Editorial: Columbia citizens locked out of city manager hiring process

January 13, 2013 

— WITH THE impending retirement of Columbia city manager Steve Gantt, who has ably served the public the past few years, this would have been an opportune time to pursue a change in the city’s form of government to allow a full-time, elected mayor to oversee day-to-day operations.

Unfortunately, City Council continues to balk at the notion, choosing instead to stick with an unelected manager it hires to oversee the affairs of our state’s capital city. As long as that is the case, it is incumbent upon the council to search for and select a capable, qualified candidate to oversee the city’s affairs.

Teresa Wilson, whom the council just chose to lead the city, might well be such a person. There might be no better person for the job.

But we don’t know how well she stacked up against the field because City Council failed to reveal the other finalists for the job. City officials say that Ms. Wilson was chosen from among five finalists.

State law requires the names of at least three finalists to be released to the public before anyone is hired. The intent of the law is to let the public know who’s in the running while it’s still possible that any of the finalists could become city manager. That allows for public comment, scrutiny and reflection. City Council violated that the law.

Had the council obeyed the law, citizens who support Columbia through their taxes could have had a say in choosing a new city manager. And they certainly need that opportunity. Consider:

Just a few short years ago, the city’s finances were in shambles, the police department was in disarray, and morale in general was low. Fortunately, Mr. Gantt, working with City Council and others, proved to be the right choice to help turn the city’s fortunes around. But the wrong city manager could have made things worse.

Beyond crisis-management, some neighborhood leaders no doubt would have wanted to know how the candidates would address the delivery of basic services and community issues.

Some business owners might have sought to get those people’s perspective on making the city a more attractive place to open and expand businesses.

Whatever they might have been looking for, lots of people had a stake in the selection of the city manager. And most of them were locked out because the selection process was improperly shrouded in secrecy.

Instead of winnowing the number down to three finalists, the city stopped at five in an apparent attempt to get around the law. That didn’t release officials from the requirements of the law, which demands governments to reveal the names of “not fewer than the final three applicants under consideration.” What it did was to rob the public of its right to know.

We don’t blame Ms. Wilson; we wish her the very best as she takes over the reins of the city. But we also hope that she will use whatever influence she has to encourage more openness in city government and promote the accountability that the laws of this state require.

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