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After almost 23 years as city manager, Michael Wilkes sees bright future for Olathe

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In the late-1990s, when Michael Wilkes first arrived in Olathe as the city manager, the area was growing pretty quickly, but was still small in comparison to some of its neighbors. A bedroom community, the population was about 92,000 and growing. 

Since his arrival, Olathe has expanded rapidly, the population in 2020 ballooning to 141,000 and rising, making it still one of the fastest growing cities and one of the largest communities in the state of Kansas. 

That growth is evident in a lot of areas of the city, but Wilkes says he feels it most keenly in the businesses. 

“Most people slept here but they didn't work here, and now, we import more jobs into Olathe and then we export,” he said. “With that growth has come a lot of things, a lot of shopping opportunities, a lot of eating opportunities, a lot of businesses, a lot of job opportunities.” 

The city government itself, which Wilkes leads, has also emerged as a regional leader, going from a “very good performing organization to an excellent performing organization.” 

‘ALWAYS IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE COMMUNITY’ 

Susan Sherman has served as his deputy throughout his whole time in Olathe. She says he has a lot of “passion and that’s contagious.” 

“I would say Michael Wilkes has a great passion for making a difference where he is,” she says. “He enjoys working with others to make sure that we're doing some things that are maybe a little bit innovative and out of the box, but always in the best interest of the community.” 

Sherman said she believes, under Wilkes’ leadership, the community has flourished, but the credit should be shared across the board.

“I think Olathe was poised to grow because of its location, but also because the hospital and the school district and the community all come together and work together,” she said. “And I think bringing all those things together with Michael Wilkes' leadership, the City Council’s leadership, the school board's leadership, the Chamber of Commerce, it just all came together at the right time.”

City managers can fly under the radar, especially if they’re good at their jobs. They aren’t elected like the City Council but hired, and like Wilkes, they can hold the position for decades, or they can be short-term leaders.

Ron Fehr, for 21 years the city manager in Manhattan, said Wilkes "has done some pretty amazing things" in his long tenure. Fehr said Wilkes and Sherman are both very well-respected in the profession across the state, saying they're well-known for transparency and for involving citizens in the process through surveys and other tools. 

LIKE THE CEO 

“What I tell everybody that doesn't really know much about what a city manager is if you think about it in terms of ... a private sector company,” he said, “I'm basically like the president and CEO of the company. So my job is to run the day to day operations of the city in conformance with policy direction of the governing body, which is like my board of directors.” 

That relationship was illustrated recently with the budget approval process throughout the summer and into the fall. The budget, a recommendation made by city staff led by Wilkes, is ultimately considered by and adopted by the City Council. They can either adopt the recommendation, or like they ultimately did with the 2022 budget approval, veer from the proposed materials. That decision and others made by the governing body elected to serve the city then drive how Wilkes administers and leads Olathe for the next year. 

“Our job as staff is to make sure that we try to meet those objectives and those goals and those targets in terms of where the council believes we need to be as a community,” Wilkes said. 

Though not the primary focus of the government structure in Olathe, Wilkes’ contributions haven’t gone unrecognized. As recently as 2016, he was honored for Excellence in Public Management by the Kansas Association of City/County Managers. During the city’s sesquicentennial celebration, he was also added to the list of Olathe's 150 Most Notable People. In 2001, he was named Olathe Citizen of the Year.  

Wilkes says his family is important to him, and that’s a value he shares with the city. 

He and his wife Holly Wilkes, who have been married for 36 years, have two daughters named Rachel and Hannah. Rachel, the oldest, recently graduated from college and works at Garmin in Olathe. Hannah is a senior at Christ Preparatory Academy in Lenexa. 

“I try to run the organization,” Wilkes said, “with that as a priority and make that a priority for everybody in the organization because it's a priority for me.” 

That shared emphasis on family has also helped him foster relationships within the city, he said. 

“The real highlight of this job for me has been the relationships and the people. This organization, what we've been able to build in terms of a culture of just people that give their all to meet the needs of their friends and neighbors,” Wilkes said. “I believe our secret sauce in customer services that our people treat their customer like family members, friends and neighbors.” 

JOURNEY TO OLATHE 

Fresh out of graduate school from Georgia State University in 1984, Michael Wilkes was headed to an internship in Jackson County, Oregon, that would take him on rotations throughout different departments. After spending about four months of the year-long program in the budget office, he says he saw that as a good starting place to help him attain his dream job — being a city manager. 

“I really felt like having a good firm grasp on the budget was something that would be important to me for the rest of my career,” Wilkes said. 

From there, he ended up in Eugene, Oregon, working as a budget analyst for the city. He later returned to Georgia to work in Gwinnett County as a budget manager, and over time, worked his way up to the assistant county manager position. That eventually opened the door to his dream job — city manager in Alpharetta, Georgia, north of Atlanta. 

At the time, Wilkes had a friend who had moved to the Kansas City area that he would visit periodically. 

“​​I would come out and go to Chiefs games with him, kind of hanging out,” he said. 

In 1998, that friend called Wilkes. 

“‘Hey, there's this town called Olathe’, which I couldn't pronounce at the time,” he said. “‘They're looking for a city manager, I think you ought to apply.’” 

The timing was good too, he said. After six years or so in Alpharetta, Wilkes said he “wanted to take the next step up” and start looking for city manager jobs in larger cities. 

He visited Olathe to interview for the job and said it took awhile for the city to get back to him, but by the end of the year, he knew where he was headed. 

LONG TENURE 

Wilkes, 62, started working at the city in January of 1999, and he never left. That wasn’t necessarily his plan when he came to the city, but he’s hopeful his time at the helm will continue. 

“I didn't come here 22 years ago, thinking that I'd be here for the rest of my career, but at this point in time, that's certainly what I intend to do,” Wilkes said. 

He attributes his length of service, in part, to his relationship with the City Council. For most of the last 20 years or so, there’s been little shakeup among the members, with some exceptions. Ward 2 representative Adam Mickelson beat out a long-time incumbent to win his seat in 2019, and Olathe’s longest serving Mayor Mike Copeland passed unexpectedly in 2020, leading to some shuffling on the dias to fill the loss. 

“When there's a lack of trust between City Council and a city manager, things aren't going to go too well in that community, you see a lot of backbiting and fighting on TV or in their governing body meetings or whatever, and you know the business community tends to respond to that, citizens tend to respond that, nobody really likes it,” Wilkes said. “We've been very fortunate we've had a great relationship all along. … You have built a level of trust in what we're doing and what they're doing, then you know it works, and it's worked for us for a long time.” 

Wilkes is also a self-described “risk-taker.” That sort of entrepreneurial spirit could have put him at odds with a different City Council, but he said he’s been given a lot of latitude to try new things. 

“If you have a CEO or a president of your company that does that, you have to have a governing body that's willing to allow that person to do that job, and trust them to do the job that they get hired to do, and our governing body has done that,” he said.

Fehr, the Manhattan city manager, said when he once came to Olathe to present an award to Wilkes, it struck him how supportive the council was. 

The way Wilkes sees it, his long tenure with the city has been an opportunity to watch it grow across all sectors. 

“Here we are 22 and a half years later,” Wilkes said. “Olathe has transformed really as a place to live, work and play.” 

LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE 

If you want to see the effects of the growth, look no further than downtown Olathe. For the first time in nearly three decades, new multifamily housing options are going in on the site of the old library, a new downtown library branch is under construction and the Chamber of Commerce is moving back to the area. There’s also the new county courthouse and plans for an evolving Johnson County Public Square multi use community space. “Rejuvenating” that area of the city has been a long-term goal, Wilkes said, one that’s finally being realized. 

In Wilkes’ early days with Olathe, he also oversaw the formulation and adoption of the city’s first strategic plan in 2002, which helped lead the organization and the mission of the city into the 2020s. It was recently updated under the Olathe 2040 framework, which seeks to guide the city for the next two decades. 

With that in mind, Wilkes sees a bright future for the city as it continues to build on its success, one he hopes to be a part of. 

“Growth always brings opportunities, right, and we continue to grow. So, I think we have to continue to make sure that we're on top of how how best to serve the needs of the public, whether that's in public safety or transportation,” he said, “or something like parks and recreation, which is a quality of life issue and makes people want to be here.” 

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