Public should play role in city manager selection process

As the Homer City Council proceeds with the difficult job of finding a new city manager, it should resolve to make the selection process as open as possible and involve the public as much as possible. In fact, there’s no reason there should be any secrecy surrounding the hiring of a new manager. This position arguably is the most powerful within the city, and residents have a vested interest in being both informed about those who apply and being a part of the selection process.

Alaska law provides clear guidelines regarding the meetings of “governmental units,” of which the city of Homer is one. These guidelines (in AS 44.66.312) should be uppermost in the minds of the council and the City Manager Selection Committee as they consider who the city’s next manager will be: 

(a) It is the policy of the state that

(1) the governmental units mentioned in AS 44.62.310 (a) exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business;

(2) it is the intent of the law that actions of those units be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly;

(3) the people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them;

(4) the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know;

(5) the people’s right to remain informed shall be protected so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; …

(b) AS 44.62.310 (c) and (d) shall be construed narrowly in order to effectuate the policy stated in (a) of this section and to avoid exemptions from open meeting requirements and unnecessary executive sessions.

A 1982 Alaska Supreme Court decision reinforces the principle that executive sessions do not serve the best interest of the public when positions of “high public office” are being filled. In City of Kenai v. Kenai Peninsula Newspapers Inc., a challenge by the Peninsula Clarion of executive sessions to discuss applicants for a city manager’s position, the court said, “Ordinarily an applicant’s reputation will not be damaged by a public discussion of his or her qualifications relating to experience, education and background or by a comparison of them with those of other candidates.” 

In addition, the applicants for city manager should have no expectation of privacy with regard to their applications, and we appreciate the city making available to the public the resumes and applications of those seeking the position. As noted in the 1982 Supreme Court decision on this issue, city managers “have substantial discretionary authority. The qualifications of the occupants of such offices are of legitimate public concern. Disclosing the names and applications of applicants allows interested members of the public, such as the newspapers here, to verify the accuracy of the representations made by the applicants, and to seek additional information which may be relevant to the selection process.”

It’s good news that selection committee plans to provide more clarity about the process during its Jan. 14 meeting. Our hope is that the process will be a model for open government and those applicants who place the highest priority on open government will rise to the top for consideration. We can think of no reason for the council or selection committee to limit access to information about applicants or close the selection process in any way, but, if they do, they need to cite the appropriate laws that allow them to operate out of the public’s eye. And they need to do so before they close the doors on public participation.

Homer’s next city manager and the citizens of Homer will have a much better relationship if there’s public involvement in the hiring, and it’s not an arranged marriage. For a how-to, the council could borrow from the process the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District uses in hiring principals, which includes the public sitting in on interviews with applicants, submitting questions to be asked and even weighing in with their top pick.

As it moves forward in filling this key position, the council and selection committee would do well to remember the manager not only works closely with the council but also the citizens the council serves.