The Palm Coast City Council spent a tortuous 80 minutes Tuesday framing the sort of Help Wanted ad as it launches the search for its next permanent city manager on Friday.
The drafted result of the discussion–the brochure applicants will see–is somewhat more straight-forward than the discussion itself. The job will pay from $140,000 and up. The minimum education requirement is a bachelor’s degree, the minimum experience will be five years, not necessarily in government.
The city will append $2,300 to advertise the position in 12 publications for four weeks, putting the remaining selection process squarely into the holiday season–never an optimal time for hiring executives.
But the written document masks a discussion fraught with so many qualifiers that what screening of applicants will take place by the city’s human resources department may be undermined by individual council members’ decisions to circumvent it to champion their own choices regardless, whether those candidates match minimum requirements or not.
As Bill Reischmann, the city attorney, warned the council, that will send the signal to potential applicants that the process is not entirely evenhanded, keeping some applicants from applying. Palm Coast is not in a position to give quality applicants reasons not to apply. An already contentious council three years ago drew only 21 applicants when it advertised the position eventually filled by Matt Morton. The council has become more fractious since, with deep fissures splitting the panel either in groups or individually from each other.
Mayor David Alfin on Tuesday took obvious pains–a pain often audible in his voice–to ensure that the process drew on as much consensus as possible. But the price paid by Alfin’s approach resulted in a less lucid application process that will be at the mercy of individual council members’ maneuvers along the way–and particularly the maneuvers of Ed Danko.
As he made clear during the discussion, Danko, unlike his colleagues, is most interested in fronting his own candidate (or candidates) regardless of the process, or outside of it. He wants to have conversations with candidates whenever he chooses. He’s not interested in minimum education requirements or government experience. And, though he’s been in office only a matter of months and has not shown himself to be anything like an expert in the subject, at one point he proposed to lecture candidates on Florida’s Sunshine law so he could ensure himself–and the candidates–the freedom to speak with them on his terms.
“It is a paramount importance to keep integrity and transparency in the review in the selection process,” Renina Fuller, the city’s human resources director, told the council in the context of her detailed explanation of the weeks and months ahead as she sought point-by-point direction on how the council wanted to proceed. Taken together, Danko’s approach reflected a disturbing penchant for free-wheeling and free-lancing instead, despite Alfano’s and Reischmann’s repeated cautions, and other council members’ attempts to rein in his improvisational approach.
The council in June dispensed with hiring a search firm, which would have cost upwards of $25,000. It’s relying instead on Fuller and her team to “facilitate” the search, in her words. The administration will issue the job ad, gather the applications, filter them and distribute them to council members. All applications are available for public view as soon as they’re turned in, with only certain elements within them kept from public view (social security numbers, certain home addresses and phone numbers if the individual meets certain criteria, birth dates.)
The first point of contention was the education requirement–usually an uncontroversial element in searches for city or county managers in any serious-minded local government that’s made it past the good-old boy system.
“The minimum education level for a city manager is a bachelor’s degree in public administration, business administration or related field with a master’s degree preferred,” Fullker read from the proposed text of the ad.
Danko did not want that requirement on the application.
“I could care less on that question. It’s more of the total big picture,” he said. He then spoke as if he had one or more predetermined names in mind, whatever the agreed-upon minimum standards may be, whatever his council colleagues’ consensus may be: “I just want to make sure that any individual on this council can present an applicant, and I want to take this a step further that any applicant that anyone might present becomes one of the finalists,” Danko said. “They may not have a degree,” Danko said insistently. (Danko has previously said former Interim County Administrator Jerry Cameron “is somebody that I could support” as the city manager. Cameron does not have a bachelor’s degree.)
Aside from making minimum standards irrelevant, Danko’s approach would assume that a single council member could short-list a candidate. That, too, would be contrary to all local governments’ norms, where individuals are short-listed only when a consensus of the government board agrees.
“So then you’re not looking for an entry bar to weed through the applicants before we see them?” a somewhat nonplussed Alfin asked.
“No, not on an educational entry bar,” Danko said. He then cited as an example the fact that Peter Jennings, the late ABC News anchor, “never even completed college.” That is accurate, but an absurd comparison. Jennings, a high school drop-out, also had honorary degrees from Loyola University, the University of Rhode Island, Carleton University, American University in Beirut and Rider College, was awarded the Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement in Broadcasting from Washington State University, won 16 Emmy awards, innumerable other journalism awards and was bestowed the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. It is unlikely that high school or college drop-outs applying for the Palm Coast job will have a single equivalent entry on their resume, honorary or otherwise, though some may have employee-of-the-month awards or a few recognition plaques from regional membership organizations.
Council member Eddie Branquinho said if there was no education requirement, the city would be flooded with applicants–a point Danko conceded, though Council member Victor Barbosa had joined him in refuting standard requirements. “I don’t want certain questions to affect them from being able to qualify,” Barbosa said.
The wording about a bachelor’s degree requirement would remain, along with just five years’ experience “or any equivalent combination of education and experience,” the wording goes, thus opening a gray area for education requirements.
“What we’re looking to do is make sure that the experience includes some level of those certifications that proves the experience that’s been had,” Alfin said. “And the institutes that generate those certifications are world renowned.”
As Danko kept pushing a theoretical candidate of his own regardless of the standards, Reischmann intervened. “Number one, are they going to apply uniformly to everyone?” Reischmann said of the standards. “Number two, are the minimums below which the candidate will not be considered at all? that’s what I’m hearing are the two questions.”
From a legal standpoint, Reischmann said, a council member could well circumvent the application process and bring in an applicant who doesn’t fit the standards set out. But “that needs to be considered within the scope of the result, the consequence of that in general on the type of application processes that are conducted nationwide, as recommended by ICMA,” he said, referring to the International City/County Management Association. “By doing that, there are unintended consequences that will be–rightly or wrongly–that will be perceived by, however you define a good candidate, that they’re not going to bother to apply, with that exception.”
Despite that, Barbnosa then wanted to lower the standard of experience from five to three years. That didn’t carry.
“So once you unleash this posting, you have to assume that there’ll be aggressive candidates out there that will try to contact city staff, city council and whomever else,” Alfin said, asking the city attorney what problem that might pose for council members. (Some have already been at it.)
Reischmann referred to various standards that discourage that sort of contact ahead of time. “If people ignore that, it could be grounds for disqualification. It just depends on how you want to handle it,” Reischmann said. The council appeared unwilling to police that sort of lapse.
“But just be very aware and very careful careful that from the legal standpoint, but also a practical standpoint,” Reischmann continued, “I’ve seen this happen in the past, where someone will come up from the audience to say, Well, I know that one particular council member has been receiving specific communications with one [applicant] and therefore is not keeping an open mind.”
“I do see that there could be discretion,” Council member Nick Klufas said, “like, hey, we have Jack Dorsey from Twitter who wants to run our city, but he doesn’t have any college experience. Bring them in anyway. But I think 99.9 percent of these applicants should be looked at through eyes that are indifferent. And I think that’s what we’re trying to establish here is, can we create a process and a set of rules that we don’t need a steering committee.” The applicants would be filtered, and the top 25 applications would then be brought to the council, which itself acts as a steering committee.
“Actually the former CEO of Twitter, I wouldn’t find qualified to be our city manager,” Danko said.
“Any council member can bring forward a candidate,” Alfin said, but only through the formal process of an application.
Again and again, Danko sought to have his choice circumvent at least part of the process. “I want to be clear, what I’m suggesting is anytime you can bring a candidate to the attention of this council, not to the process,” he said.
“It’s got to be part of the process,” Alfin said.
“I think you can present it to this council and make your case for any individual that you think should have the job,” Danko said–even if the candidate doesn’t make it through the screening process.
“Completely disagree,” Branquinho said, pushing for the process. Alfin said any council member can champion his candidate.
Ultimately, the screening may not matter much. “If one of us were to bring forward a candidate who didn’t pass muster,” Alfin said, that name could jump into the shortlist pile regardless. “We all agreed that we could have an exception if we chose to.” The safeguard is that no candidate may be kept in anyone’s back-pocket, Alfin said: all the applications must be on the table, in the public eye.
Danko–who claimed toward the end of the discussion that he had no candidate in mind–asked if a council member would be violating the sunshine law by having a conversation with an applicant who might pick up the phone and call. The attorney said there would be no violation. (Ethical applicants, particularly educated applicants with experience, do not pick up the phone and call the elected officials who will be making a judgment about their applications.)
“You’re not violating sunshine, but there’s a perception issue,” Alfin told Danko. “If any one of us were to conduct an ongoing dialogue with a particular candidate I think the reference was, we may not be open minded at that point.”
Danko pressed, indicating he would have such conversations: “If one of us wanted to recommend the candidate, it’be hard to do it without knowing who that person is,” he said. “So I see no problem with individual conversations. You know, as long as you’re not asking for anything, quid pro quo, or anything.”
He again returned to the matter later in the meeting–not just seeing no issue with a candidate calling him, but seeing no issue with him calling a candidate outside the formal process–an extremely unusual maneuver that officials steer clear of. “If one of these applicants called you and you had a private phone conversation, that’s not a violation of sunshine,” Danko said. “I would assume if you picked up the phone and called one of these applicants, you wouldn’t be violating sunshine. So what’s the difference?”
“My concern would be that it opens doors for possible violations,” Reischmann said. Danko said he’d “explain to the person–here’s a quick lesson on sunshine,” which also drew a caution from Alfin.
“None of us are attorneys and I would caution us on delivering that kind of advice or information, but we need to be careful about how we proceed with that,” Alfin said.
The first round of interviews will be conducted by zoom. The finalists would be in person. The council will interview the finalists in open session, but some council members say they will conduct one-on-one, closed-door interviews as well, despite the attorney’s caution that the approach may send the wrong signal to the public.
“I would be derelict if I did not point out when the last time they went through this with regard to the one on ones, there was definitely a negative connotation in the public. I think that’s fair to say,” Reischmann said.
Danko pushed for closed-door interviews. “if the public perceives it in another way, I can’t help that.”
Fuller is to be the point of contact for the applicants. Danko–who had been under internal investigation over allegations of improper conduct–didn’t want that. But when he found out that the sort of contact in question would be innocuous (candidates asking routine questions, clarifications, guidance) , he conceded.
“We we trust our HR person,” Alfin told Danko. “That’s why our HR department is here.”
Barbosa early in the discussion had tried his own maneuver: “I’d like to save the city some money. We already have the best city manager,” he said, referring to Denise Bevan, the acting manager. But the rest of the council was intent on going through the formal process, such as it is.
Note: the reference to “local government administration” in the brochure will be amended before it is nissued, removing the word “government.”