Tacoma begins search for new City Manager

Selection process an issue during study session

The City of Tacoma launched its search for a new City Manager this week, but not before some discussion over the search process during the Tacoma City Council study session yesterday.

The City of Tacoma began the search process Nov. 21 with a series of discovery interviews designed to provide The Oldani Group, Inc., a consulting firm hired to facilitate the process, direction in the city’s needs to fill this position. During that process, interviews with council members, department directors, regional government staff, business leaders, neighborhood residents, community members, and labor representatives were conducted in person and via questionnaires.

On Jan. 21, 550 recruitment brochures were mailed to city managers, assistant deputy city managers, and county administrators nationwide in cities with populations comparable to Tacoma. Print advertisements were also placed with nearly a dozen publications and professional organizations.

The Oldani Group will gather applications from qualified candidates until Feb. 25, and recommend a list of finalists to Mayor Bill Baarsma and the City Council on Mar. 11.

At issue Tuesday was the council’s role in selecting that list of semi-finalists.
“I would like to be formally notified and involved in the review of these candidates,” said Councilman Kevin Phelps. “Who determines that semi-final list? All I’m asking for is the ability to sit in on the process. Once we get a group of qualified applicants, I would like to be involved in that review.”

Councilman Spiro Manthou, who chairs the City Manager’s Performance Appraisal Committee, welcomed the input of the City Council during the selection process, but expressed concerns about a full council meeting to interview each qualified applicant. “That public process could be problematic,” he said. He added that a well-employed, qualified candidate may not want to apply for fear that he or she may jeopardize current employment if the individual’s interest in the position is made public by media organizations.

“It could be problematic for the candidate and have a chilling effect on applicants,” added Councilman Manthou.

Instead, he suggested that the consultants forward applications from qualified candidates to the City Manager’s Performance Appraisal Committee and allow the committee to select the semi-finalists. At that point, the selection process would be open to full council discussion and public input.

Indeed, the council and mayor made it clear that public input on selecting the new City Manager was fundamentally important.

Councilman Mike Lonergan, who also serves on the City Manager’s Performance Appraisal Committee, added that once the committee has compiled a final list of candidates, the matter would be open to the public. “I want to make clear to people that we are going to have a public process with that list of finalists,” he said, “and every council member has every right to be involved in the process.”

Mayor Baarsma said, “Never before has a Council’s search for a new City Manager involved as much public participation as is planned in this search. This open process is unique in the history of Tacoma. In the past, Councils have conducted the search process mostly behind closed doors.”

The municipal code allows the City Council to meet in Executive Session, which is not open to the public, should the council wish to do so. However, the council must provide notice in advance to Tacoma residents during that instance. Moreover, the mayor and councilmembers have made it clear that they would like the public involved in the selection process as much as possible.

The city hopes to hire a new City Manager by May 2. However, Councilman Spiro Manthou and Mayor Baarsma suggested that the process could be delayed based upon Councilman Phelps’s concerns about the selection process.

“We want to make sure we go through a process that is right,” said Councilman Manthou. “I don’t care about the deadline, as long as we go through the process.”

Mayor Baarsma added, “It’s a major change, and could delay or slow down the process, but that’s okay.”

Councilman Thomas Stenger said, “The committee has done a good job, and I have full confidence in it. The committee is proceeding the way we instructed it.”

Jim Walton has served as the City Manager since 2003 after the City Council fired former City Manager Ray Copuz regarding Police Chief David Brame, who fatally shot his wife and himself in April 2003. Walton’s contract expires Mar. 31. Walton has told the City Council that he would be available to remain as City Manager in order to meet the city’s needs during the search.

The City of Tacoma has established an online survey for Tacoma residents to provide input on what kind of City Manager they would like to see. That survey is available at http://www. ci.tacoma.wa.us/tacomanews.

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