The city council’s announcement that it plans to interview eight candidates for the vacant city manager’s post is a clear indication the process has zeroed in on a handful of people. It’s time for the names.
Last month we said the city’s transparency in this search needs to improve. Now is the time for that to happen. Keeping the names of the people the city plans to interview behind closed doors does not serve the public, and is a clear violation of the open records law’s intent.
As a refresher, let’s look at what the law requires. Wisconsin’s code defines final candidates for a position like city manager 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 a public position.
In short, state code defines who is a finalist for the purposes of the open records law. It’s not a label local governments can bestow or withhold at their convenience. The law doesn’t leave that kind of wiggle room.
The situation Eau Claire finds itself in at this moment is a direct parallel to the 2004 case involving the Chippewa Falls School District’s search for a new superintendent. In that situation, the school board planned to release only the names of two people it declared finalists for the position. But it had interviewed more than those two.
The Wisconsin Attorney General’s office concluded that the board’s actions were insufficient. In interviewing the people, the board made it clear it had “seriously considered” more than the final two. That’s the threshold at which the law makes the identities of the applicants public record.
Eau Claire has announced plans to interview eight people. You don’t plan to interview people without seriously considering them as candidates for a position. (Unless, perhaps, you’re an NFL team trying to weasel around the Rooney Rule, but that’s a separate editorial.)
We’ve been here before with the city. Earlier this year the city refused to release the names of the final two candidates for city manager. Even if, by some bizarre stretch of the imagination, one was able to find a loophole in the law’s application to the eight current candidates, there is no reasonable argument that neither of the two the city wanted to interview earlier in the year were not finalists.
We understand the instinct to hide information. Doing so prevents public scrutiny. It avoids having a public conversation about candidates’ qualifications. It means elected officials feel less like they’re in the spotlight, under the gaze of the public.
Guess what? When you run for office you sign up for the spotlight.
No one forced any of the council members to run. They did so with the full knowledge they would need to comply with state laws regarding open records and open meetings. This is when that requirement comes into play. This is the test of character, when elected officials are faced with a choice between a potentially uncomfortable situation that complies with the law and a comfortable one that does not.
The fundamental credibility of the Eau Claire City Council is on the line. They have a choice to make, one for which the office of the state’s top legal official has already given clear direction. Failure to proceed in an open manner can only make this an issue for voters to consider when they go to the polls next year.
Openness is not negotiable. It is obligatory.
It’s time for the names.