staff, “Graese led an interagency effort to expedite reconciliation between the Iraqi government and armed groups operation outside the extant political system,” according to his resume.
Graese has a bachelor of arts degree from Eastern Kentucky University, and a master's degree in international relations from Troy State University.
It is unclear how much the city will pay Graese. Huff was set to make $140,000 annually and receive a three-year contract, the most lucrative and secure offer ever made to an Ashland city manager. Gilmore said Graese will also sign a contract, but the terms of which, including salary, have not been finalized.
The commission met in executive session with the search committee, which includes Corbitt, former City Attorney Richard “Sonny” Martin and former City Manager Bill Fisher, for more than an hour to discuss applicants before the announcement was made.
Graese’s retirement from the Army is not yet official, and he will likely not step into the Ashland city manager’s office until August.
When he does, Graese said he’ll be dedicated to “implementing the vision of the commissioners and mayor for the city on behalf of the citizens they represent.” He said he’ll be focused on creating strategies and objectives for the city's future, and ensuring they are carried out.
“I would love to see Ashland be the premiere place to be in the region, and I don’t see why Ashland can’t be that place,” he said.