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Tacoma: Council names 5 finalists for city manager’s job after open meetings law questions emerge

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Nov. 30, 2011 at 12:42 am |
November 30, 2011 3:13 pm

At the end of an agenda-packed meeting that dragged late into Tuesday night, the City Council chose five finalists in the search for Tacoma’s next city manager, including the man who is now temporarily filling the job.

The council selected Interim City Manager Rey Arellano to advance to a three-day interview process of finalists next week and will bring four candidates to join him. The other finalists include:

  • T.C. Broadnax, assistant city manager of San Antonio, Tex.

Broadnax, an 18-year public administrator, was generally praised for his budgeting background and community relations skills. He was the only candidate all nine council members voted unanimously to advance to the finalists’ round.

  • Andrew Neiditz, city manager of Lakewood.

Neiditz, a local candidate with professional experience dating to 1975, won kudos from supporters for his work on Lakewood’s relations with Joint Base Lewis McChord and for skillfully managing that city during trying times. The council voted 7 to 2 to advance him.

  • Frederick Russell, city administrator of Augusta, Ga.

Russell, a 35-year government employee, is a former police chief with a strong law enforcement background who and a reference from Virginia’s governor. Supporting council members say his application showed strong managerial skills on livability issues and relating to diverse communities. The council advanced him 6 to 3.

  • Craig Malin, city administrator of Davenport, Iowa.

Malin, with 25 years of experience including a decade in Davenport, demonstrated in his application financial management prowess, economic development know-how and a collaborative spirit, supporters say. The council voted 7 to 2 to advance him.

“I’m excited to be part of the final slate,” Arellano said late Tuesday. “”Clearly, this is a great group of candidates. I make no assumptions and I look forward to the competition.”

All city council members but Joe Lonergan voted to advance Arellano, a deputy manager in Tacoma under former City Manager Eric Anderson for five years. Arellano, who also served as a deputy manager in San Diego for four years, was named Tacoma’s interim manager in July after the council fired Anderson.

Two other candidates for the job – Marianna Marysheva-Martinez, interim town manager of Mammoth Lakes, CA, and Donald Krupp, Thurston County administrator – reached the semi-finalist stage, but didn’t make the final cut.

The council’s selection process for the final round involved openly debating all semi-finalists’ qualifications Tuesday, then voting on whether to advance each candidate by name.

But the selection didn’t come without some late procedural tinkering and behind-the-scenes scrambling, after The News Tribune raised questions about whether a process the council had planned to use would have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Earlier Tuesday, after the council met in a 2 1/2-hour closed-door meeting to discuss the seven semi-finalists, Mayor Marilyn Strickland publicly announced each candidate would be assigned letters – instead of being identified by name — when the council publicly deliberated the finalists’ selections at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

The lettering scheme was meant to “respect the confidentiality” of candidates, some of whom had not informed their current employers of their job hunting in Tacoma, Strickland said.

City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli added after the closed-door meeting she and others devised the anonymous selection process as a way to balance candidates’ confidentiality concerns and comply with the open meetings law.

But later Tuesday, after The News Tribune described the planned selection process to two open government lawyers, each separately questioned whether it complied with state law.

“The whole idea is you let the public understand what is going on,” said Seattle attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard. “If you do things by code and don’t give the citizens the code book, then how do they know? I can’t see how this is in compliance.”

“It’s arguable,” added Tim Ford, the state’s Open Government Ombudsman for the state Attorney General’s Office. “I’m not going to say for sure it’s a secret thing. There’s no court opinions on it, so there’s no real guidance on this yet. But they (council members) aren’t identifying the people they’re voting for until after the voting is done.”

The state’s Open Meetings Act states “no governing body of a public agency at any meeting required to be open to the public shall vote by secret ballot.”

But by using a lettering or numbering scheme to keep candidates anonymous during a purportedly open debate to vet them tests the very meaning of the law’s “secret ballot” language, Ford said.

“There is a question as to whether these ballots are secret ballots if you refuse to identify who you’re voting for until after the vote is concluded,” he said.

When the TNT told Pauli of Ford’s concerns just before Tuesday’s council meeting, Pauli tried contacting him. When she couldn’t reach Ford, members of Colin Baenziger & Associates — the city’s contracted head-hunting firm conducting the candidates’ search — contacted each semi-finalists and asked if their names could be publicly revealed.

All but Malin agreed, city officials said. But Malin also said he’d allow his name to be revealed if the council still wanted to consider advancing him after first having deliberated on the other candidates, and then not being satisfied without his inclusion among the finalists. The council decided it wanted Malin among the finalists, so council members publicly named him.

In all, 70 candidates submitted applications for the job, which is likely to garner an annual salary of more than $200,000. The city’s search firm pared the candidates’ pool down to the seven semi-finalists, before turning over their application materials to  the council for review.

The council advanced five finalists, but had expected to pick only four finalists before the debate.  Still, several members said later the more transparent selection process didn’t influence their ballot.

“It didn’t change how I voted,” Councilman Marty Campbell said after the meeting.

All five finalists will be invited to come to Tacoma on Dec. 7 to participate in a three-day interview process. The council is expected to choose the next city manager as soon as the regular council meeting on Dec. 13.

After the council openly made their choices Tuesday, Pauli said the open meeting law compliance “concerns”  that emerged led the council to conduct the selection with candidates’ names.

“We need to stay focused on the budget and the city managers search,” added Strickland. “We don’t have the resources or time to engage in anything that distracts us from that right now.”

The News Tribune sued the city over open meetings issues in January 2010, contending the council violated the state law when selecting finalists for two vacated council seats.

Pierce County Judge Bryan Chushcoff later ruled a “reasonable inference” existed the city had violated the law and ordered the council to audio-tape its next closed-door meeting during that appointment process. The council ultimately openly debated the finalists  in public, appointing David Boe and Ryan Mello to the council.

The city later settled the suit with the newspaper by agreeing to pay the TNT’s $7,500 in legal fees.

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