On Monday, January 29th, after reviewing an initial slate of City Manager candidates, the City Commission narrowed their search to 3 finalists. We have many concerns after speaking with city leaders, community members, and others that were directly involved in the interview process. Many have been questioning if this slate of candidates is truly qualified, understands and can advance equity in the city, and if they have been properly vetted by the community itself.
Here are a few of our observations and concerns from this week:
- The public had no advance notice of the 5 candidates that were to participate in interviews with the City Commission this past Monday, January 29th. They were revealed publicly for the first time at the actual interview on Monday, only one week before a final candidate is to be selected for this key role. It’s impossible for the public to be prepared to listen and make a fair analysis of each candidate without advanced study to understand context and specifics.
- The City of Grand Rapids did not publicize the January 29th interviews well. This initially wasn’t viewed as much of an issue since the city promised to share video footage of the interviews. However, video is not available due to a “technical error”. Thus, the first and only time the public will get any advance notice to meet the candidates is for the 3 finalists at the Candidate Forum at Wealthy Theatre this coming Monday, February 5th . This is a grave, community engagement error that absolutely negatively impacts the final decision.
- The hiring process, run by GovHR, has proven to be more rigid, restrictive, and controlled than residents had hoped. There are no planned opportunities for the public to directly ask questions to the candidates in a public forum. Question and answer was not available on January 29th with the City Commission, and next week’s February 5th forum does not allow public Q&A. Instead, the candidates “will answer questions from consultants from GovHR, the executive search firm working with the City on filling the City Manager position. Following the question and answer session, the finalists will be available for a meet and greet with attendees.” This, too, is another grave error in community engagement.
- A community stakeholder meeting took place on the morning of Tuesday, January 30th between 12 community leaders and the final 3 candidates. The community leaders were expected to ask 26 predetermined questions in one hour. The second biggest city in Michigan should have an innovative, open process for allowing community members and stakeholders to truly engage with candidates. Many left that meeting with no better understanding of the candidates than before they arrived.
What has resulted from this process is a limited and seemingly unprepared list of finalists that we know only little about. What we have seen is that Jane Bais-DiSessa does not have a basic understanding of equity issues based on her responses to Monday’s interview questions. James Freed has performed smoothly in the interviews, but his track record of advocating for rolling back pensioner and public employee benefits being spotlighted by the Mackinac Center is problematic. Also, in an environment where Port Huron had to make $3M in cuts, he passed a millage that grew the police force. We do not believe growing the police force is an effective strategy to improve community-police relations and advance equity. Lastly, 2 of the 3 finalists do not have any experience managing a city bigger than 60,000 people.
To be clear, we do not see a need to slow down or prolong the process for another several months. We also do not see this as an opportunity for city staff to circumvent the process as we do not believe there is a qualified person that could take this position that is currently working for the City of Grand Rapids. What we are asking for is a more qualified, equity-minded slate of candidates. We believe highly qualified candidates are available and have been in contact during the search process. The number of finalists should be rethought and limited to allow for the best and brightest candidates to fully participate and mitigate their risks of being public.
Where are the candidates from cities we aspire to be, or with a track record of success we aspire for? This hire will shape the policy landscape for decades to come, and we absolutely need more than one promising candidate. We need a full slate of qualified and equity-minded candidates. Grand Rapids can - and should - do better by expeditiously changing the process to allow for better, quality candidates that the community can meaningfully interact with. This will allow for an outcome we can feel confident in.