Commentary: City Manager Hiring Process Remains Shrouded In Secrecy

The City Manager is more powerful than the Mayor in this system of Governance
The city manager is more powerful than the mayor in this system of governance

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 others.

Where does the process stand now? Well, I couldn’t very well tell you. What we know for sure is that there was no reportable action taken on September 6 and there is no closed session meeting on the city manager hire scheduled for Tuesday (tomorrow).

It is certainly an interesting process, cloaked in the protection of Government Code Section 54950.5, otherwise known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.

Ironically, the section opens with the following statement: “In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.

“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.”

And yet, within that section, are exemptions that allow personnel matters and hirings of this sort to take place outside of the public light.

The city manager, in this model of governance, is the single most powerful figure. The council has the ability to directly hire and fire two officials – the city manager and the city attorney. Everyone else serves at the will of the city manager.

The council hires the city manager who oversees the administrative operations of the city, implements the city council’s policies and advises it. The city manager operates as a form of a chief executive officer.

It is often argued that the city council, with the power to fire the city manager, still controls the levers of government. On a grand level that is probably an accurate depiction, but to the keen or, at least, persistent observer, the city manager has the ability to greatly shape policy through staff reports, strategies and the ability to implement.

My often-used example was the 3-2 vote taken in June of 2011 by the city council to cut $2.5 million from personnel. Under the best of circumstances in the middle of a contract, that would have been a tough task, but the city manager at the time had little interest in following through on the council cuts and dragged his feet. Eventually, while the city council would hire a new city manager, those cuts were never implemented.

Similarly to the contract cuts, the council had been looking at fire reforms for several years, but it took the ingenuity of the city manager to guide the process through. The bottom line is that, while the city council enacts policies, without a city manager both willing and capable of implementing these policies, the city council itself lacks real enforcement powers.

Yes, for serious breaches, the council can do as it did in 2006 and fire the city manager. But such an action has to be reserved for the most serious of breaches. The inability to implement a piece of council action is unlikely to result in termination. Most of what the city manager does is more subtle anyway – the line between implementation and non-implementation is thin, gray, and elusive to pin down.

A few weeks ago we spent some time laying out the attributes that would make for a good city manager, but here we have a separate point to make.

Given how powerful and important the city manager position is, it is stunning how little we know about the hiring process. Look no further than the process that unfolded that led to the exit of previous city manager Steve Pinkerton. The hiring process in Incline Village, Nevada, was very different. We knew or could have known that Mr. Pinkerton was an applicant for the position.

We knew when Mr. Pinkerton was a finalist for the position. There were multiple articles. We had some idea of where their board stood on the issue and we knew pretty soon that the other finalist was eliminated because of lack of qualifications.

We know nothing about such things here.

We have no official idea of which candidates were interviewed or who the finalists potentially are.

When Steve Pinkerton was hired in the summer of 2011, we had no idea that it was coming until we got a press release. We have no public process. No council meeting, no item on the public agenda, no opportunity for public comment, no opportunity to scrutinize the candidate until it is a done deal.

We live in a city that requires a public vote to change the designation of land from agricultural to urban uses. We live in a country where we elected our public leaders through an open and transparent public vote.

And yet, in our own community, we have no way to scrutinize the most powerful city official before he is hired.

Yes, I understand we elected our public officials to make those decisions for us, but as the Brown Act above signifies, “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.”

But what the Brown Act seeks to prevent is exactly what we have here and my biggest concern, as expressed last week, is that it allows special interests who have the ears of our elected officials to have a much stronger influence than the general public itself. That should worry us a great deal.

—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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28 Comments

  1. Chicolini

    The process for the selection of a city manager should be open and fair; it should follow the intent and guidelines as indicated in the Brown Act.

    A job description that includes duties, salary information, terms of employment, and goals should be made available to the public in a timely and concerted manner that ensures public awareness and involvement. The hiring process itself should be a delineated and transparent process that involves key members of the community, council members, and any concerned citizens of the community that express a wish to participate or comment on the selection process. The selection should have a clear timeline that ensures job placement.

    However, it seems the higher one goes up the scale in either private or public employment, the process for hiring becomes more dependent on a small pool of candidates and insular knowledge regarding availability and fit to the particular needs of the hire. Incline Village, a District in Washoe County, Nevada went through a search for their candidate that ended up with hiring Mr. Pinkerton. In a sense the process was no different than the one this city faces, given the realities previously mentioned. Regardless, the city council could and should adopt a clear and effective process and timeline that is open to public scrutiny in this upcoming hire for city manager.

    1. hpierce

      I suggest you seek to amend the Municipal Code, either via CC or initiative. I believe it would be unfair to have CM (or, apparently, in David’s view), department heads, or other potential employees to have to go thru a ‘vox populi’ process. It would also chill potential applicants from applying, knowing they would be “outed” to their current employers. Hell, we don’t even subject CC candidates to the same vetting you propose. If you want to go to an elected CM, then change the rules. Hell, you could even propose a strong mayor model, and go for a City Administrator instead of a City Manager. Maybe Krovosa would have hung around as a “strong mayor”.

      As it is, the CC is proceeding according to the Municipal code and state law. It is what it is, and we are well into it.

      The CM job description is/was on-line, as is the job announcement. Compensation issues were in a public memo and discussed in public.

      Too many folks want to have “control” without taking responsibility.

      1. PhilColeman

        The process for change to the proverbial “more transparent” selection of a city manager, or any other at-will employee can be affected as hpierce notes. Change the procedure.

        Some cities do have public participation, and I’ve participated in department head selections using that process. Some were extremely interesting and beneficial to candidate and community assessment by all involved. Others were public circuses of one-trick-ponies that had highly qualified candidates fleeing town, while muttering, “What was I thinking?” The latter instance is far more prevalent than the former.

        One absolutely certainty is that the now protracted city manager selection timeline would easily double with a public input component. The sad truth is that the Davis community having an objective grasp of the full array of city manager qualifications to administer effectively totals, maybe, 4 percent. That would dissuade nobody comprising the other 96 percent. City manager selection easily fits the notion, “The less you know, the more qualified you feel.”

      2. Matt Williams

        hpierce, I understand your argument, but hold out the Incline Village hiring process as the yin to your yan. They held substantial portions of their process in public and broadcast those portions on the internet. They appear to have gotten a very well qualified candidate to agree to be hired.

          1. Matt Williams

            Yes hpierce, they did. The whole back and forth of the process that disqualified the local candidate prior to the finals was conducted in open session and televised. Why is Incline Village not a good metric?

  2. Barack Palin

    Do we have a couple of council members purposely keeping the hiring process under wraps in order to try and get a candidate hired that is to their and some of their constituents liking?

    1. David Greenwald

      At least perhaps for top executive positions. I would probably go beyond just hiring of City Managers and Superintendents. It seemed to work okay in Nevada with more liberal disclosure laws.

      1. hpierce

        Please clarify… ~ 1 hr after this post you indicate you would limit it to CM & DJUSD Super. Here, you seem to indicate you’d have it go deeper into the organizations. Again, please clarify your position..

        1. David Greenwald

          When I said I would go beyond just hiring of City Manager and Superintendents, I meant into other issues. For example, the firing of Jim Antonen, the firing of Superintendent David Murphy were all done quietly and without public elaboration. I didn’t mean to suggest we go beyond the top executive positions in terms of public scrutiny.

  3. Bill

    Personally, I have no issue with the process. We elected the leadership and we need to trust in their decision-making ability. I have full faith in their collective wisdom and abilities.

    1. David Greenwald

      That really goes against what the Brown Act states in principle (I’m not saying this goes against the law of the Brown Act). But what’s more is that several people have told me that Davis has among the most secretive processes in the state.

      1. Bill

        Looking at this from the other side though… what if a City Manager is applying for the job from another city and doesn’t get the job. S/he has just submarined their current employment. We have a similar approach of confidentiality in my profession when hiring a pastor and it has served us well for a long, long time as our democratic gov’t). With that said, information is provided such as the job description and skills/qualifications sought.

        Trust is the key issue here. We elected these leaders to do exactly that… lead. It’s not easy to trust, but that is ultimately what is required in some cases. And I believe the Council has earned this trust over the last few years.

        1. hpierce

          Going one step further, Bill… even if such a candidate didn’t “submarine” themselves currently, if they ever went for another position, they could be at a disadvantage when a new prospective employer found out that they only were an ‘also-ran’ previously.

      2. Frankly

        David – with all due respect I think you are conflating your position as an insider to city politics to being one entitled to participate in certain decision making that is inappropriate at least, and disruptive at worst.

        Consider a company allowing their customers to select the new CEO… that is absurd.

        1. David Greenwald

          First, I don’t think the analogy holds since even a public company is not the same as a government. Second, I’m not asking that the voters or myself be allowed to select in the decision making process. What I am asking for is a more public process than we have.

          1. David Greenwald

            I have had several people – some of whom went through the process at other cities tell me otherwise.

          2. Frankly

            I do not think that more public involvement is beneficial to the process.

            We already have public involvement through representative government.

            Here is the way I see it. The new CM will be thrust into the Davis political theater soon enough. The hiring process should be outside of that. It needs to be professional and discrete like all hiring processes.

            There is nothing preventing any citizen from communicating their preferences to their CC representatives. For example, I will go on record that we should favor candidates that have experience managing an organization through severe fiscal difficulty and have a track record of success in achieving fiscal sustainability with minimal service disruption. I will also go on record that we should favor a candidate with strong people leadership skills and out-of-the-box thinking skills. Lastly, I would suggest that the candidate has skin as thick as alligator hide because he/she will be attacked on a regular basis for doing the job the way it needs to be done.

  4. Tia Will

    A question for David

    What specific steps would you advocate in order to improve transparency while at the same time maintaining confidentiality for the applicants and appropriate decision making autonomy for the CC members ?

    1. David Greenwald

      I don’t have a suggestion on how to do two things are in opposition to each other. I would suggest the League of Cities design a uniform guide to address the problem. I am not sure I buy that employees have the right to throw their hat in the ring in the hopes that they have no ramifications for doing so. It didn’t stop Pinkerton from applying to Incline.

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