Asheville City Council

With a spare Tuesday on their hands — no City Council meetings are planned for the fifth Tuesday of any month — Council members huddled with a consultant hired back in December to help choose a new city manager.

City Manager Jim Westbrook was slated to retire last month after 11 years on the job, but he has agreed to delay his departure until a successor is hired. The city manager is one of the most powerful nonelected local officials, with authority over a broad range of matters affecting city residents’ daily lives.

The three-hour meeting on March 29 was closed to both members of the public and the news media. Council members conferred with consultant Bob Slavin of the Georgia-based Slavin Management, and City Attorney Bob Oast was on hand to advise Council members. Westbrook was not present.

The state’s open-meetings law allows closed sessions for a few specific purposes — in this case, confidentiality issues concerning personnel matters.

Slavin presented Council with a short list of 18 applicants, culled from a field of 92. And though he’d previously warned about a shortage of eligible contenders for such a position, Slavin said the Asheville job had attracted a higher-than-average number of applicants, Mayor Charles Worley told Xpress.

“Our task now is to try to winnow it down,” said Worley. To that end, each Council member will rank the applicants in order of preference and give their results to Slavin. According to Slavin, the ranking process tends to identify a few candidates who have broad support, Council member Holly Jones told Xpress. After that (probably around the end of April), Slavin will start conducting extensive background checks on the preferred candidates, and Council members will begin face-to-face interviews with an eye toward whittling down the list to two or three finalists within a few weeks. But before City Council makes its decision, the public will be brought in, said Worley, to meet and question the finalists. The format for that session has yet to be developed, and to date, nothing has been said about whether members of the public will be able to register a preference for a particular candidate.

If the past is any indication, however, there may be some grousing about the public’s being brought in too late in the game. The process that led to Westbrook’s 1994 hiring was shrouded in secrecy and alleged back-room shenanigans. Critics bemoaned the fact that a private consultant had been hired to trim a field of 268 candidates down to two with no public input.

The selection of a new police chief sparked similar controversy last August, when the public was invited to meet only the final two candidates. Some also felt the city hadn’t done enough to publicize the gathering. At that time, members of the public were able to register their preference for a new police chief on the city’s Web site, however, or by contacting the city manager.

In the past, city officials have maintained that state confidentiality requirements prohibit earlier release of information about job applicants. Other North Carolina cities, however, have managed to involve the public more in the selection of high-ranking officials (see “Keeping Up With the Joneses,” Dec. 17, 2003 Xpress).

The day after the March 29 closed session, several Council members said they were encouraged by the quality of the applicants.

“It looked like we were drawing from a strong pool,” Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower told Xpress. Becoming Asheville’s city manager, he said, appears to be a “much-sought-after position.”

“I think we’re right on track,” Jones concurred.

And though there was discussion at City Council’s December retreat about what to look for in a city manager and whether Asheville might have to raise the salary in order to stay competitive, there was no such talk at the closed-session meeting, several Council members said. Westbrook, one of the highest-paid city employees, earns just over $130,000 a year, according to the city’s Human Resources Office. At the retreat, he predicted that a pay hike would be necessary, but Holly Jones said at the time that she hoped Asheville could attract qualified candidates based on the other amenities the city offers. She reiterated that sentiment after the closed session, adding that it would be premature to address the issue just yet.

“We haven’t really gotten to that point,” she noted.

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]

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