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