Why is Davis’ City Manager Hiring Process So Secret?

townhallWe had some interesting reactions to yesterday’s article, in which we depicted the city manager hiring process as shrouded in secrecy. 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.

Yesterday 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.”

There are two views on this, both of which seem to have legitimate purposes. One is 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.

Former Davis Police Chief Phil Coleman noted yesterday, “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.”

Mr. Coleman captures the dilemma that cities face. And that goes both ways, of course, and the protections that exist for the candidates can become protections for the city council.

I read this story from the city of Carson from about a year ago.   The article noted, “In a city known for its petty politics and public back-stabbing, elected officials came together to pluck a civil engineer with little if any municipal management experience to run a city with more than 600 employees and a $68 million budget.”

The story goes on to note that the council did this without an open debate or “any public explanation or even a background check.” A month later they fired him, again without an explanation.

The paper reports, “However, interviews with many high-ranking officials, some who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the toxic political environment swirling around City Hall, revealed that Ghaly was brought on to do what his predecessor, former City Manager David Biggs, refused to do — namely, to fire upper-echelon managers who had refused to carry out the will of the council.”

Basically, the council in Carson used the new city manager as a vehicle “to secure power over the city’s bureaucracy.”

“There were people in key positions, and they wouldn’t go along with their plans,” said one high-level city official who asked not to be named. “They were getting rid of people who were in their way.”

The article quotes USC Law Professor Michael Jenkins, who explained the basis of the city manager-based system.

“The city manager is the CEO of the organization and, typically, the city manager and city attorney answer directly to the City Council, which is basically a policymaking body,” Professor Jenkins said.

“Organizationally speaking, the City Council should not be interfering with the city’s manager’s employment decisions. The idea was to make the workforce merit-based, where people are hired for their qualifications and ability to perform the job rather than who they know or what political party they belong to.”

The story in Carson is obviously a very extreme tale that we would never expect to occur in Davis. But the whole idea of trust without public scrutiny and transparency seems to run counter to the principles of open government and transparency.

Trust but verify. The city manager position is extremely powerful and important. Lack of public oversight in any process allows the potential for the reemergence of special interests and backroom deals that would undermine the trust in our government.

In the ideal world, the community would trust the council to make these decisions, but coming off years where the council was not working on behalf of the best interest of the citizens, that kind of blind trust is difficult to generate.

—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

      Ok… for those who view the current process as “secretive” and/or “shrouded”, have the kahonies to strike out against this dire threat to Davis, go out to the CC meeting, and under the threat of ‘recall’, demand that the CC immediately reveal all names of all current and original applicants for the CM, their applications, and provide a transcript (under oath) of all questions, discussions, etc. to date. Or is that ‘transparent’ enough to meet the OBVIOUS intent of the Brown Act, as it SHOULD have been written in your view.

      or, stop whining, let the process take its course, knowing that any person selected as CM is at at will employee, andany CC member is always subject to recall.

      Just a thought.

        1. hpierce

          Not a threat, but an ultimatum… the CC is in a process… I suggested a reasonable way to change it mid-stream (and yes, you may take that “medically”, if you wish)… if you wish to affect future CM selection process, fine, do it. But in the here and now act rather than whine.

  1. Anon

    Bottom line, the Brown Act allows for the hiring personnel exception. As for the Carson example, my guess is that City Council there would have bent the rules to get its way, no matter what the law or process was.

        1. Anon

          Not “handing in my rights”. The Brown Act is what it is. If you want the Brown Act changed or the City Council to put more stringent public access requirements on the hiring process, feel free. But thus far City Council members have the right to make the hiring process private under the current rules.

      1. Anon

        If you don’t like the Brown Act as a floor, and want the City Council to enact rules that open up the hiring process to the public, then advocate for change by stepping up and asking for it from the City Council. Those are the folks you have to convince to your way of thinking. My guess is if the city were to open up the hiring process they way you want, it might eliminate some very qualified candidates who do not want their job search to be made public. As in many things, it is a matter of balance.

  2. Bill

    It’s a good article David, but alas it might be too late in the process to make changes to the system. It could be something worth exploring for the future though if you or others feel inclined.

    The example you gave is an extreme for sure. I can see both sides of the argument… I wonder if there is a middle ground such as providing a session for the public to interact with the proposed candidate. If there is a huge outcry (that is legitimate), then they could move to candidate #2.

    The problem isn’t that people applying for the position would necessary lose their current employment if they weren’t chosen; it’s that they might be seen by their respective communities as no longer “in the game” with their community. That is a difficult place to be for anyone.

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