Questions raised as Modesto seeks city manager

The Modesto City Council is in the midst of hiring a city manager.

It’s a big job. The manager will oversee a city with about 1,100 employees, a $340 million operating budget and lots of challenges, such as finding creative ways to deliver core services after years of budget cuts.

The position will have a huge impact on Modestans, but the council is conducting its search behind closed doors and is not seeking the public’s input. Mayor Garrad Marsh said the council won’t hold a public forum for the finalists, though such forums are being used by more and more cities and other local governments when hiring top executives.

Modesto also has been frugal in releasing information.

Nineteen people applied for the job, but the city and its executive search consultant have declined to release information about the applicants as a group, such as how many are from California, how many are from other states and the range of their experience. The city also has been stingy in releasing details about the search process. Officials generally have released information in stages: as one stage is completed, details about the next one are given out.

Deputy City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley has said the council and its consultant have narrowed the applicants to five candidates. Interim City Manager Jim Holgersson has said he is one of them. Council members are expected to interview the candidates in closed session soon. Marsh said he expects the council will pick a city manager by the end of the month.

Modesto is paying the Roseville-based executive search firm Bob Murray & Associates as much as $25,400 to help the council pick a city manager. Search firm officials have not returned several phones calls and emails. Modesto’s contract with the firm prohibits it from speaking with the media without the city’s permission.

Gerard Wellman a California State University, Stanislaus, political scientist, said how Modesto is conducting its search is legal and not unusual. California law lets local governments conduct a lot of their work behind closed doors, in part to protect applicants’ privacy. The theory is that making the applicants’ names public discourages people from applying because they fear their current employers would learn they are job hunting. That privacy expectation diminishes as candidates become finalists and they undergo background and reference checks.

Wellman, an assistant professor of political science and public administration, said while the decision to hire a top official rests with the elected officials, the trend among California cities, counties and school boards is to include a forum so the public can interact with the finalists. He favors holding multiple forums to make it easy for the public.

“It’s part of the democratic process,” he said. “Residents need to participate. They need to know who the city council is considering. And they need the chance to weigh in and evaluate who the council is considering. These are policies and decisions being made in the name of the people and they have a right to be involved.”

Wellman said he is troubled that the Modesto council has released little information about the 19 people who applied for the job and is releasing information in pieces about how it will select a city manager.

“That’s more extreme,” he said, adding it’s the kind of secrecy one would expect from a corporation hiring a chief executive officer, not from a local government hiring a public official.

He said it’s important for the public to have basic information about who applied to ensure the city and its consultant conducted an effective recruitment. For instance, he said, it would raise red flags if all the candidates were of similar backgrounds and from the same geographic area.

Wellman said he is concerned Modesto is doing a disservice to itself and the person it picks as city manager. “The current process is not putting the ultimate candidate in a good position,” he said. “Because it’s so secret, when they announce the candidate, there could be suspicion over how that decision was made.”

Marsh said Modesto may release the names of the finalists when it gets to that stage in the process. He added the public should be comforted that the city is using Bob Murray & Associates. He said the consulting firm has been around for a long time and has a good track record.

Holding public forums

Some Stanislaus County governments include public forums when hiring top officials. The Yosemite Community College District holds them for finalists when hiring a chancellor or president for Modesto Junior or Columbia colleges. And Riverbank used one when it hired a city manager a few years ago.

YCCD Chancellor Joan Smith said it’s very common for community college districts throughout California to hold public forums when hiring chancellors and college presidents. Besides allowing the public to participate, the forums have practical benefits. She said it gives officials the chance to see finalists demonstrate their public speaking skills and to see how they treat the public.

“It raises eyebrows if you have a candidate who is rude or curt with someone asking a question,” Smith said.

Riverbank held a public forum in early 2012 for the three finalists it was considering for city manager. Mayor Richard O’Brien said the event was well attended and provided the City Council with valuable input. He said the feedback did not change council members’ minds but confirmed that they were on the right track in their choice.

“With any major selection,” he said, “it’s a good way of introducing the (finalists) to the public.”

Oxnard in Southern California used a public forum several months ago when it hired Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff as its top administrator. He was one of two city manager finalists who met the public at the April event. Oxnard used the same consulting firm, Bob Murray & Associates, that Modesto is using.

Panels closed to public

Marsh said he does not support a public forum because people can hijack them to promote their own interests. He added that Nyhoff shares his concern. “He said he just recommends to never do that to someone,” Marsh said. “People are coming in with their own agendas.”

Marsh said he values public input. He said the council will get that by convening two panels to interview the people the council is considering for the job. He said one panel will be composed of city officials and the other of community members. The panels’ meetings will be closed to the public.

Marsh said Modesto is holding the panels even though Bob Murray & Associates is recommending against it.

Modesto used the panels when it hired Nyhoff in 2008. Back then, Modesto did not release the names of the finalists until it announced that it had hired Nyhoff and also released the name of the second finalist, then-interim City Manager Jim Niskanen. Thirty people applied for the job. At one point, the city had six finalists and then four, but it released just the two names.

“We want some input from the public,” Marsh said. “But it’s our job to hire the best person for the job. … We want input from staff and input from citizens.

“They (the city manager) are the City Council’s employee only. The City Council has the responsibility to hire the right person. If they don’t, it’s their failure, and they have to answer for that. I think that’s the important thing to understand here. It’s the council’s job to hire the right person.”