Raleigh city manager search to take up to six months, experts tell council

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMay 7, 2013 

— The search for a new city manager will likely be a complicated process that takes up to six months, UNC-Chapel Hill government professors told the city council Tuesday.

The meeting with two experts from the UNC School of Government kicked off the search, three weeks after the council voted 6-2 to fire Russell Allen, who has served in the post for 12 years. With the exception of Councilman John Odom, who served when Allen was appointed in 2001, the process is a new one for current council members.

“It takes four months to six months,” explained Carl Stenberg, who specializes in public administration. “A lot kind of depends on the candidate pool and the process you adopt to work through that candidate pool.

“You’ll need to make some decisions regarding an interim manager.”

That’s the first step and one that needs to happen within 30 days, Stenberg told the council, because Allen’s last day is June 30. “Having that opportunity to work with Mr. Allen for a few weeks would make some sense,” he said.

The council will have to decide whether the interim manager will be a current city employee – an assistant city manager, for example – or a temporary outside hire, perhaps a retired manager from another city. Council members also need to establish whether the interim will be considered for the permanent post. The appointment will likely be made during a closed-door meeting.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane noted that an internal hire for interim manager might pose a transition problem if they return to their old job. “It’s difficult to go from being the manager to not being the manager,” she said.

The council also needs to decide soon about hiring a search firm to recruit candidates for the permanent position. Most larger cities seek outside help to conduct background checks and narrow down the applicant pool, Stenberg said.

Councilman Bonner Gaylord suggested the city might also hire an outside auditor to identify any structural or cultural issues within city hall. “Is there a way to bring in a third party that views an organization from a different viewpoint?” Gaylord asked.

Stenberg cautioned that the council might hold off on such an evaluation, possibly holding a retreat once the new manager is in place. “Usually that work is done after the new manager has been selected,” he said.

Council members said they also want input on the process from city employees and the community. “My first thought is ‘Boy, I really need to go talk to the department heads,’” to find out what they want in a new manager, Councilman Russ Stephenson said.

Another UNC professor at Tuesday’s meeting, Vaughn Upshaw, said that’s a process best conducted by the search firm or the city’s human resources department. It’s important that the council take action together throughout the process, so manager candidates will see a group that works well together.

“You don’t want any red flags for the kind of search you’re going into,” Upshaw said.

The council hasn’t yet decided whether finalists’ names will be made public, as was the case when the city sought a new police chief earlier this year. In that search, the top candidates came to Raleigh for a public forum before the hire was made.

“Oftentimes managers are nervous about their name appearing in the newspaper as a finalist for a position, especially if they’re gainfully employed,” Stenberg said. “You may lose candidates if it’s an open search, but it is a trade-off. ... I think a lot of it depends on what the community expects.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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