If it seems as though you’ve seen this movie before, well, it’s because you have. For the second time in 10 years, the town of Knightdale is back in the market for a town manager. Seth Lawless’s sudden departure leaves many of us with questions – questions which at this point remain unanswered.
Why is Lawless leaving? Was this his decision or was he forced to resign? What, if anything, does his departure have to do with the lengthy leave of absence for health reasons? And, perhaps, most importantly, what will the Knightdale Town Council do now?
The town of Knightdale, over the past several years, has grown more and more closed to the public. Many decisions go unexplained, public officials – both elected and staff – have been reticent to explain their decisions or to even discuss issues that are before the council.
That gives us plenty of reason to be concerned about the process the Town Council will use as they go about the process of selecting a new town manager.
But council members can take a big step toward righting that ship with one simple step. Council members should agree, publicly, to disclose the names of finalists for the town’s top employee. In whatever advertisements they post seeking applicants, the town should clearly state that finalists for the position will be asked to meet the public and submit to opportunities to meet members of the community. By making their intentions to be open about the process early on, council members can put to rest the tired argument that they did not let applicants know their candidacies would be made public.
What we expect to hear from council members is that by opening the process, town leaders are afraid they will not get the very best applicants because those applicants would not want it known that they are seeking other employment. But that argument falls under its own weight. Any candidate who is not confident enough in his or her own abilities to pursue a better employment situation and do it in the public eye is probably not a strong enough candidate to endure public scrutiny of the work they will do if they get the job.
And, furthermore, we believe any candidate who insists on anonymity in the application process is not a friend of open government. And, surely, our Knightdale council members are believers in an open government.
We would also point out that other government agencies have opened the process in a similar way for other positions. Wake and Durham Counties have both made public the names of finalists for their school superintendencies. Raleigh and Durham have both made public the names of finalists for police chief openings. As we have said in this space before, we don’t believe any of those governments’ elected officials would say they hired a second-tier candidate because they opened the process to the public.
So, we will wait to see how Knightdale pursues its next manager. We hope they will strike a blow for open government and reverse what has become a troubling trend over the past couple years.