Analysis: Impasse on City Manager?

City Hall

On September 6, we knew that the Davis City Council conducted interviews of potential city manager hires. The interview process was noticed through a meeting agenda, but we only know the identities of some of the applicants through self-disclosure, in one case, and third-party sources in a few other cases.

Since then, the council met last Monday to discuss the hiring of a city manager, but there was no reportable action. Last night there were two items on a special closed session meeting – one was the public employment of a city manager.

The second was a conference with labor negotiators, which was noticed as Lucas Frerichs, Rochelle Swanson and Heather Renschler as agency-designated representatives, with “city manager candidate” as an unrepresented employee.

That led to speculation that the council had already selected the candidate and they simply needed to negotiate the contract. Perhaps that is, in fact, the case, but Mayor Dan Wolk informed the Vanguard that there was no reportable action.

We have had some interesting discussion regarding the secrecy of the city manager hiring process.

Many have defended the current process, arguing that this was the best way to convince qualified applicants to apply and that we have elected leadership and need to trust their decision-making ability.

We noted the spirit of the Brown Act, which reads, “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

At the same time, the Brown Act has created a “personnel exception,” which has the purpose of avoiding “undue publicity or embarrassment for public employees and to allow full and candid discussion of such employees by the body in question.”

Our view has always been that the Brown Act represents the floor rather than the ceiling for open government and transparency. The nice thing about a hiring process is that we are not bound by personnel laws – the candidates can opt in or opt out.

More importantly, the public remains completely in the dark as to where this most crucial hiring process stands. No reportable action could mean that the council is at impasse, still hoping to agree on the selection of a candidate and the ironing out of a contract.

It could mean that they have settled on a candidate but failed to agree to terms on a contract.

Mayor Wolk yesterday would only write, “The City Council has made significant progress on the search for a new City Manager. From a total pool of 88 applicants, the City Council narrowed the field significantly and has recently been in the process of interviewing a select number of highly qualified individuals. We are now nearing the final stages of this comprehensive process and a final selection will be made soon.”

As we noted how powerful and important the city manager position is, it is stunning how little we know about the hiring process.  And yet, in the city manager model of government, it is the most important position.

We are also very concerned because there are huge policy decisions that have to be made. In the last four years, the council has worked hard to bring employee compensation under control. The council pushed through critical reforms to the fire service on 3-2 votes last year.

However, state regulations and deferred maintenance pushed the city strongly into the red last year.

The city voters passed a sales tax to alleviate much of a $5 million structural deficit. However, we remain in critical need of additional funding for roads, parks, swimming pools, bike paths, sidewalks and city buildings.

The city will be looking to gain voter confidence in the short term for a parcel tax, and in the longer term to develop innovation parks. Without a city manager in place who instills confidence in the voters that we will continue down the path of fiscal sustainability, these goals will be elusive, at best.

The longer this drags out, the more likely there is a critical impasse in the city council. There are clear lines of cleavage, perhaps more deeply drawn than the previous council. But in order to lead, this council must come together. A 3-2 vote for city manager would be disastrous. However, hiring the wrong city manager would be far worse.

The public gets no say, no influence, and no chance to weigh in. It is not the best system, but it is the one we have to live with.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. hpierce

    David. With all due respect, you do not cite/quote the spirit of the law… you cite its text. The “spirit” is subject to interpretation. I assert that the “spirit” (and text) of the law does not mean that ALL disclosures need to be made ‘in real time’, prior to an action. I assert that the spirit and letter of the law will be met if, after settling on a new CM, the CC discloses who it is, what their experience and background is, pertinent reasons for the selection, and the terms of compensation agreed to. Getting into why candidates B and/or C were not chosen instead, to me is irrelevant.

    When the CC selects the candidate, they (CC members) should be identified as voting AYE or NAY. The sovereign people have the right at anytime to call upon the CC to fire a CM, and if they refuse, the sovereign people can act to recall any and all CC members. They have a remedy. I assert that having remedies does not deprive the people of their sovereign rights, and is consistent with both the letter and spirit of the law and the public interest.

    1. hpierce

      I think you overstate… the Brown Act is an information disclosure law, not a process law. I think it’s more ‘stirring the pot’ to get a reaction… successfully, as both you and I ‘rose to the bait’.

      The “news” portion is that the CC chambers is still burning wet straw, rather than dry. A new CM has yet to be named.

    2. David Greenwald

      My concern isn’t against representational vs. direct democracy, it’s about open governance. I’m not suggesting the community hire or not hire the next city manager. but rather I believe when processes are closed to the public it allows the specter of special interests to encroach.

      Special interests may not have encroached here, but the absence of special interests does not by itself vindicate the process.

      Put it another way, you yourself have been concerned about the fiscal conditions of this city, this process makes it far more likely that the next city manager will be closer in view to the last council than this council.

          1. Matt Williams

            Still confused. How do you see the respective councils of Krovoza-Swanson-Wolk-Frerichs-Lee and Davis-Swanson-Wolk-Frerichs-Lee differing in their attitude toward the unions?

      1. hpierce

        Cannot see how the process has changed since last time, and therefore cannot see how you reach the conclusion that this will end up being like the last council”… yet, why not the last CC? It seems you’d like to canonize Pinkerton, and were very fond of Krovosa…

        1. Davis Progressive

          it looks like he meant the previous council as in 2010 not last year. i’ve heard enough about who is likely to be hired that i’m concerned about the direction of the city.

          1. hpierce

            I, too, was speaking about 2010… what the heck is YOUR point? The process is the same now as then. I don’t recall David complaining about the process in 2010. My comments stand.

      2. Matt Williams

        this process makes it far more likely that the next city manager will be closer in view to the last council than this council.

        David, I am confused by the above statement in two ways.

        First, how does this process make the next CM closer in view to Krovoza-Swanson-Wolk-Frerichs-Lee than to Davis-Swanson-Wolk-Frerichs-Lee?

        Second, what do you see as the significant differences between the respective councils made up of Krovoza-Swanson-Wolk-Frerichs-Lee and Davis-Swanson-Wolk-Frerichs-Lee?

  2. PhilColeman

    “When the CC selects the candidate, they (CC members) should be identified as voting AYE or NAY.”

    Interesting notion. With complete disregard towards everything that followed this comment, a final tally made aware to a newly selected city manager I find to be a bad idea.

    With this disclosure, the new manager immediately knows where the support exists, and does not exist. This awareness would invite the possibility of the city manager demonstrating some bias towards his/her supporters, and a counter sentiment towards the minority opposition collation.

    By contrast, were the city manager to not know the vote breakdown, every councilmember is seen equal, and the measure of the manager is determined by the actual performance, rather than earlier preconceived perception or unfounded bias.

    1. hpierce

      I believe that the vote disclosure flows from relatively recent changes to the portions of the law known as the Brown Act. I did not mean to imply a preference, just compliance with the law as it now exists.

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