Wrong-headed secrecy in Raleigh manager search

August 29, 2013 

Raleigh has a relatively new police chief, Cassandra Deck-Brown, who by all accounts is popular with the members of the force and with the public. She was an internal candidate. How does the public know of her standing with fellow officers? One reason is that she was chosen in an open selection process, with finalists coming before the public.

Then there’s Jim Merrill, Wake County’s new school superintendent. A veteran of the system who spent some years in Virginia Beach, Merrill also came into office with a lot of public support and with the confidence of administrators and teachers within the system who knew him from his previous career here. Merrill also has the tremendous advantage of having been part of an open selection process, wherein he appeared in forums with the other two finalists.

Why the Raleigh City Council, which has seen with its own eyes the benefits of such a process, would choose to pick a new city manager in secret is mystifying. And just plain wrong. The search firm helping the process gave the same argument for secrecy as always: Good candidates won’t apply if they know their names will be “out” and they will have to publicly compete for the job.

It’s shaky logic. Does the council really believe that someone seeking the city manager’s job isn’t going to let people in the city where he or she works know of being courted? For one thing, if the search is worth anything, references will have to be checked and calls made. The process really is secret only from the public. It’s always puzzling why a search for a public servant requires privacy.

And in this choice, the council needs to build all the support and confidence from the public it can muster. The council flubbed the sudden firing of City Manager Russell Allen, an efficient and popular administrator. The quickness of the decision, the silly disputes that came to light – over a council member’s parking space, for goodness’ sake – and the secrecy of it all damaged the council’s image.

Good candidates will apply even in a public process because this is a very good city to manage. It’s a growing city, with tremendous assets in parks, the arts and city facilities.

The people of Raleigh deserve to have input, and they must. To do otherwise implies the council doesn’t have confidence in the citizenry.

And given the firing of Allen, the council could use all the help it can get.

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