Coverage of CIO Hire Obscures Critical Questions About Economic Development’s Future
When I was in high school and college one of my favorite bands was R.E.M., an indie band from the college town of Athens, Georgia, that would eventually break out and make it big. While the group specialized in somber and stylistic music, they had a few songs that were clearly written to be pop hits, like “Shiny Happy People.”
The Urban Dictionary suggests that the term “is based on a Chinese propaganda poster popularized by REM in the song of the same name. It’s a term that determines that people are faking happiness or false happiness in order to fool the outside world that there are no problems.”
The song came to mind yesterday morning when I read the Enterprise write up on the departure of Rob White and the hiring of Diane Parro. Everyone in the story gave “shiny happy” quotes to the local beat writer for the city newspaper – even people we know to be anything but happy over the series of events that occurred late last week.
The article completely lacked any sort of critical analysis of the situation and seemed to take the quotes at face value.
Here is a sampling of the quotes:
Dan Wolk: We have been making significant strides in the area of economic development over the past few years. Diane, with her impressive skill set and deep understanding of our region, will hit the ground running and take things to the next level.
Rob White: I am proud of the work we have done exploring opportunities for innovation district and research parks in the city, building the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem and connecting the local economy to the region. I am confident that the newly formed partnerships with academia, research institutions, civic organizations and the private sector will continue to pay dividends into the future.
Dirk Brazil: I am thrilled Diane will be joining our City of Davis team. I had the privilege of working with Diane in Yolo County and her unique skill set and familiarity with Davis will certainly add value to Davis’ economic development efforts.
Lucas Frerichs: Diane Parro has a stellar reputation as someone who is exceptionally competent and who has a long-time, and successful, track record of cross sector collaboration and community involvement… Economic development is one of the council’s top priorities and there is no shortage of work for the city to do.
Dirk Brazil: I’m building a team here as the city manager that will move economic development forward. Rob White did a great job.
Only Councilmember Rochelle Swanson seemed to offer a counter-narrative, and her comment was nearly buried at the end of the article. She “applauded Parro as a hard worker, but said she was fielding some concerned phone calls about the departure of White.” “There are a lot of people who put in a lot of effort into getting an award-winning CIO like Rob White,” she said.
But even within this pro forma praise for the new hire, there are plenty of red flags. For instance, we learn that Diane Parro is being hired at $110,000 per year in base salary. The position itself is listed at $135,000 to $165,000 per year, where Rob White made at the top end.
So, while Mayor Dan Wolk talks about the strides we have made in economic development over the past few years and Councilmember Lucas Frerichs talks about how “[e]conomic development is one of the council’s top priorities” – why is the city hiring someone for $25,000 under the listed price of the position and hiring someone who does not appear to have any sort of background in economic development?
When the city was looking for a new city manager, they quickly realized that the city was way under market compared with other city managers, so they increased the salary range in order to conduct a more thorough search. Yet, when it comes to economic development, they not only hire substantially under their own salary range, but they do so without an open recruitment.
Several people pointed out that residing in Davis alone are several people with immense qualifications on economic development –did the city manager reach out to those people at all?
Moreover, you have another seeming contradiction here. Mayor Wolk noted that we have made significant strides in economic development, and Dirk Brazil said that “Rob White did a great job.” If that is all true, why is Rob White leaving? Councilmember Rochelle Swanson made it clear that many people are concerned with his departure. None of this seems to add up.
Over the weekend, the Vanguard talked to a number of people familiar with municipal government and HR. They told the Vanguard that, as an at will position, there is no requirement for an open recruitment, but they found the hiring below salary range perplexing. There were also substantial questions as to whether Diane Parro, whose expertise is in marketing, meets the minimum requirements for the position.
There were also substantial questions about the timing of the hire. The position was approved in March of 2013 under the understanding that techDavis would fund half the position. That funding ended sometime in 2014. That means that, technically, the position does not exist unless the council explicitly approves the position in new year’s budget –which has yet to be passed.
The people the Vanguard talked to questioned the ethics of hiring someone to fill a position when they still have someone under contract for another year for same position. If there is no agreement reached between the city and Rob White to leave the position, it is a potential breach of contract for the city.
Why the rush to announce this right now? Rob White formally leaves the city on June 30. They could have announced the move on July 1, which would have coincided with a newly-approved budget and everything would have been kosher.
All of that leaves us with the belief that this announcement was more about politics than about policy. And that the article in the paper missed a lot of the critical analysis of what is really going on.
—David M. Greenwald reporting