The Covington City Council named three finalists Monday to fill the vacant city manager position, but the choice of finalists was far from unanimous as the council was split 3-3 on the final list, forcing Mayor Ronnie Johnston to cast a tie-breaking vote approving the finalists.
Based on conversations with some council members this past week, it appears the difference of opinion on the next city manager could carry over to a final vote as well, which could force another tie-breaking vote, something the mayor hopes to avoid.
Though discussions were held in executive session, the council had to enter back into regular session Monday to approve the three finalists, and Councilman Chris Smith made a motion to approve Covington Finance Director Leigh Anne Knight, Covington Police Capt. Craig Treadwell and past Florida city manager Oel Wingo as finalists.
According to the minutes from that meeting, Smith was joined by fellow councilmen Keith Dalton and Mike Whatley in approving the list of three, while councilwomen Ocie Franklin, Janet Goodman and Hawnethia Williams voted against the list.
State law requires a period of 14 days before the council can make its final selection; the time period is giving fellow city employees and members of the public time to research the candidates and make their feelings known.
Best candidates in the top three?
Only one of the finalists, Wingo, has former city manager or top-level general administration experience, and that lack of experience concerns Councilwoman Franklin, who felt better candidates were left off the final list.
Though she didn't mention specific names, Franklin made it clear she didn't believe either of the two internal candidates, Knight or Treadwell, had enough experience in general city operations to merit consideration and said she would not vote for either as city manager.
"One of the things that I didn't like was that one person did not have any experience with the city operations at all, didn't have anything to do withutilities or wastewater, was just a supervisor. I think we need more than that," Franklin said Saturday.
She also felt it was important that finalists have experience dealing with the public from a customer service perspective and didn't see much experience in the other two finalists.
Neither of the other two councilwomen, Goodman or Williams, could be reached for comment Friday or Saturday.
"I don't have anything personally against anybody. I want somebody who will be the best for the city. (Retiring City Manager) Steve (Horton) has done a magnificent job; he's still willing to work with the person, whomever it is, to come in and do this, but it could take 12 months, or 24 months, for somebody coming in (with no experience)," Franklin said.
The top three finalists were chosen from eight semifinalists, which included two external candidates and six internal city candidates: Knight, Treadwell, airport manager Vincent Passariello, as well as the city's three directors - the highest administrative positions after city manager and assistant city manager - Stacey Cotton, police chief and director of public safety; Ronnie Cowan, human resources director and director of administrative services; and Bill Meecham, utilities director and director of public services.
Cotton, Cowan, Meecham and Passariello all had more top-level local government experience than the two internal candidates who were chosen, and some of them along with other employees and members of the public have questioned why they weren't among the finalists. On paper, those four appeared to be better qualified.
Franklin said she personally wanted to see Cowan among the finalists, but she said Cowan pulled his name out of consideration after what she believed to be an unfair interview.
"I really don't think he was interviewed fairly, in my opinion. When you're on the council, you notice and know things, and there are questions that can and should be asked and questions that can't and shouldn't be asked," she said.
Because Franklin was interviewed late Saturday, no other council members could be asked about the questioning of Cowan.
Intangibles key to the job
Councilmen Dalton and Smith and Mayor Johnston all said they supported the three finalists because to them, certain intangibles were just as important as a master's degree and experience.
All three said they were looking for someone with strong leadership skills and the ability to be the face and spokesperson for the city. For Smith, the three finalists were his personal top three.
"We spent an hour with each person interviewing them, and I know my top three, including Leigh Anne and Craig interviewed very well," Smith said. "I feel like, to me, the city manager is a huge PR, face-of-the-city position. Any one of the three of those people could present a good, positive image to our community.
"Craig had the education with a master's, Leigh Anne does not have a master's, but she is a CPA, and handles a lot of city business and money... I certainly think that those two internal candidates interviewed very well, and were well spoken."
It was clear that Dalton, Johnston and Smith all put a high emphasis on the ability of the future city manager to impress future industry executives who might be considering opening a facility in Covington.
"We (the mayor and council) are all the face of the city, but I will also tell you that I've been in meetings with Steve Horton and Fortune 500 companies and how he's handled himself (very well). It's important to me that we don't have a city manager who's a bumbling fool," Johnston said. "We have to have somebody who's confident and can project that to the client. To me, that's a critically important part of government."
Lack of former city manager candidates
Jim Mercer, the consultant who headed up the search, said the city received a total of 98 candidates, which is a lot in today's market, considering people are holding onto the jobs they have. He said the large number of internal candidates who applied for the Covington job may have also scared some applicants away, since elected officials often will choose to go with in-house candidates.
He also said he thought the council passed on some pretty good external candidates, but he said the council had its reasons, including the fact it wanted someone with lots of skills, including handling diverse functions like water, wastewater, gas and electric. Not many cities run all of those operations themselves, often offering only a couple of those services.
Moving forward, Mercer's company, The Mercer Group, will continue to do some background checking on the finalists and Mercer himself will also continue to talk to outside sources about the candidates.
If the council does pick one of its three finalists to be the next city manager, The Mercer Group guarantees that the city manager will be in place for two years. If the city manager is fired, leaves voluntarily, dies or becomes incapacitated, The Mercer Group would conduct another search. The only additional expenses would be things like travel and materials - out-of-pocket expenses.
The original contract called for a $15,000 fee for the search, plus an additional out-of-pocket fee not to exceed $4,500.
In addition, if the council does not choose a finalist from the top three, the council can either decide to examine previous applicants or to start the search over entirely. Again, the only additional costs would be those out-of-pocket fees, Mercer said.
All the council members said they would like to see a unanimous vote or at least the majority of the city council itself support the next city manager, but members also promised to vote with their conscience, which could lead to another split decision and a tough decision for the mayor.
The News will have in-depth looks at each of the three candidates in next week's editions.