Whenever there’s talk about improving accountability in government, the call goes out for increased transparency: Nothing should be hidden, all records should be easily accessible, the processes should be crystal clear, roles and responsibilities of government officials should be easy to define, any motives or personal agendas should be discernible and avoided, and the chain of command clearly visible.
But don’t worry. Transparency, or the lack thereof, is not a problem here in Covington because anyone with eyes to see can tell there’s a power grab going on at city hall. We aren’t blind.
Our six-member city council is locked in a 3-to-3 dispute over the slate of three candidates for the city manager position, last held so responsibly by the revered Steve Horton. Before Horton, Frank Turner excelled at the job and trained Horton to take his place. Picking anyone to follow in those footsteps is a challenging proposition. The council wisely called in headhunter company the Mercer Group, to solicit, appraise and assess candidates from around the country based on “general impression, presentation, job effectiveness and administration.”
Jim Mercer presented 98 candidates to the city council who culled the batch down to eight, only two of whom were “external candidates,” the remaining six being all locals with varying degrees of management experience. From those eight, they selected three finalists, curiously eliminating four local candidates all of whom “had more top-level local government experience” than the two final internal candidates, according to Mercer. The lone finalist who is not a Covington resident is a woman who’s been a city manager or assistant city manager in various Florida towns since 1995.
In no way do I intend to cast aspersions on the character or desire to serve of the two local finalists, city finance director Leigh Ann Knight or Capt. Craig Treadwell of the Covington Police Department. They are honorable people who have contributed much to this town and are known commodities. I applaud their willingness to step forward and assume a critical job. I have no personal knowledge of the third candidate Oel Wingo, currently city manager in Williston, Fla.
I am willing, however, to question council members Chris Smith and Keith Dalton, backed by Mike Whatley, who appear to have skewed the selection process toward candidates with whom they have personal relationships. The Smith and Knight families are close friends, certainly not inexplicable in our small town, and Dalton is in business with Treadwell. The mayor broke the tie vote in favor of the final three with opposition coming from council members Janet Goodman, Hawnethia Williams and Ocie Franklin. The council remains split and a final vote looms.
Should either Knight or Treadwell ultimately be selected as city manager, it would inevitably call into question the influence that those two council members, the closest of friends themselves, would have over city manager decisions. There are two rules of good public policy-making that have been violated thus far in this selection process: First, the appearance of impropriety must be avoided at all costs and it has not been. Second, perception is reality, all protests, denials and explanations to the contrary.
The council has time to reconsider its decision on the three finalists, to review formerly excluded candidates or to start the whole process over again. The mayor should not have to break a tie vote, thus cementing the rift in the council chambers. The city of Covington is poised for renewed economic vitality with the arrival of Baxter International and the new attention being paid to our city and county in economic development circles. There is much that gives hope as the national economy improves and as the chamber of commerce works diligently with state development officials to champion our community.
A deeply divided council would be a threat to the consistent good management of city affairs. The appearance of favoritism, conflicts of interest and what appears to be a blatant power grab by certain council members would tarnish our belief in the good government we have enjoyed in this town for decades. We deserve better. Those who appear to have corrupted the selection process for their own personal gain and influence should reconsider their positions and make appropriate efforts to restore the public’s confidence in city hall. And if there were ever a time for citizens to step up and express their opinions to city council members and the mayor, the time is now.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. *Note: Her new email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.