As the city gears up to search for a new city manager to replace Blair King, the Lodi City Council will be faced with the question of when and how the public becomes involved in the process.
In some cities, the names of the candidates applying are protected and the search is held behind closed doors. But in other cities, the names of the finalists are released so the candidates can undergo public evaluation.
Supporters of keeping searches private say that candidates who are employed face the threat of the city they work for finding out they are applying elsewhere. On the other hand, some argue that the public has a right to know who is in the running to manage the city for years to come.
"You have to balance the right to know with not limiting the stock of people who might apply, and also, you don't want to put someone's job in jeopardy," Councilman Larry Hansen said.
On Wednesday, the council approved asking for bids to hire a recruitment firm for a cost of between $20,000 and $40,000 to conduct a search for candidates to replace King, who is leaving May 7 to take a job in Coronado.
The searches usually take four to six months, and in the meantime, Rad Bartlam, the current community improvement director, will serve as the interim city manager.
One of the key questions in Hansen's mind is the confidentiality for applicants. He is not sure whether the council should release the names, in part because he has heard of situations in which people have been fired when cities found out they are applying elsewhere.
"I would never want to put someone's job in jeopardy. You've got to balance that with trying to be transparent about the process," he said.
When the city was looking to hire a new city manager in 2004, Hansen, who was mayor at the time, released the names of King and two other candidates publicly after closed-door interviews.
He believes it is important to ask the candidates if they mind having their names released, and not have a stringent policy that could discourage applicants from applying. He said it probably will depend on what the candidates' situations are in their communities.
"If it can be done and not create too many heartaches, then yeah, we should do it," Hansen said. "People want to know."
Regardless of candidate concerns, Councilwoman Susan Hitchcock said she is in favor of releasing the finalist candidates to the public. Up until the city is down to two or three candidates, she can see where it is important to respect employee privacy.
"But when it gets down at the end, and it's something in the final stages, then confidentiality goes out the window because it's a public position," she said. "I think the public has the right to know."
At that point in the process, she said the news should not come as a surprise to the candidate's current employer.
"I think there's an integrity issue in terms of that employee notifying their employer that they have their name is out there, and that they are a serious contender," she said.
'I almost withdrew my name'
Having heard many stories throughout the industry, King said one of the main reasons releasing names can become problematic is because cities can misinterpret a city manager's interest in a position.
In other cities, some city managers have applied elsewhere as leverage for salary and benefits. And even if that's not the case, he said a city manager's interest in another position can bring into question their future with their current employer.
It can also cause a situation where people find out about a manager's interest in a position before they have fully discussed the possibility, King said. When he applied in Lodi and the names became public in the newspaper, he said it put him in an awkward position to have to tell his children before he was ready.
"When the names became public, which I did not believe they would, it created a situation in which I almost withdrew my name," he said.
While he has not made any recommendations on whether the council should release the names of the finalists, King said sometimes keeping it private ensures that currently employed candidates will be comfortable applying.
"The more confidential the search, the better off you would have at attracting the type of candidates that you would want to attract," he said.
Regardless of whether the public finds out who the candidates are, he said the most important thing is to conduct a professional search and keep the applicants informed about whether the names will be revealed.
He said it is also important for the council to identify why they are releasing the names if they choose to make them public.
"I'd want to hear the compelling public purpose of people knowing other than curiosity," King said.
How should the public be involved?
Whether the search is public or private, Peter Sheer, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said it is important for the public to be involved in some way.
An advantage of the general public knowing is someone might know some information about the candidates that the council does not, he said.
"It might make some citizens feel better that there is a potential for involvement," Sheer said.
On the other hand, he said it is important to trust that the elected public officials will do a thorough background check and prevent against candidates not applying for fear their employers will find out.
One option is to set up a citizen committee to review the candidates but swear them to secrecy, he said. Another possibility could be having a public meeting with the finalist where residents can ask questions.
"People should have an opportunity to question that person. … It allows people to come and find out if the person they've settled on is totally unsuitable," he said.
While cities can try to keep the city manager search private, it does not guarantee that the public will not find out anyway.
As a member of the Budget and Finance Committee, Steven Reeves said he will support the council's decision on whether to disclose the names. Still, he questions whether the process can ever really be private.
When King applied for the job in Coronado, Reeves said many people "in the know" knew that he was applying.
"When you live in the public eye, I don't know how it's going to be done privately," he said.
Kelly Brown, another member of the Budget and Finance Committee, said that from a business perspective he believes employees, even if they are public, should have their confidentiality respected.
"That's my only problem with it," he said. "It's not so much the concept of freedom of knowledge, but it's the protection of the poor individual who if they don't get the job have to go back to their employer," Brown said.
The clincher for Councilman Bob Johnson will be the wishes of the candidates, he said.
"If somebody said, 'I would prefer this to be kept confidential as long as possible,' I'd honor that," Johnson said.