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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Friday, March 17, 2017 by Jo Clifton
Some seek to protect manager applicants’ names
A group of Austin citizens is urging City Council to do something out of the ordinary when they hire the next city manager – keep the names of the applicants a secret and only reveal the name of the person they want to hire once they’ve made a decision.
According to a letter destined for delivery to Council and being circulated by local activist Fred Lewis, "We believe that you should follow the advice of your first-class search firm, Russell Reynolds, and keep the City Manager applicants’ identities private. This will ensure that the best applicants from all sectors apply, giving you the opportunity to hire the highest-caliber city manager, which should be the paramount goal."
Lewis and other signers of the letter, including Mike Hebert and Linda Bailey, wrote that "(a) public dog and pony show of finalists will have little to no impact on the Council’s selection process, but it will gravely harm the caliber of applicants to be City Manager. We would ask you to heed the caution of Steve Newton of Russell Reynolds when he said, 'to open candidates to public vetting puts the process at risk.'”
Hebert told the Austin Monitor that Council should listen to Newton. "If you do it the way we've always done it historically, we will get a bunch of assistant city managers, who are not proven, but their current employers will not criticize them for trying to climb the ladder of success," he concluded.
"It's absolutely essential" that applicants' names be shielded from the public, said Mike Levy, former Texas Monthly publisher and longtime advocate for public safety services in Austin. Levy said he had received the letter but had not signed it.
"You never disclose" the names of the candidates, Levy said. "That’s rule one of a major search. You can have a beauty contest," but that will "push away the best candidates."
Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, told the Monitor, "I think the rationale behind it is you get a better pool of applicants this way. If you're a qualified applicant and you're applying for a job, you probably don't want your boss to know." Ingle said the private process is about finding the best person for the job.
In the past, finalists for high-level jobs such as city manager and chief of police have gone through a public process with members of the community listening to them speak and asking them questions.
But Ingle said, "What I've experienced in the past is we have a beauty pageant where we parade out the candidates, and you don't get the best-qualified people if they're on parade. I think it discourages people from applying. Though I really think this is about quality, getting the best-qualified candidate to manage the city, and I don't see any problem with it."
This does not necessarily mean that no citizen would know the names and qualifications of the applicants, because Council is planning to appoint a citizens advisory group for that purpose.
The writers of the letter are aware of the planned committee process and said that they are "strong advocates for public participation and open government, but because of privacy concerns and the negative impact on the hiring process, personnel hiring is a standard exception to open government rules. Until the Council votes on the finalist in open session, we believe that the names of all City Manager applicants should be kept private.
"The public’s input, in our opinion, is most meaningful at public hearings on what residents want in a City Manager and what vision they want for our city," the writers continued. "The public will be best represented, through their diversity and expertise, by the Council Designated Group and the City Council."
But it is not clear how the city can keep the names from being disclosed if members of a Council designated task force know those names.
LBJ School of Public Affairs Professor Emeritus Terrell Blodgett pointed out that Dallas recently appointed a new city manager from Tacoma, Washington. According to news reports, the city of Dallas revealed the names of five finalists before selecting its new manager.
"I think it's done both ways," said Blodgett. "(But) I think the cat's already out of the bag in Austin. I think you'd have a firestorm. I don't necessarily agree with making it public, and I think you will run the risk of a losing a manager or two that doesn't want to be exposed, who doesn’t want to run the risk of losing" his current position.
"Past experience has been that there are good managers who have refused to go through that," he continued. "But I think in Austin it's very difficult to reverse course that the city has had in the last several years."
In 2008, when Council hired Marc Ott to be city manager, he and the other finalist met with the public in just the kind of "beauty contest" the letter writers and others are rejecting.
Council is scheduled to vote on the city manager search process, including how many committee members to appoint and whether the public would be able to vet the final candidates, at next Thursday's meeting.
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