A good time for secrecy

Published 10:35 pm Friday, September 4, 2015

It might come as a surprise to City Council members and other regular readers of this space, but there is a legitimate public interest to be served by city officials keeping a tight lid on the applications for the city manager post vacated when former City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn took a position in Richmond.

Council members heard recommendations from Human Resources Director Nancy Olivo about how to move forward with the selection process on Wednesday. Olivo said more than 360 people have looked at the job posting on a variety of government employment websites since the posting went live. The listing is set to close on Sept. 10, so there’s a good chance that number will increase between now and then.

Olivo outlined a process that would ensure applications and initial discussions are kept private without running afoul of Virginia’s open meetings law. Council should appoint a two-person committee to review resumes, identify candidates to interview, do interviews and recommend one or two finalists to the full council. Individual council members also could look at the resumes.

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City Attorney Helivi Holland also made some recommendations designed to ensure confidentiality without violating the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Council members not on the committee must not communicate with one another about the applicants or the process without advertising a meeting and then lawfully closing it. And they should communicate directly and individually with Olivo about candidates they would like the committee to consider.

To maintain confidentiality in the process at this point makes good sense. Many of the candidates under consideration likely will have applied without the knowledge of their current employers, and they deserve for their names to be kept private unless and until they become final candidates.

That said, it would be good for Suffolk if the selection committee suggested a public meeting during which members of the community could meet the final couple of candidates, a get-to-know session during which council would share some of their qualifications and, perhaps, ask each of them a few public questions about their thoughts on the challenges facing the city.

Wishing for such a meeting could be a pipe dream, given the city’s penchant for wringing every bit of secrecy from a Virginia law ostensibly designed to encourage transparency. Still, it’s a dream worth considering.