Town manager 'meet and greet' a nonstarter
Mayor Mike Ray’s idea for a public meet and greet for Canton town manager finalists was a nonstarter.
After an hour-long special-called meeting Tuesday, none of the board of aldermen made a motion to include a public component in the final selection process.
Current Town Manager Al Matthews told the board in January he intended to retire. There were 38 applicants for the position, and based on the resumes and applications, the board has narrowed the slate to six.
Ray told the board and about 25 audience members that he has spoken with a lot of residents who indicated an interest in meeting the finalists and getting a chance to ask them questions.
“I wanted our community to be able to meet and even ask questions to all of the candidates we are interviewing,” Ray said, noting the town manager post is an extremely important position and that transparency in the process is important.
The Canton board of aldermen did not share the mayor’s view, however. By law, the mayor cannot make a motion or vote (unless there is a tie), and no motion was made before the board went into closed session to discuss personnel.
Alderman Jimmy Flynn was the most vocal in the discussion. He said he had spent more time researching this issue than almost any other matter than had come before the board during his four years as alderman.
“By law, we can’t make them do it,” he said of the meet and greet suggestion, “and we can’t even give their name out without their permission. “
Flynn said the individuals he spoke with were three attorneys, as well as experts at the Institute of Government.
“None have ever known of a small town that has done this,” he said.
He said if a public meet and greet is to be held, that information needs to be included in the initial job application so those applying will understand they could risk their current employer finding out they are looking elsewhere for a job.
“I feel this late in the game, the best way to involve the public is to have them submit questions to the people on the board and trust the elected board members,” Flynn said.
Furthermore, there are certain questions that cannot, by law, be asked to a prospective employee. Opening the process to the general public could put the town at risk of inappropriate questions being asked, he added.
Alderman Patrick Willis said a public event could discourage good candidates from being part of the process.
“How many of you have applied for a job and not told your employer?” he asked. “I have.”
Audience members joined in with questions.
Troy Mann, a former alderman, asked Ray to share his idea of how the meet and greet would be structured.
Ray passed out a two-page sheet showing a Saturday schedule where each of the six finalists would spend 45 minutes with the board between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
After that, the candidates willing to be part of a public event would be part of a panel where they would introduce themselves and then respond to questions submitted by the public that would be drawn from a fishbowl.
After the formal remarks, the candidates would be able to visit with people from the community, who would then be able to provide feedback to the board members based on what they had heard.
Mann asked if the candidates had agreed to attend a meet and greet.
Ray said the six finalists didn’t even know they had made the cut yet.
Phil Smathers asked whether a meet and greet might set a precedent that would need to be followed for other positions.
Ray said the only person the board hires is the town manager, who then chooses the department head and other staff.
Smathers asked whether the public would ever know who the six finalists are.
Ray said that depended upon the vote. If a public element is included in the search process, the names will be known. Otherwise, the community will only know who is ultimately chosen.
Alderman Ed Underwood said if a meet and greet was so important, it should have been discussed in January when the job announcement was placed.
“We should have let these people know upfront,” he said. “This should have been part of the process. But then, we might have eliminated some viable candidates.”
Ray responded that candidates were not told a background check would be done on them, but that didn’t stop the board from pursuing that step.
Flynn said a background check is different than participation in a meet and greet and the two should not be compared.
The board discussed whether participation in a meet and greet would influence the outcome of a decision on who gets the job.
Ray said his feeling was that being part of the public process would be optional, and would be a factor the board members could consider in their overall assessment of an applicant.
Roy Taylor asked if it was illegal to have a forum.
“As long as it is not illegal, I don’t see it would hurt a thing for the people to have a voice,” he said.
Bill Sutton agreed.
“You all make the final decision but as voters, we need to have a voice. It is not a bad idea for us to see these people.”
Underwood said he wanted to hear from the public and will make sure their concerns are addressed during the candidate interviews.
Carole Edwards said the reason she wanted to meet the town manager finalists was to get an idea of whether they would help move the town forward.
“We did elect you all,” she told the board, “but many are not happy with the decisions you have made. This is an important post and we are not moving forward. It is important to see these people and talk to them.
Roland Osborne said it appeared the board had two choices — to continue the search as planned or to start all over and let the applicants know they will be asked to participate in a public event if they are a finalist.
Neal McCracken said the last time the board chose a town manager, they couldn’t talk about the applicants, even after the process was concluded.
“That didn’t set well with me,” he said.
After the meeting, McCracken said he would definitely be submitting questions to board members to pose during the finalist interviews.
Smathers said he was satisfied with the meeting’s outcome.
“Based on the information we had, I would say it is appropriate,” he said, indicating asking finalists to go public would be putting a lot of stress on them.