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Manager hopes to help unify council

A divided York County Council known more for its squabbling than its decision-making might be getting some relief from the man it is hiring to be county manager.

By all accounts, council members hope Jim Baker, 53, will help them congeal after months of fighting and inertia.

"Hopefully, I can be a unifying influence," Baker said.

Baker has a history of bringing together disputing parties. In his former job, as a top administrator in St. Louis County, Mo. (separate from the city of St. Louis), he brought together 91 municipalities to support a $100 million county jail, organizing a bond issue to pay for it.

York County has been without a county manager since December, when Al Greene resigned.

Baker will be in charge of the county staff and manage the growing pains of York County.

Finding Baker, council Chairman Buddy Motz said, was finding "a golden egg."

If Baker hadn't taken the job, Motz said, the council would have had to start the hiring process again.

But, he did accept and is in contract negotiations with the county. His hiring could be approved by a council vote Monday.

People who have worked with Baker say he's a dedicated, even-keeled administrator who was highly competent.

"You couldn't ask for a better person," said Charlie Dooley, the chief executive for St. Louis County and Baker's boss for the past three years.

Baker has worked with the county for more than 16 years -- in a county government that has 3,000 employees and gives municipal services to more than 300,000 people. York County government has about 900 employees in a county of about 200,000 people.

Baker was a prosecutor for more than 11 years. When voters elected his boss, Buzz Westfall, to be county executive, Westfall took Baker with him.

After Westfall died several years ago, Dooley took over the position, making Baker his chief of staff.

"I don't know what I would have done (without him)," Dooley said.

In his position in St. Louis County, Baker made more than $142,000 a year -- or about $20,000 more than the Missouri governor, as the St. Louis Business Journal noted. He will get $55,000 a year in retirement benefits. Both Baker and the York County Council said last week that they had not agreed on the terms of his package.

Baker said he anticipates moving to York County in about a month. He will come alone, leaving his wife, a city councilwoman in Wildwood, Mo., and his younger son in Missouri while his son completes his senior year in high school. His older son will be a freshman at Indiana University.

Missouri State Circuit Court Judge John Ross started the same day as Baker in the prosecutor's office 28 years ago. Like Baker, Westfall brought Ross with him into county government, where he continued to work with Baker.

"He's incredibly hard-working," Ross said.

Ross credited Baker with leading the effort to get the new jail, which faced considerable opposition.

The success Baker has had at his job may come from his even temperament, Ross said.

"He doesn't have real highs or lows," Ross said.

During his tenure, Baker was named in a couple of lawsuits that Dooley called "frivolous," both of which were resolved in the defendants' favor.

Ross said that goes with the territory of being in Baker's position.

"I've never known him to be involved in anything but positive things," Ross said.

Tim Fischesser, the executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League, said Baker was a man "quietly getting things done."

"He has a straightforward, easygoing approach," Fischesser said. "It's a big loss to us."

Even some of Westfall's adversaries have praise for Baker.

"I never doubted his word. I can't say that for everybody in Mr. Westfall's administration," said Kurt Odenwald, a former county councilman who described his relationship with Westfall as "rocky."

Baker played the middleman between Odenwald, a Republican, and Westfall, a Democrat.

"Jim was a good mediator," Odenwald said.

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