Hail to the chief

“It would be much simpler to go through a normal recruiting process for a department director that wouldn’t necessarily involve the public.”

— Asheville City Manager Jim Westbrook, who will pick the new police chief.

Asheville residents had their first and last chance to question the two finalists vying to become the city’s new police chief at an April 19 public meeting. The sparsely attended session, announced four days earlier, was held in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Several in the audience, including members of the local press, complained that the meeting was poorly organized and that the city hadn’t adequately publicized the event.

“I feel like the public meeting was a publicity ploy to trick the public into thinking they had a say. When in reality, in my view, it was an ‘appointocracy.’ [City Manager Jim] Westbrook is in an appointed position appointing a police chief, and I for one am not fooled,” Asheville resident Lola LaFey, who serves on the Steering Committee of the WNC Peace Coalition, said later.

After the meeting, Public Information Officer Lauren Bradley — acknowledging that she’d been harshly criticized about the short notice — cited a need to have a new chief in place by July 1, when the city’s new fiscal year begins. She also noted that whoever the city hires will need time to give notice at their current job and relocate to Asheville.

The tight time line loomed even larger in light of the limited opportunities for public input during the earlier stages of the hiring process. In accordance with case law and the state Personnel Privacy Act, the entire interview process that winnowed the list of nearly 90 applicants down to the two finalists was shrouded in secrecy. Even the finalists’ names were released only moments before the public meeting began.

North Carolina case law strongly supports absolute confidentiality in the hiring process, City Attorney Bob Oast told Xpress. But some other North Carolina cities, including Greensboro, Salisbury and Durham, have opted for more citizen involvement (see “Keeping Up With the Joneses: How Our Neighbors Chose Their Police Chiefs,” Dec. 24, 2003 Xpress).

The city did solicit input on what qualities residents would like their new chief to have earlier this year. The APD Advisory Board (a citizen group appointed by City Council) held five public-comment sessions before interviewing began. A summary of that feedback produced by the advisory board was given to Westbrook to help guide the selection process. And a page on the city’s Web site soliciting feedback on the public’s expectations for the new chief has been in place since January (see box, “The Clock is Ticking…”). As of April 21, the city had received about 65 public comments, most of them via the Web site, said Bradley.

Two earlier city press releases (dated Jan. 7 and Feb. 6) had promised three candidates, not two, at the public meeting. The Feb. 6 release also noted that the feedback page on the city’s Web site “will remain open for several weeks following the event.” But immediately after the April 19 meeting, Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson said the city would take online comments for “about 10 days,” which he described as “adequate” for the public to respond.

“We saw enough of a difference between candidates two and three that we felt like we were wasting money and time inviting the third. Those two candidates were stronger,” Richardson explained in a later interview.

In the end, Westbrook alone will choose between Rocky Mount, N.C., police Chief William Hogan and Laurel, Md., police Chief David Moore. In a March interview, Xpress asked the city manager how hard it would be to make this decision. Westbrook said, “It would be much simpler to go through a normal recruiting process for a department director that wouldn’t necessarily involve the public.”

Who decides?

Members of the public aren’t the only ones who’ve expressed concerns about the hiring process. In a March interview, Master Police Officer Mike Lanning, an Asheville native and 17-year APD veteran, said he’d only heard about the public-comment session he’d attended only hours before it began. But Betty Budd, who chairs the Police Advisory Board, told Xpress her organization had circulated fliers about the meetings, which had also been reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times and listed in the WLOS Community Calendar.

Lanning heads up the local chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, whose membership includes about half of the APD staff, he said. Expressing his disappointment about the lack of any direct involvement by APD staffers in the selection process, Lanning said: “In Woodfin, they’ve asked me to be part of their search for a new chief. But they won’t even ask in my own city.”

Lanning wrote to Westbrook on Jan. 13, asking to have a member of the local PBA included in the hiring process. A week later, Westbrook declined, directing Lanning and his fellow officers to the feedback page on the city’s Web site.

In a later interview with Xpress, Westbrook described having APD personnel involved as inappropriate, since one of the candidates would end up becoming their boss. He also cited the involvement of Linda Davis of the Winston-Salem Police Department as providing the needed police presence in the process.

After Westbrook had whittled the list of roughly 90 applicants to a short list of 15, Richardson and city Human Resources Director Belinda Odom conducted phone interviews with each candidate and reported back to Westbrook, who then trimmed the list to seven. At that point, a nine-member panel chosen by Westbrook with the help of city staff interviewed those seven and made recommendations to the city manager.

The panel members were: Westbrook, Budd, Davis, Odom, Richardson, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce President Rick Lutovsky, city Fire and Rescue Chief Greg Grayson, Asheville City Schools Superintendent Robert Logan and local business consultant Greg Mayo.

“Making public policy”

At the April 19 Q&A session, candidates Moore and Hogan each fielded questions for about 45 minutes from the roughly 50 people gathered in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

Both candidates fielded a number of questions about how the APD should handle political protests. Hogan said repeatedly that he likes to meet with protesters in advance and agree on a set of guidelines. And Moore, while indicating the importance of mutual respect, stressed the need to keep the community as a whole safe during such events.

In addition, both men fielded questions about assorted other community concerns, such as the promotion of minorities on the force, the use of racial profiling in traffic stops, how to deal with tight budgets, and long-term strategies for retaining APD officers.

Former Chief Will Annarino retired in early January, and former Deputy Chief Ross Robinson is serving as interim chief throughout the hiring process.

It now falls to Westbrook to make the final call. And while city staff checks each finalist’s background “with a fine-toothed comb,” as Richardson described it, the city manager is sifting through the public feedback on the candidates.

In the meantime, however, an exchange at an April 22 Council of Independent Business Owners lunch at the Asheville Country Club sheds further light on the issue of political accountability in highly sensitive public hiring decisions.

After Mayor Worley had delivered a “state of the city” address, Jesse Ledbetter, a Republican former state senator and Buncombe County commissioner, declared, “If selecting a police chief isn’t making public policy, then it should be. To have it out of [City Council’s] hands is wrong.”

Worley replied: “Obviously, the city manager serves at our [discretion]. There is some control there.”

[Freelance writer Stuart Gaines is based in Asheville.]

The clock is ticking…

If you want to have a say on who’ll be Asheville’s next police chief, you’d better move fast. The city is accepting comments on the two finalists for the job through Friday, April 30. City residents may weigh in with City Manager Jim Westbrok via phone (259-5604), e-mail (jwestbrook@ashevillenc.gov) or the feedback page on the city’s Web site (www.ashevillenc.gov/admin/feedback.htm).

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