Covington will remain without a permanent city manager for a while longer after the city council rejected its initial three finalists at Monday’s meeting and asked the consulting firm it hired to bring back another group of candidates for consideration.
Officials were unclear about how the search would proceed and whether applicants who had already applied would be considered or whether a new batch of resumes would be solicited by The Mercer Group, the consulting firm hired by the city. The firm’s head, Jim Mercer, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The council has been divided throughout the process and that was evident again Monday night during the meeting and in the comments that followed.
The council again deliberated in executive session and upon entering back into open session, Councilman Chris Smith made a motion to appoint Covington Police Capt. Craig Treadwell as city manager. However, the motion failed by a 4-2 vote, as Smith and Councilman Keith Dalton voted for Treadwell, while Councilman Mike Whatley and councilwomen Janet Goodman, Ocie Franklin and Hawnethia Williams opposed.
Whatley then made a motion to request that The Mercer Group submit another group of candidates that had the credentials the council required in its next city manager. That motion passed 4-2 with Whatley, Goodman, Franklin and Williams voting in favor.
The credentials the council wanted weren’t specified, though some council members have previously stated they were disappointed with the lack of top-end administrative experience, particularly with the two internal finalists. Whatley, who previously voted for the list of three candidates, said he had nothing against Treadwell, but said he didn’t think the three finalists — Treadwell, Covington Finance Director Leigh Knight and Oel Wingo, a former city manager from Florida — met the qualifications.
Several people expressed disappointment with the decision, including a citizen who said “what a disgrace” after the final vote was cast. Dalton, Smith and Mayor Ronnie Johnston all expressed disappointment as did all three finalists.
“I would like to thank the mayor and council for allowing me the opportunity to participate in the selection process,” Treadwell said in an email. “I was honored to have been selected for the final three applicants. I am disappointed that was not their choice, however it is their decision and I respect that.”
“The council has the right to make any decision they feel is in the best interest of the city, its citizens and employees; however, I would like the opportunity to meet with the council again to discuss the issues that have arisen during this disclosure period,” Knight said in an email.
“I believe that many of the questions and concerns they have could be addressed with a follow-up interview or discussion. However, it is their decision to open this up again and I respect the decision they have made and will make concerning the next city manager.”
"It is extremely important that the council have a strong consensus when hiring their next city manager to ensure the community can move forward in a positive manner," Wingo said in an email.
Some council members have expressed concerns about perceived “conflict of interest” issues with Knight and Treadwell and those also likely played a role in the decision. Knight’s daughter is good friends with Smith’s daughter and the two families have gone on two trips together through their children, while Treadwell and Dalton jointly own real estate business Hat Creek Properties.
Dalton said he spoke with five attorneys — three in Covington and two in Walton County — and they all said there was no conflict of interest under state law being that he and Treadwell are in business together. He said it wasn’t something that he was trying to hide and that he has been open about it during this whole process.
Dalton also mentioned that he and former city manager Steve Horton have had a long running friendship and other employees who applied for the city manager position. He made the point that he didn’t want to look internally to fill the position or someone who had government experience.
“I was never for somebody who had government experience because I don’t know anything the government does well,” Dalton said.
“I was looking for somebody from a private sector in the business world who was a shining star. I mean this is a business; I don’t care what you say.”
He added that in the last year, the city manager had to oversee a $127 million dollar budget and 300-plus employees and that Treadwell has overseen many employees at the police department and has a master’s degree in business administration, which he said was needed in running government.
“I think the message they’ve sent today is, ‘I don’t care if you worked nights and weekends and holidays and you’ve sacrificed and given up time with your family, in the mist of all of that, you’ve been a great employee that we haven’t had a problem with,’” Dalton said. “Basically, we are going to wipe our feet on you and say, ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t think you cut it.’”
“What is the incentive to the rest of our employees to sacrifice and work hard and go back to get their education to improve?” Dalton said.
“I’m very disappointed,” Johnston said. “I think as of right now, the city has lost.”
Johnston said he believed the council was on board to make a decision in selecting a new city manager. He said he worked out a commitment with city manager Steve Horton, who still works part time at the airport; Horton agreed to mentor and train the next city manager for 12 to 18 months. Johnston said he was hoping that fact would address some of the concerns the council had about inexperience.
Councilwomen Goodman, Franklin and Williams all said they were very satisfied with the decision.
“We have to be comfortable with what goes on,” Williams said.
The original contract called for a $15,000 fee for the search, plus an additional out-of-pocket fee, which includes expenses like travel and materials, not to exceed $4,500. Under the contract, the council can either decide to examine previous applicants or to start the search over entirely, Mercer said previously. The only additional costs in that case would be out-of-pocket fees, Mercer said.
Recapping the process to date
The search firm selected 20 candidates from the 98 who applied for city manager, which were all presented to the council. Johnston said the 98 candidates did not include six of the internal candidates who also applied for the position, and said a total of 104 individuals applied.
Out of the 20 applicants, the council narrowed the selection down to four candidates and also considered six internal candidates. However, Johnston said two of the candidates from The Mercer Group’s external finalists no longer wanted to be considered and that left a total of eight candidates.
The council then narrowed down its selection to the top three candidates — Treadwell, Knight and Wingo — during a Jan. 14 executive session meeting. The vote was 3 to 3 on the finalists, with council members Smith, Dalton and Whatley voting for the list of the top three finalists; and Franklin, Goodman and Williams voting against the selection, forcing Mayor Ronnie Johnston to cast a tie-breaking vote approving the finalists.
During that meeting, Johnston said he asked the council to write down on a piece of paper the top three candidates who they liked for the position and the council even agreed that Johnston could also pick the top three candidates. He said there should have been a total of 21 votes; however, there were only 19 votes, as one council member only voted for one person instead of three.
When Johnston tallied the votes, the top three candidates — Treadwell, Knight and Wingo — were named. However, some council members were not pleased with the top three candidates and wanted to redo the voting process.
Johnston said he did not start the process over again because he thought that wouldn’t be fair. The council then opened the closed meeting and took a vote on the top three candidates, with Johnston having to break the tie in approving the top three candidates. He said city attorney Ed Crudup was at every meeting and the process was done professionally.
“The process was legitimate and fairly operated,” Johnston said.
Though Johnston broke the tie at the Jan. 14 meeting, he said he didn’t want to break a tie when voting for the appointment of city manager and that he wanted a unanimous decision or majority vote from the council, being that selecting a city manager was an important decision.
However, after Monday’s meeting, Johnston said he was very disappointed in the vote and that he regretted that he said he would not vote to break a tie.