Earlier this week, we lamented the secrecy of the city manager search process. However, all will soon be known, or so we suspect. On Monday at 5:15pm, the Davis City Council will have a closed session item regarding the city manager. Interestingly enough there is no item on the agenda for Tuesday regarding that, which seems odd, because what if they need to discuss the city manager prior to the regular meeting on Tuesday?
Given that two weeks ago we knew that the council interviewed perhaps four finalists for the position, it seems that there is at least a possibility that we might know on Monday night or Tuesday who the next city manager will be.
We 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.
We immediately ran into a dilemma, however. It was pointed out that we may well have fewer qualified applicants if we held meetings in public. Apparently, in the past, applicants have asked for absolute confidentiality because they were concerned publicity about current jobs may adversely affect them.
On the other hand, we noted that the process in Incline Village was very open. Davis found out that Steve Pinkerton was applying for the job and was a finalist. It gave the council an opportunity to potentially make him an offer he couldn’t refuse – that either did not happen or did not work. It also gave the media up in Incline a chance to scrutinize the candidates and, ultimately, one was found to be unqualified for the position.
Incline Village is in Nevada, which has much more liberal open government laws than we do. However, it was noted to the Vanguard that Davis has one of the most secretive recruiting processes in the state. There have been many city manager recruitments, even in California, where the finalists went through a more public vetting.
All of this discussion, however, masks a far more important point and that is the power of the city manager position and the importance of finding the right hire to move forward with economic development and budget sustainability, rather than backward.
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. And yet, in the city manager model of government, it is the most important position.
Someone asked the question of what would have happened with the MRAP controversy had former City Manager Steve Pinkerton still been around. While it is difficult to know for sure, Mr. Pinkerton would have had a better sense of what the community response would have been and hopefully would have avoided springing the issue on the city council by surprise and at the last moment.
We saw the effective use of the position as Mr. Pinkerton implemented fire reforms, and perhaps less effect in the Mace 391 debacle when he misread public sentiment, agendized the item as a consent item, and caught many on the council off guard.
The biggest weakness of Steve Pinkerton was that he did not come from Davis, so he had to quickly learn the players and the lay of the land, and understand community sentiment.
However, as we saw over and over again under the leadership of Bill Emlen, familiarity with the community was no assurance that the city would recognize community sentiment. The NewPath incident, where a communications company was allowed to begin setting up a communications array without public input or proper public notification, illustrates that even under a city manager hired internally with decades’ worth of experience in Davis, these mistakes can occur.
Besides, the biggest factor that Steve Pinkerton brought to the table was his independence. Steve Pinkerton had a council majority backing him on things like budget cuts, new contracts, impasse, and, of course, firefighter reform. But, while Mr. Pinkerton had to forge ground at times on 3-2 votes, much of the heavy lifting on the tough reforms came from city staff itself.
It was the work of Steve Pinkerton in bringing in the right person to do a department audit – Interim Fire Chief Scott Kenley, and his work in laying a solid and credible foundation – that enabled the city in 2013 to pass sweeping fire reforms, despite being opposed at every step of the way by the firefighters’ union.
We remain concerned that the wrong hire will allow firefighters, who have been on the outside looking in for four years now, to reemerge as a power in city hall.
Despite the view that the firefighters have lost public sympathy, they have not given up.
They fought reforms to the death. They attempted to precinct walk and rally the community to their side – to little avail. They attempted to protest outside City Hall. They formed a Friends of the Firefighters Committee. They attempted a no confidence vote of Landy Black, who was put in charge of both departments for a time.
They got not one, but two letters from prominent Democratic officials. None of this worked.
When that failed, they convinced two councilmembers to attempt to fire the city manager and, while that move was unsuccessful, it led ultimately to the exit of Steve Pinkerton.
Now the firefighters sense an opportunity, even though on paper it still looks like there is a 3-2 majority on council to keep the reforms in place. However, the firefighters are smart enough to know that if they can get a more sympathetic city manager hired, they can begin to break down some of the reforms that were put into place last year.
It won’t be easy. Steve Pinkerton did a good job in his implementation of two key things – first, the shared management services were set up to auto-renew, which means that the council has to act to overturn that arrangement. Second, the same auto-renew feature is part of the change to the “three on an engine” fire staffing.
Given the city’s fiscal situation it will be difficult for council to get three votes to revert back to the “four on an engine” fire staffing, or end shared management, or take a less aggressive stance on a new contract. But cracking the door open to the still formidable firefighters’ union with its huge amounts of manpower and resources would be a huge mistake.
The best way to guard against having to fight another round of battles is to hire a city manager from outside the county’s power structure.
It is my view that the future of the city rests on who the next hire is, because the wrong move could roll back most of our hard-fought reform acts and cause the situation to slide backwards.
We would love to trust the city council to uphold the community’s best interests – but that will be put to a test, perhaps as soon as Monday or Tuesday.
—David M. Greenwald reporting