Bulletin editorial: Transparency suffers in Newport's internal hiring processNewport residents likely did not even know their elected council members interviewed a candidate they later would appoint.
By: Staff, South Washington County Bulletin
Newport City Council members looked internally when they filled the city administrator job earlier this month.
The process was so internal, however, that Newport residents likely did not even know their elected council members interviewed a candidate they later would appoint.
That’s because instead of a traditional public interview process, the lone candidate’s ability to take on the administrator duties was discussed behind closed doors.
The council’s actions raise concerns about a lack of transparency and appears to have skated very close to a violation of the state Open Meeting Law.
For citizens unaware of how this played out, here is a summary:
Brian Anderson announced in December he was stepping down as city administrator, the top, highest-paid job in city government. The council planned to conduct a traditional external search with the help of a consultant. That was decided publicly. So far, so good.
Then transparency started to fade.
Council members inquired if any current city employees would be interested in the administrator position. Staff accountant Deb Hill was interested.
With Anderson’s mid-January departure looming, the council called a special meeting to evaluate Hill’s performance as accountant. Four council members attended — Mayor Tim Geraghty, Tracy Rahm, Tom Ingemann and Bill Sumner. Council member Steven Gallagher was out of town.
That meeting was closed to the public, which is allowed under the Open Meeting Law as long as an employee’s performance in the current position is the only issue discussed.
However, that state law may not have been strictly followed.
Geraghty told the Bulletin in an interview that the administrator job was not discussed during Hill’s performance review.
Yet Anderson contradicted that in a separate interview.
Council members discussed Hill’s performance in her current job, Anderson told the Bulletin, “then they talked about the possible promotion.”
It’s worth noting that when Anderson was hired, his interview was done publicly. Also, Anderson said the council typically has not conducted closed-door performance evaluations for employees other than the administrator. This was not a normal process.
There is another Open Meeting Law issue, albeit not as significant as essentially conducting a de facto interview during a closed meeting.
The council apparently — and perhaps unintentionally — did not follow state law when it failed to publicly summarize Hill’s performance evaluation at its next open meeting. Anderson said if that was the case, it was an oversight and he apologized.
City Attorney Fritz Knaak said last week that a summary would be provided at the council’s upcoming meeting if it was not done already.
The council approved Hill’s hiring during its Jan. 17 public meeting, which is televised, but did not conduct any sort of a public interview of Hill or detail her qualifications, other than to express confidence in her.
We don’t raise these issues to question whether Hill should have been named administrator, a job she started this week. Rather, it’s council members’ actions that deserve scrutiny.
The public is best-served by a government that is open and transparent, and it should expect that, especially in key decisions.
The Newport council’s administrator hiring process fell short of that expectation.