Kim Ratliff and other Meckenburg County commissioners may never do anything more consequential in their public roles than name the county’s next manager.
So it’s common sense that they would want to be involved with the search, review resumes, ask questions and generally have input into the process.
Instead, five of the nine commissioners are being locked out of the room while the other four hunt for finalists for Harry Jones’ replacement. Those four will deign to invite the jilted commissioners into the conversation only once much of the heavy lifting is done.
Commissioners fired Jones, the county manager for 13 years, in May. Chairman Pat Cotham said at the time that she had orchestrated the dismissal when she did because of the need to have a new manager in place before the next budget cycle, which is revving up now. In June, commissioners set Oct. 15 as a target date for making a hire.
A week after that date, the county is not close to making an offer. More worrisome than the failure to hit an unofficial deadline, though, is the fact that the search has devolved into dysfunction, threatening to scare away talented candidates. To ensure an effective search and public confidence in its results, Cotham needs to lead commissioners to a better place.
Commissioners voted to create the four-person search committee in June. They named Cotham its chairman and left it to her to name the other members. They failed, however, to spell out the committee’s authority or that commissioners not on the search committee would be completely locked out of discussions.
Government rules say that any commissioner can attend any committee meeting. But when Ratliff showed up at a search committee meeting last week, she set off a chain of questions that should have been resolved long before now. The county’s search firm, Coleman Lew, said it had told applicants that their candidacies would be kept confidential from everyone but the search committee. That is, their candidacies would be kept secret from five of the very commissioners who might later vote to hire them and who would be their new bosses.
Confidentiality in the early phases of executive searches is common. But that should mean confidentiality from the public, not from those doing the hiring. Commissioners never told Coleman Lew to give candidates that protection, Cotham told the Observer editorial board Tuesday, but the firm considered it standard procedure.
After an hour of debate Monday, commissioners voted 6-3 to let the four-person search committee do its work in closed session. Other commissioners cannot attend, nor can they even know who the 16 finalists are. To offset commissioners’ concerns, Cotham said she expects to take more than five finalists to the full board.
We recognize the need for a streamlined search process, and the complications that can arise when all nine commissioners try to be involved every step of the way. We also recognize that picking Jones’ replacement may be the biggest decision these commissioners make. The rules of the search should have been clear from the beginning, and they should allow for all nine commissioners to have meaningful input.
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