The Ottumwa Courier

February 9, 2013

Process a black eye for Ottumwa

Our Opinion

Ottumwa Courier

OTTUMWA — The attempt to hire a new transit director rapidly descended into farce. The good news is that the Ottumwa City Council seems to know it.

Let’s set aside the ongoing questions about the prior director’s departure and just how much oversight is appropriate once a director is in place. They’re valid questions, just not ones that are directly involved here.

What is involved is the decision by city staff to turn the search into a black hole, shutting the public out. The information was there, but city staff locked it up. In fact, only two names became known: one the staff wanted to hire and another who publicized it himself.

City Administrator Joe Helfenberger should know better. He benefitted from an open and public vetting of the city’s candidates for his position. The fact he now slams the door in the public’s face is shameful.

City Attorney Joni Keith should know better. She, readers may recall, is the one who improperly ordered the list of active warrants from the Ottumwa Police Department be withheld from the Courier. She was wrong then, and she’s wrong now.

There is general agreement among the council that the search, particularly the interview process, was botched. There are questions about whether the staff sought experience or pliability in the new director. Council questions suggest there were people with more experience available. But the fact city staff shut the public out means no one outside City Hall can definitively say.

That’s not to let the council off the hook here. They could have ordered staff to open the process, at least as far as the finalists were concerned. They could have pointed out that just because information can be withheld does not mean it should be. They failed in that regard.

The process leaves the city looking bad no matter what happened behind closed doors. It means people will believe what they want, fair or not. It means the city loses credibility.

It was so easy to avoid this. It shouldn’t have been this way.

We hope the lesson is learned for future hirings. The city will soon begin looking for a new police chief. Opening that process to the public would be a good place to start.