The Covington City Council is nearing a vote on its next city manager, which could happen as soon as Tuesday after the council’s executive session meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.
Though speculation abounds about which of three finalists – Covington Finance Director Leigh Anne Knight, Covington Police Capt. Craig Treadwell or former Florida city manager Oel Wingo – will get the nod, the council appears far from any consensus.
Councilwomen Ocie Franklin, Janet Goodman and Hawnethia Williams requested a sit-down meeting last Wednesday with Mayor Ronnie Johnston and former city manager Steve Horton. The meeting was not open to the public because, according to the city’s charter, there must be at least five members, including the mayor or mayor pro-tem, to constitute a quorum and, therefore, an official meeting.
Only Goodman could be reached for comment Friday, and though she declined to discuss the specifics of the meeting, she said it was held because the councilwomen were "uncomfortable" with the way the search process has been handled to date.
"I’m just still uncomfortable, and I don’t want to throw away any of the qualifications we specified. If we didn’t have the qualifications, I guess we would have had 300 applicants, so some of those things I think would be quite necessary," Goodman said Friday.
"What is important is to make sure you’ve done everything you possibly can do to get the best candidate, and I’m just not comfortable with the circumstances as they are. Because you want to be coherent and be a body of one when it comes to the city and big decisions and I’m just not real comfortable right now…I still have concerns," Goodman said.
The concerns seem to center on the fact that the two internal finalists, Knight and Treadwell, don’t have any city manager experience, and that has subsequently divided the council. Both the council and consultant Jim Mercer, whose consulting firm The Mercer Group led the search, said having a unified vote for a new city manager was important.
"Any of them would need the full support of the council, and (the vote would) need to be as close to unanimous as it possibly can be to send a good message to the new city manager," Mercer told The News two weeks ago. "I don’t know exactly how it will come down. I was not there when they narrowed down to three; I don’t know how strongly some felt about one or another or if they can come together. I’m hoping they can."
The council was split when it selected its top three finalists Jan. 14. After an executive session meeting that day, the council entered back into open session and Councilman Chris Smith made a motion to approve Knight, Treadwell and Wingo as finalists. However, the council split the vote 3-3, with the three councilmen voting in favor of the list and the three councilwomen voting against the list. Mayor Ronnie Johnston voted in favor of the list to break the tie.
Following the meeting, The News reached out to council members and Councilwoman Ocie Franklin, though she didn’t say specific names, made it clear she didn’t believe either of the two internal finalists had enough experience. She also said that she would rather the council start the search over than pick an unqualified person.
"I would rather search some more (than vote), because I feel like the citizens of this city deserve more; the stakeholders here deserve more," Franklin said two weeks ago. "I know sometimes it’s a tough decision for us as council people, but when we pray for a thing and put God in it, we want to do what’s right. It’s not just about you or the council members, it’s about the well-being of the city and the growth of the city.
"We’ve got Baxter coming here; we want somebody here who will be able to stand up and help move the city along. Somebody who can talk to people, including people coming with a utility problem; you have to talk to them."
Goodman didn’t say whether she believed the search should start over, but she said she didn’t know at this point whether any of three finalists could do the job.
State law requires a period of 14 days before the council can make its final selection, and that time period will end Monday. Goodman said she hasn’t heard from many of her constituents, and she would like to hear more from the public before Tuesday’s executive session.
Goodman said personally she is looking for someone who can talk to all kinds of people and somebody who has conviction and won’t give into pressure. She wants someone who will give everything to the council and will be able to give guidance to the council. Goodman said she also wants somebody who is compassionate and will work with citizens struggling to pay utility bills. She also wants a hard worker who is willing to be visible and involved in the community.
Councilmen Keith Dalton and Chris Smith and Mayor Ronnie Johnston all said previously they wanted a strong leader who could be the face of the city and be a good spokesperson and make a good presentation when prospective industries and businesses came looking to relocate to Covington.
Smith and Dalton also both said they would like to see a unanimous vote on the new city manager, but they didn’t believe a unanimous vote was necessary.
Johnston hopes he won’t be in the position of having to cast another tie-breaking vote and said previously he would like to see at least a 4-2 or 5-1 vote.
"Regardless of how this thing goes down, I want a city manager we can embrace and support," he said previously.
The Mercer Group conducted background searches on all three finalists and none of the finalists had any bankruptcy or criminal records.
The searches did indicate late payments on some of Knight’s credit account (no timetable was given for when these occurred) and that Wingo was cited for speeding in February 2009.
The Covington City Council is comprised of all part-time officials, and though the city manager is hired by and answers to the council, it is the top administrative position in the city.
As of 2011, the city manager position was paid more than $112,000.