Resounding silence on City Council

Published 9:31 pm Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Suffolk City Council heard some excellent advice from the city’s human resources director on Wednesday. Whether members will take that advice remains to be seen.

During a presentation on how council might move forward with finding a permanent replacement for departing City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn, Nancy Olivo said her department would put together a “candidate profile” with input from council members. That profile would help identify the characteristics, skill sets and other important traits of the ideal candidate for the job, she said, and it would be used in marketing materials used to recruit candidates.

The good advice — couched as a description of how some other localities handle the process — was for council not to rely only on the input of its members when developing that profile. Many municipal governing bodies take the opportunity to survey various community groups — citizens, business owners and others — to hear their thoughts on the type of person who should be hired, Olivo said.

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Such a survey of citizen sentiment serves to identify the perceived shortcomings of departing administrators and highlights areas in which responding citizens, businesses and other organizations believe the municipality to be deficient.

Suffolk’s city council should take heed of Olivo’s carefully worded suggestion. But citizens might not want to wait by their mailboxes for the surveys to arrive, as council members gave absolutely no indication that they’d heard the advice, much less that they plan to follow it.

Olivo’s comments came during a work session on Wednesday, and council members offered almost no substantive response to her. Indeed, they did not even direct her to begin moving forward with the process at all. To their credit, members did not suggest they discuss the matter in closed session, as some had said prior to the meeting that they expected to do. But their relative public silence on the process was not especially reassuring to those who seek an open, candid discussion prior to taking action.

There is still time for council to do the right things — to hold that open discussion and to seek public input. Members’ unanimous decision to promote Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts to the chief executive’s position on an interim basis certainly gave them breathing room and a level of confidence that the city will be well managed upon Cuffee-Glenn’s departure, and they could well choose to add such a discussion to the agenda of a coming meeting. But public confidence in the decisions of the City Council hinges on public discourse, and a stoic response to the suggestion that the public should be involved in the process of hiring a new city manager does little to instill such confidence.

The people of Suffolk have been resounding in their call for openness on City Council. The last thing that call should be met with is resounding silence.