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If open government bothers you, don’t apply

One of the finalists for the Reno city manager job was “vocally critical” of Nevada’s open process for hiring, according to coverage in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

That, in itself, isn’t too surprising. Several times over the last few years, Nevada local governments have made attempts to water down the hiring and review process for their top managers on the argument they couldn’t attract the best talent under such an open system.

Mark Scott

What did catch my eye was San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott’s admission, after dropping out of consideration for the Reno job, that he was accustomed to being hired on a handshake behind closed doors. Now, he may be an upstanding individual. I don’t know him, and it sounds like he held a precarious position in San Bernadino.

But it just confirms my worst suspicions about local-government practices that aren’t held to a high standard of openness. It also makes me glad Reno City Council promptly offered the job to Sabra Smith Newby, currently assistant manager for Clark County.

Hiring a city manager is the most important job a city council member has. The second most important job is reviewing that manager’s performance each year to determine if he or she should stay in the job, be fired or get a raise and a new set of goals to accomplish.

Why would we allow any of that to happen in secret?

The argument, at least as it has been presented to me by representatives of Nevada cities, counties and school districts — all of which must follow the open process — is that these local elected officials don’t feel they can speak with the same candor as they would behind closed doors.

Oh, really? What, exactly, do you want to ask that we shouldn’t hear? What answers shouldn’t we know about?

Of course you’re going to feel more comfortable behind closed doors. You won’t be accountable. You won’t be judged. You won’t be exposed as biased, or stupid, or self-serving or the puppet of some special interest. In short, you won’t be responsible at all to the people who vote and pay taxes.

In fact, all decision-making for government would be much easier if the people in charge could just get together and hash things out in private. (Smoke-filled room optional.)

Sabra Smith Newby / Jason Bean/Reno Gazette-Journal

But that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. It’s messy. You have to listen to all these people with different ideas and backgrounds and expertise. You have to state your own position and back it up. You have to let anybody have their say — even the nutty people. Because sometimes the nutty people are speaking the truth.

So when I see a city manager who gets the shivers because he has to answer questions in public, meet the people for whom he’ll be working — all of them — and try to persuade them he’s the best candidate for the job, then I have to believe the open process is working exactly as intended.

One other comment from Scott echoed another complaint I’ve heard about the open process. When the names of finalists for these manager jobs become public, it doesn’t sit well with the folks back home. That’s why critics of the open process worry they’re not getting top applicants, because the best people don’t want it known they are shopping for a new job.

Sorry, but that whole notion leaves a bad taste in my mouth too. It is, essentially, asking us to take part in deceit.

Are we not supposed to check their references? Are we not supposed to contact people in San Bernardino, in this instance, and ask if this city manager was doing a good job? Are the taxpayers of San Bernardino not supposed to know that the guy running their city is looking elsewhere?

Why not? Who would we be serving? The guy looking for a new job, or the people who would be hiring him?

 

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