Mayor’s search followed private, not public model

by John Kenyon

CEDAR RAPIDS – When the Cedar Rapids City Council sought to hire a new city manager this summer, members made it clear that they wanted to avoid using a search firm.

Because the usual process that comes with a search firm wasn’t used – one that usually involves the group in question setting parameters and desired qualifications and then waiting for the firm to deliver a slate of finalists who are publicly announced – it came as a shock to some when Cedar Rapids hastily scheduled a press conference two weeks ago and announced that it had selected West Des Moines City Manager Jeff Pomeranz for the post.

That hire, and the quick, some would say opaque process that led to it, led some to criticize the council. Why was the process not more open? What were they trying to hide?

But area executive recruiting experts said last week that while they appreciate the business that comes with a high-profile search, they understand why the council went the direction it did.

Cindy Lyness with Management Recruiters of Cedar Rapids said the council’s process was more aligned with what the private sector typically does.

“A corporation will say, ‘We’d like you to go recruit candidates from those three firms. They’re doing things right and the ramp up will be quick,’” she said. “The city council was pretty targeted. They knew there were three players in the state of Iowa who could help Cedar Rapids, and they went after them.”

The lack of transparency — the fact that no finalists were publicly named and that the public didn’t have a chance to meet with and hear candidates before the hire – isn’t a drawback, said Dan Portes, CEO of Management Resource Group.

“In my mind, you elect people to perform and represent the public, and I would like to see the actual selection of city administrators, it shouldn’t be transparent,” he said. “I would want to include people in the pool that aren’t looking.”

Recruiting firms typically look to match the desired criteria of a community against a pre-existing database of potential candidates, and then forward those names to the city council. That limits the pool to those who are looking and who are willing to have their search known publicly.

“Search firms are measured by how many resumes they can throw at a committee for them to select from,” he said. “The tradeoff is that I don’t think communities get to see the best and most-qualified people for the position.”

For those who were paying attention, the council’s process wasn’t as opaque as critics let on. It was fairly well known, for example, that the council was interested in Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth. He said he wasn’t interested, and the council moved on.

Lydia Brown with the Skywalk Group in Cedar Rapids said instances like that are when a search firm can be valuable.

“You can go after people without it being quite so public,” she said. “We know who we want to get, but maybe we don’t want everyone else to know we’re going after them. It’s almost like setting someone up on a blind date.”

She agreed with Mr. Portes that a more transparent search that allows for public input isn’t always preferred.

“The election process allows us to select people who make decisions,” she said. “You can’t possibly have 130,000 people interviewing an individual.”

One thing she questioned about the Cedar Rapids search was the notion at one point that the human resources staff could execute it. While they would have the technical expertise, there is an issue of objectivity.

“In city, if the human resources group is doing that search, that’s going to be their boss, so I don’t know if that’s the most objective position,” she said.

Regarding another high-profile search, this one the University of Iowa’s eventual decision to hire Fran McCaffery as men’s basketball coach, Mr. Portes said that regardless of who conducts the search, certain factors must come into play.

“At the University of Iowa, being in that fishbowl there is different from being in someplace like Grinnell,” he said. “For instance, if someone was looking to hire a head coach for the Chicago Bulls, would they hire someone from somewhere like Iowa City?”

Lining up those competencies, qualifications, personality, management skills and more specific intangibles is important as firms and organizations seek candidates with specific expertise, he added.

That echoes one of the reasons Mr. Pomeranz was selected by Cedar Rapids. His experience leading the state I-JOBS commission, which awards funding to flood-damaged communities, was cited as a strong qualification for the position.

Ms. Lyness said most clients want two finalists at the end of the process, and detractors of the city’s process are likely no different.

“It’s human nature to want choices,” she said. “There weren’t two here, so people reasonably wonder, ‘did we see the best of the best of the best because there was only one finalist?’

“But he proved himself in the eyes of the decision makers here with his work in West Des Moines,” she added.