A springboard to openness

Published 9:10 pm Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Although city officials found little interest in the in-person meetings they had set up for public input into the process for hiring a new city manager — a total of only 18 people attended the three meetings — responses to an online survey of citizens prove a reasonable number of people in Suffolk are engaged in the process and interested in its outcome.

About 260 people responded to the online survey hosted for two and a half weeks in July on the city’s website. They clicked buttons to prioritize skill sets they’d like to see in the new city manager, they arranged potential city challenges into the order they’d like to see them addressed, and they chose from a list of characteristics they’d like to see in the next permanent occupant of that post.

There was also space for open-ended comments, and respondents provided a total of nearly 6,000 words of commentary about the process; about their thoughts on potential candidates; about the possibility of the interim city manager, Patrick Roberts, getting the job; and even about city officials who are not involved in the search or likely to be directly affected by it.

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Never let it be said that folks in Suffolk don’t care about what happens in local government. What’s clear is they prefer to let their voices be heard anonymously and conveniently. One might wish they’d been more willing to publicly pronounce their opinions, but at least the opinions are there now, and members of City Council have a feel for what those who are interested in and paying attention to Suffolk politics want from the city’s next administrative leader.

Whether the City Council makes use of or follows those suggestions will be another thing entirely. Surely each council member must have some thoughts of his or her own about the survey questions, and each one will have an ideal candidate in mind for the new occupant of the city manager’s office.

What will be most important to folks in Suffolk, however, is that the initial discussions about the position — though not necessarily those about specific candidates — are held in open sessions of City Council meetings. Suffolk residents have shared their thoughts about the position; now it’s their turn to hear their elected representative’s thoughts, too, along with a discussion about how the search process will now proceed.

It would be unfortunate for City Council to waste the goodwill it has built with the city manager survey by attempting to (illegally) invoke secrecy on the process. Instead, members should use this interaction with citizens as a springboard to a new level of openness in city government. We wait with bated breath to see what will happen.