The city council has an important decision to make tonight. It is being asked to vote on hiring Moulder & Associates/Midwest Municipal Consulting to help find a new city administrator. It’s not the kind of thing that usually gets a lot of attention from the public, but it’s difficult to overstate how important it is that the city get this right.
Using a search firm has been Ottumwa’s approach in each of the past several vacancies, and there are good reasons to do so. Firms that specialize in this type of work have better information, stronger reputations and, critically, the connections to help speed a search to a successful conclusion. In short, they tend to know what they’re doing better than anyone the city has at hand.
That makes using a search firm the right move. But there’s another reason cities like using outside firms: doing so removes the bulk of the work from what might be considered public record. Saying there are portions of the search that should be done quietly is not wrong. We hope the city will follow prior examples of openness in the process, though, examples that went far beyond the legal requirements.
The clearest example was when the school district last went through the process of finding a superintendent. The district allowed meetings with each of the finalists and local media prior to public sessions in which anyone could attend and speak with the candidates. It was a remarkably open procedure, and one we continue to point to as the gold standard for how to both work quietly through the initial stages and invite broad public access once the finalists are selected.
The city has a reasonably good track record as well. Prior searches have included public receptions for people to meet the finalists and proceedings designed to ensure people had a chance to watch the council members interact with the contenders before the final deliberations. We hope the council will continue that pattern.
There is incentive for the city to do so. The way the prior city administrator was shown the door raises serious questions. The power grab that followed does as well. Committing to an approach that allows public oversight late in the process could help restore some of the city’s battered credibility.
There remain those who question why a city Ottumwa’s size needs a city administrator. Ottumwa’s system has part-time elected leadership. There is no way any council, no matter how dedicated, could oversee things as well as what needs to be done when they need to hold down jobs outside of government as well. The same is true of the mayor’s office, which has remarkably little actual power in this system of governance.
That means someone needs to be hired to act as the bridge between city staff and the elected leadership. The position insulates Ottumwa’s professional staff from politics while serving as a coherent voice to both the council and that staff. It’s an important role, and one the city needs to get right.
It will most likely be several more months before the city has a new administrator in place. There is plenty of time for the situation to develop. Prior commitments to public involvement and opportunities for the public’s engagement should be continued. The decision rests, in the end, with the council.
But the council’s future rests with the people.