EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a letter sent to City Council by Sanibel Resident Bob Holder. The Santiva Chronicle publishes opinions and letters on topics that are important to Sanibel and Captiva. They may be submitted via e-mail at email@example.com. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Santiva Chronicle.
I listened to the audio of your 9/15 meeting. While you accomplished your goal for the meeting, you still have some very difficult decisions to make. It was not clear to me from your discussion how each of you view the current situation or how you will proceed. I know that you understand the importance of your CM selection and I perceive that you are sensitive to the position that you and the candidates are in as a result of CB&A’s assessment of Keith Williams (KW). I want to provide my perspective on the challenges you are facing and suggest how you might proceed to make a good decision for Sanibel, to treat KW and the other candidates with respect, and to preserve the credibility of the City Council (CC).
Let me start with the current CM’s announced retirement. At that point everyone expected KW to be a candidate. I was hopeful that you would undertake an extensive search that would yield several outstanding candidates. I was encouraged when you resisted the pressure to directly appoint KW. But I became concerned when you selected a search firm. I questioned how good a candidate list could be generated so quickly for $20-25K. I became more concerned when the CC did not meet prior to selecting CB&A to agree among yourselves what skills, accomplishments, education, experience, and personal characteristics your ideal candidate should possess, and how each of you valued them. That consensus would have enabled your chosen search firm to advise you about the prospects for finding such candidates, the comp and benefit package it would take to draw their interest, and the likely time frame required. I wondered why no one on the CC asked for a special meeting to build that consensus. If one of you had made the request, it had to be granted. But that is now history.
Then I saw the CB&A job ad, on which you should have all signed off. At this point I began to envision a scenario in which no compelling candidates emerged and KW became the default selection.
Then I saw the candidate profiles. I first did a quick review looking for a few “Wow” candidates. Then I read CB&A’s “Memorandum Assessing Keith Williams”, and the “Selection Form” for CC use. The selection process was now turned upside down. CB&A not only excluded KW from their list of 8, but they submitted a joint memo from their three experienced recruiting professionals stating why KW was not ready to take the CM position. It didn’t say they found 8 better candidates. They said he needed tutelage by a “second, competent city manager” before he might be ready for the CM role in the future. That was a bombshell! Their purpose is to help you to make the best choice. Why would they be biased? Are they incapable of sorting out disgruntled public and employees’ inputs? Were they concerned that their finalists’ list did not have clearly superior candidates? Did they feel a need to offset the PR campaign for KW or give you aircover? They concluded KW should not be considered. It was a shame it had to be so public, but maybe it had to be. You were correct in making it public.
When the 9/15 CC meeting was convened KW’s status was the looming issue. Despite CB&A’s excluding KW from their finalist list of 8, KW had been added to the selection form at the request of an unnamed CC member.
So how did you address the issue? You questioned whether KW was treated fairly? CB&A explained that as an internal candidate with whom they had no familiarity, they had to approach his candidacy differently. It was different, but did not seem unfair. They apparently found enough issues to dig deeper, and eventually arrived at their conclusion. No one questioned their findings, or suggested verifying the allegations. It felt like the CC wanted to rule CB&A’s advice as inadmissible evidence, rather than address what was essentially a warning from CB&A not to promote your internal candidate. The CC then voted 5-0 to put KW on the list of 5 finalists without ever dealing with the substance of the advice that he was not ready, or why CB&A’s advice should be disregarded.
So how do you now get out of this mess? Hopefully, one of the candidates does emerge from the interview process as the slam dunk choice for all of you. But then you have to make it clear to the public, and especially KW’s supporters, why you made such a choice. This is probably the best outcome for Sanibel, the candidates, and you, as long as you choose the candidate on his or her merits, not just to end the process.
If you cannot coalesce around one compelling finalist, it gets tougher. In my opinion you probably should restart the process and decide how to get a better candidate pool. CB&A recommended a second, competent CM. Tell them to find that person. That would seem to be in Sanibel’s overall long term interests. You would have to be clear why none of the 5, including KW, met your expectations. This would take political courage.
Or you could conclude that KW was the best of the 5. In that case you have to explain to the public why the presumably unbiased, professional advice of a highly regarded search firm that you unanimously selected and have consistently praised, should be disregarded. Was the whole process flawed? Did their findings prove to be based on false information? Are they now unprofessional? You also have to address the negative feedback that you have received individually from the public. Maybe you know something that I do not know, but you would have to convincingly challenge the CB&A advice and concerns from the public to select KW at this point. You cannot just ignore their advice, select KW, and still be credible.
Also, what are you going to say to each of the four external candidates if (and I hope they do) ask you why each of you voted to make KW a finalist despite the explicit advice to the contrary from CB&A? After your meeting discussion this search probably doesn’t feel to them like a level playing field. Could dropouts be coming? What does fairness require for these external candidates? For KW? Even if you find an outstanding external candidate, can you now recruit that person into what must feel like a hostile environment for an outside hire?
I hope that one or more of the four external candidates prove to be outstanding. It seems that personal contact has already built enthusiasm for some. That would be the best outcome for Sanibel. But how you get there will determine the fairness of the process to everyone and the impact on the collective and individual credibility of the CC. You are in a tough spot. Best wishes.