Bolton: Columbia’s council put new city manager in bad position

Associate EditorJanuary 13, 2013 

— SERVING AS Columbia’s city manager is a tough-enough job.

The capital city’s top executive must oversee hundreds of public employees, manage a $230 million budget, ensure the efficient delivery of services and answer to seven elected bosses on City Council, who can at times push competing agendas and engage in meddlesome practices.

No doubt newly selected city manager Teresa Wilson will feel added pressure to perform given that this is her first top-level job and that she has only worked in city government for a few years. And regardless of how progressive Columbia claims to be, she’ll likely have to deal with people with bigoted attitudes who won’t appreciate the fact that Columbia just hired its first black female city manager.

Based on comments some council members have made as well as discussions I’ve had with community members who know her, Ms. Wilson is equipped to handle the challenge.

But it’s a challenge that begins with even more scrutiny than need be, and it was created by the most unlikely suspects — those who hired her.

By shrouding the hiring process in secrecy, the same council members who chose Ms. Wilson and heaped praise on her created an atmosphere of suspicion, leading some to believe that the council was trying to hide something. When a public body keeps citizens in the dark, it leads to all sorts of speculation and conspiracy talk.

And since Ms. Wilson’s selection, there’s been a lot of that. The questions range from whether Ms. Wilson had the necessary experience to whether her $190,000-a-year salary is justified to whether the “fix” was in for her to get the job.

Imagine what people thought when it was revealed that during the search, the city reduced the experience requirement from 10 years as a city or county manager to only eight years of “work experience” in a city or county leadership position.

Tailored for Ms. Wilson. Right?

Wrong, says Mayor Steve Benjamin.

He said when the initial posting went out, the city received only eight applications, raising the concern that demanding 10 years experience as a city or county manager hurt recruitment. The pool of candidates with those credentials is limited, he said, noting that neither outgoing city manager Steve Gantt nor any of Columbia’s recent city managers met those requirements. So, he said, the requirements were adjusted to get a larger pool of applicants.

Mr. Benjamin said other questions people have raised are just as easily answered. For example, the council didn’t pull a number out of thin air when deciding what Ms. Wilson’s salary would be. He said the council wanted to ensure that it offered a competitive salary, so months ago it went through a process, including making comparisons to like cities, that resulted in a salary range of $175,000 to $225,000 for the city manager.

But as good as the explanations might be now, the damage has been done when it comes to public perception that the council has something to hide. Why else go to the extent of breaking the law and failing to release the names of finalists, giving the public an opportunity to have input? State law requires the council to reveal the names of no fewer than three finalists — before making a final selection.

A lot of the questions being raised — and many are legitimate — likely would have been addressed had the council held an open, lawful process that allowed for public input. The public would have had the chance to see what kind and quality of candidates were competing with Ms. Wilson and make comparisons. Citizens could have learned more about Ms. Wilson and others and raised concerns about experience, salary and whatever else.

Not every question would have been answered, and not everyone would have agreed with the decision. But an open, transparent process would have quashed some of the suspicion.

None of this should reflect on Ms. Wilson. She didn’t do anything wrong. But, like it or not, it does put added pressure on her to perform — at least that’s the way some critics will view it.

We all know that the best of managers make mistakes. And so will Ms. Wilson. The problem is that the council has created a situation where people will be watching her every move, waiting for a misstep. And when she makes one, no matter how small, it will be magnified, and we’ll hear the chorus that she’s overpaid, that she caught a break — you name it.

Obviously, when she makes a mistake, she should own up to it and correct it. But I’m talking about the unfair criticism she likely will get simply because folks riled up by the council’s poor handling of the city manager search are looking for something to pick at.

By not allowing that sunshine in, City Council did the public a disservice.

And they made Ms. Wilson’s job harder.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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