We know this is a strange time for the city to be looking for a new manager, but there remain basic responsibilities we hope they fulfill as the process unfolds.
This search has been odd even in a year full of oddities. Former City Manager Dale Peters announced his retirement in February. He was originally to leave in May, but, when the pandemic hit, he stayed on. It was a decision to his credit and the city’s benefit. The search resumed in late June.
More than 60 people applied this summer, a strong showing and an increase of nearly a quarter from the 2012 search. The council landed on two candidates in October, with plans to interview each. One withdrew, which isn’t necessarily uncommon. Candidates aren’t applying for one job at a time, after all. The council paused the process at that point.
We don’t expect the current stage, in which city council members are reviewing the previous slate of applicants to see whether any merit another look, to take place in full public view. They’re not finalists, and cities often restrict access to full lists of applicants. That’s allowed under Wisconsin law. But once the city zeroes in on a few candidates, as it did previously, those identities should be public.
There is no question finalists’ names are public under the law’s requirements. But what does finalist mean? It’s not limited to a formal designation bestowed by the hiring body. Here’s the analysis from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council:
“The statute defines final candidate as ‘each applicant for a position who is seriously considered for appointment or whose name is certified for appointment and whose name is submitted for final consideration to an authority for appointment to any state position, except a position in the classified service, or to any local public office.’”
In other words, the two candidates the city planned to interview qualified as finalists under the law because they were under serious consideration for the appointment.
In 2004 the Wisconsin Attorney General addressed that issue as it applied to Chippewa Falls School District’s search for a new superintendent. The district wanted to release only the final two candidates for the job. The attorney general concluded that was insufficient because the board had interviewed more than those people. The finding said those interviews satisfied the requirement that the board had “seriously considered” more than the final two, thereby making identities of those interviewed public record.
The city’s failure earlier this year to release the names of the final two candidates, claiming they were not in fact finalists, suggests improvements need to be made. City officials must bear in mind that “finalist” is not some magic word and that avoiding it does not relieve them of their duties under the state’s open records law. It is clear at least two candidates were seriously considered, thus meeting the statute’s requirement for disclosure.
The selection of a new city manager is a major decision for our elected leaders. A good manager can help Eau Claire and the region prosper. A poor one can wreak havoc. Such an important decision should not be made without efforts to keep the public notified on what is happening and allowance of public involvement to the greatest degree possible.
Another attempt to evade the law’s requirements on finalists’ names can only undermine the city’s credibility. It has the potential to cast a pall over the process and, potentially, the candidate who is eventually selected. That’s hardly a fair position for the city to put its top administrator in from day one.
Government transparency as prescribed under the state’s open records and open meetings statutes is not subject to questions of convenience. It is required. It is obligatory. The city must follow the law as it considers its next steps.
Openness is not negotiable.