Time to make a stand

Published 9:27 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2015

With City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn preparing to leave Suffolk for greener pastures in Richmond in a week and a half, the City Council is under the gun to start the process of replacing her at the helm of the city’s administration.

Council members were caught off guard when her appointment to the job of chief administrative officer with the city of Richmond was announced less than 24 hours before the start of council’s last meeting, so there was little Suffolk’s elected leaders could do at the time besides offer their congratulations. Now begins the harder task of determining how they will conduct their search for her replacement and what kind of person that replacement should be.

A smart first step — and one that seems likely to take place during Wednesday’s council meeting — would be to appoint Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts to the top position on an interim basis. Roberts has shown himself to be a capable and conscientious city employee, and he would likely make yeoman’s work of the task of advancing Suffolk’s cause for the interim, at least.

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That said, even if City Council contemplates making Roberts’ posting a permanent one, members owe the city a robust, honest discussion about the qualifications, traits and aptitudes of the next person who will lead the city. Gone are the days when some administrative skills and experience were sufficient for Suffolk’s chief administrative officer.

Suffolk’s next city manager must be someone with the fiscal acumen to manage budgets that inexorably grow toward the billion-dollar mark, the confidence to hire quality people to manage a growing cadre of civil servants, a clear recognition and understanding of the great differences among the city’s different geographical and economic communities and the political savvy to effectively juggle the needs of each of those communities while recognizing the taxpayers’ need for budgetary control.

The ultimate direction on those matters will, of course, come from the elected City Council, and that direction must start with a candid assessment of where Suffolk stands and where it’s heading.

Judging from their comments to news editor Tracy Agnew on Tuesday, at least some of those council members would prefer this discussion to be held in private, behind the closed doors of executive session. But Virginia law does not allow such closed-door discussions, at least not at this point in the process.

A dialogue about the hiring process — and especially one that includes such matters as council’s expectations and desires with regard to the candidates it will consider — falls into the realm of policy, not personnel. Citizens have a right to hear their elected representatives’ thoughts on public policy, and any move to shut them out of the conversation should be abhorrent to anyone who claims to value transparency in local government.

Three council members were elected in November largely on the basis of their declarations in favor of more openness in the way things are done at City Hall. Since then, others have attested, publicly and privately, to similar regard for transparency. Now is the time for them all to stand on the principles they have espoused.