MURKY WATERS: HELIX LIMITS INPUT OF DIRECTORS AND PUBLIC IN HIRING GENERAL MANAGER

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By Miriam Raftery

 

"How they will conduct the search is a decision that the full board is entitled to vote on. " - Terry Francke, general counsel, Californians Aware

 

Transparency in this case is not only questionable but sends the wrong message to the voters…Does the selection process pass the smell test? The voters should decide that.” – La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid

 

October 27, 2011 (La Mesa)— Without calling for a vote, Helix Water District Board Director DeAna Verbeke announced during the October 19 board meeting that a subcommittee of two board and two staff members, not the full board, will handle screening applications to replace retiring General Manager Mark Weston. Verbeke then appointed herself and board member Chuck Muse (who was absent), to comprise the subcommittee charged with narrowing the field of applications to a handful for the full board to review.

 

Her announcement drew gasps from the audience and was made over the persistent objections of board member Kathleen Hedberg and the public.

 

Taking the action without a vote puts the jurisdiction in legally murky water, an attorney specializing in open government laws has informed ECM.

 

Director Kathleen Hedberg was the only board member to argue for the full involvement of all five Directors throughout the selection process, citing their responsibility to constituents especially given importance of the decision. She read from the agenda packet, “The General Manager is hired by the Board and works at the pleasure of the Board under an employment contract.”

 

She pointed out that the full board was involved in the complete hiring process to hire top-level executives at other local districts (including Padre Dam Municipal Water District and the Fallbrook Water District) from job descriptions to the actual selection. “Staff provides you a draft…then you just edit and you either comment or not,” she noted. “It’s just about us being able to provide input,” she said, later adding that public perception was also a factor.

 

No other board members shared her concerns.

 

Coates-Hedberg also questioned the extent of the role staff will play in the narrowing process. “I’m sorry, this is staff who are hiring someone who’s their boss, and there could be potential conflict within our own internal employees when you have internal employees applying for that job,” she said. The other three Directors brushed aside her concerns, citing their trust in District staff.

 

Director Richard Smith disagreed with her on both points, saying having the full board involved would be “too unwieldy. …We have very competent staff people, in order to sift out the applicants and the qualifications of the applicants,” he maintained.

 

Verbeke further agreed that she saw no value in “going through all the resumes with five people, having to sit here and do that…”

 

Helix anticipates receiving about 35 applications for the job, similar to what comparable districts have received that vetted applicants with the involvement of all board members.

 

Linden argued repeatedly for “the fastest way to get it done,” stating, “We don’t need five Board Members to sit here in my opinion, and jostle with all that stuff, we can then let our staff deal with it….” He asked staff what Padre Dam had done in it’s recent hire, referring the staff report in his packet, saying, “I didn’t get a chance to read the whole thing…”

 

It was also decided not to use an external recruitment consultant. “I think that, again, our staff, particularly our HR people are of course extremely competent to deal with doing that, and I think it would be really be a waste of funds to do that,” said Smith.

 

Although staff recommendation had included a member of the public with executive management experience on the Committee, the Board opted against this as well. “We don’t need anything from the outside,” Smith said.

 

The Board ignored Hedberg’s request to sit on the Committee, if one must be appointed, Linden did not want to be on the Committee, saying, "Well I don't have the time to do it so yeah," and remarked on appointing Muse in absentia saying, "We'll just have to twist his arm."

 

After lengthy discussion, Board members were given two days to submit their comments in writing to a staff on the draft job description, duties and responsibilities, desired minimum qualifications, and physical and mental demands and work environment.

 

Towards the end of the meeting, Hedberg concluded, “You’re only going to give me just a snapshot, you’re not going to be able to give me the full map,” and asked about being able to see all the applications. "But then we'll still have the opportunity as a Board to look at the other ones, and then be able to pull them up?"

 

“No,” Chairman Verbeke replied, “I don’t see the purpose of looking at the other ones.”

 

Excluding elected board members from reviewing all applications would put the District into murky legal waters, however.

 

Terry Francke, general counsel at Californians Aware, an organization that provides legal muscle to assist citizens and journalists in protecting open government rights, told ECM that such exclusion would be illegal.

 

While it’s lawful for a chair to assign a subcommittee to come up with a short list of recommended candidates to fill a position, Francke added, “That procedure cannot strip other members of the right to see the full application. They don’t have to be part of the screening process, but they have the right of access to all materials that the screening process includes.”

 

Asked whether determining the search criteria without a vote of the board would be legal, Francke replied, “How they will conduct the search is a decision that the full board is entitled to vote on.”

 

After ECM sent an e-mail questioning legality of excluding an elected official from accessing all applications, the District’s position shifted. Helix administrative services director Lisa Irvine indicated that all board members will be allowed to review applications after all--request.

 

“We will have the applications available for the Board to review as soon as we receive them. The Board members may contact our Human Resources Office to review the applications,” Irvine said.

 

ECM posed questions via e-mail asking board members why they wanted a minority to screen applicants rather than give all members equal voice. We also asked if the opening would be publicized and media notified so the public could have input.

 

Board members declined to respond. However Irvine provided this explanation of the process:

 

The Board has chosen to have a smaller Screening Committee review the applications and determine which candidates have the best qualifications and experience. The entire Board will have access to the applications so if during closed session discussions, any Board Member wants to discuss any particular application, this would be the setting. As determined by the Board, the entire Board will interview all final candidates.”

 

Irvine added, “The public can always provide input to the Board…If members of the public wish to provide input on the qualities of an ideal candidate, they can attend any Board meeting and provide comments during public comment or send comments directly to the Board. We welcome comments about transparency.”

 

She said that the Board will be kept informed by the screening committee during closed session to assure confidentiality of applicants. She added that “the District is fortunate to have a staff of professionals with many years of experience in this area who can competently support the Board with this recruitment.”

 

Hedberg has often voted in the minority to oppose rate increases for consumers and has clashed with Weston in the past over his unwillingness to be accessible for board members’ questions after hours, even on the eve before board members.

 

During the meeting, La Mesa resident Kristin Kjaero, who supported having the full board review all applications, suggested a possible compromise that was also rejected by the board. Kjaero asked that if a subcommittee narrowed the field, the full board should first agree on objective criteria for doing so, such as measurable items such as years of experience or minimum education requirements.

 

Since the meeting, community leaders and residents have expressed concerns, criticism, and sarcasm over the board’s decision.

 

La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid described how his city has chosen city managers. Twice, he said, “We canvassed at large to get a pool of the most qualified applicants, because of the importance of selecting a day-to-day administrator. The City Council met as a committee of the whole. All council members reviewed the applications, screened them down and selected the manager.” Because of economic concerns, current city manager Dave Witt was selected unanimously without use of a headhunter, since he had served the city for 27 years and council believed a search was unlikely to yield a candidate of his caliber.

 

Madrid, in an e-mail sent to ECM, objected strenuously to Verbeke’s action of “having only two board members do the most important work of any elected body where all of the board members, in such a small district should have a say in reviewing the applications.”

 

The long-time La Mesa Mayor further admonished, “That would never happen in our city. Transparency in this case is not only questionable, but sends the wrong message to the voters…Does the selection process pass the smell test? The voters should decide that.”

 

Lemon Grove Councilman George Gastil also expressed concern over the process. “My hope is that all Helix Water Board members will fully participate in reviewing applications,” he told ECM. “I also hope that other area stakeholders and the public will be provided opportunities for input regarding the important choice of a general manager.”

 

“DeAna Verbeke thinks the Helix Water District is a private corporation (her kingdom) where as CEO she makes the final decisions with an `off with her head’ response to any resistance,’” wrote Charlene Ayers, publisher of the Ranter’s Roost online blog in East County.

 

Ratepayer John Wood, who has criticized the Board over rate increases in the past, voiced a different opinion during public comments. “I understand Mark Weston is leaving. To me that’s a good thing. But it’s also a bad thing,” he concluded, “because now the five of you have to decide who’s going to follow him, and that’s bad news also because we have to leave it to you.”

 

At $203,714 annually, Mark Weston ranked fourth highest pay out of fifteen water districts in the county, according to the Board information packet. The District anticipates having a new General Manager in place by the beginning of March.

 

I am sorry to see you go, Mark, but it is a pleasure to be able to choose the new General Manager,” Verbeke concluded.

 

 


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