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Local voices: A better process

 

Lynn Spruill

 

As of Tuesday evening, the City of Starkville has now hired its new Community Development Director. I commend the Board of Aldermen for using an improved process. The basic concept was first imperfectly tried in the previous administration. Back in early 2013 when the former Board of Aldermen set interviews for that same position, the format was very loose. It was just an untested thought about having the candidates meet with some of the "stakeholders" in the community. 

 

I didn't think it was a useful exercise and it didn't seem to provide any meaningful return on the investment in time. I was wrong, at least in part. It proved useful because it provided a road map to the much more productive process that emerged on Tuesday. I think we can improve on the process even further with just another small, reasonably priced tweak.  

 

The initial interviews were not well organized or executed. It was just a few interested people meeting with a couple of the candidates without the benefit of background information or a formal way to give feedback. I don't think the feedback every really got past the stage of whispering impressions over a Restaurant Tyler blue plate lunch special.  

 

I am getting ahead of myself. First qualifier: I am operating under the assumption that the selection process is intended to find the absolute best candidate possible. That said, the small tweak I have in mind is the use of a professional search agency. There are firms out there who specialize in finding the right fit for a public entity. That doesn't guarantee success, but it does mightily improve the chances. It admittedly costs a bit of money, but coming as close as humanly possible to getting it right the first time is worth the cost. Failure clearly costs much more than the search fee.  

 

The Starkville School District used a professional search firm to locate its new superintendent. That has been a success all around. Apparently Columbus is following suit. If we think enough of the Superintendent position to give it our best shot, why not the positions that run the city. If the Board of Aldermen can spend $20,000 plus on travel it ought to be able to find that much for a search firm to make sure that we have optimum candidates for any of the positions that will be filled going forward.  

 

The first step ought to be the use of a selection firm. One of the greatest benefits of using a head hunter is the anonymity of the selection process during the early stages. It is clear that a candidate who might be interested in looking elsewhere doesn't want to compromise his or her current position by being "outed" by the requirements for public disclosure. A search firm would eliminate that deterrent and would allow for the widest source of candidate choices. Once they have gotten through to be a finalist and have to interview, it is fair to expose that to the public, but preliminarily not so.  

 

This time around the citizen part was much improved. That was because the professional, Personnel Director Randy Boyd, put together the paperwork, organized the process and provided the feedback to the Board of Aldermen. The candidates who were on the agenda to interview with the Board at the 5:30 meeting were scheduled to meet earlier with identified groups. The groups were selected by considering who would have an ongoing working relationship with person hired. The process took most of the afternoon, and was probably pretty taxing for the candidates but that isn't such a bad thing. 

 

Based on the minimal time of their deliberation, I don't really believe that this Board took particular note of the feedback, but I do believe that the precedent set by doing this has enormous value. In fact, I would recommend a similarly structured citizen input as part of a 3 step process to any public body having to make these hiring decisions.  

 

The second step should be the use of the citizen stakeholder interviews. As an aside, one of the notable benefits of the additional interviews was the obvious polish that developed as the candidates had the opportunity to think through the questions and their answers. They honed their thoughts and were able to better represent themselves once they got to the final stage of the show.  

 

The final step is the ultimate decision making body. The input received should be informative not interfering. Given the importance of the roles, I would venture to say that the more professional and seasoned input the better.  

 

There will be upcoming vacancies. This process deserves to be replicated throughout the public sector. Let's let the school districts teach us another thing or two and then go them one better with the citizen panels.  

 

Lynn Spruill, a former commercial airline pilot, elected official and city administrator owns and manages Spruill Property Management in Starkville. Her email address is dlspruill@bellsouth.net.

 

 

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