South Lake Tahoe City Council to consider hiring new city manager Tuesday
South Lake Tahoe City Council appears poised to hire a new city manager just three weeks ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
Council has extended a job offer to Frank Rush Jr., currently the town manager of Emerald Isle, North Carolina, for South Lake Tahoe’s top non-elected position, according to Tuesday’s City Council agenda.
Four members of council met Thursday — Councilor Jason Collin was not present at the start of the meeting — for a closed session meeting to try and reach agreeable terms, which appears to have happened.
However, the decision to hire a city manager weeks before an election with the potential to fundamentally change the council drew criticism from several candidates hoping to unseat the incumbents in the race.
“It’s irresponsible,” candidate Cody Bass told council just before it went into closed session Thursday.
Mayor Wendy David disagreed with Bass’ characterization of the issue. While it may seem that all of this is happening right before the election, she said this process has been playing out for months.
“We actually started this process back in May,” she told the Tribune Friday. “We researched and hired a firm to help us look for and attract city manager candidates.”
The first pool of candidates did not turn up many results, which led to a second pool of candidates.
“The most important thing is to get the best candidate,” David said, adding that council believes it found the best candidate in Rush.
Interim City Manager Dirk Brazil, who said he was “a bystander” during the process, agreed with David. In his opinion there were three to five candidates who would have been good at the job, but Rush was the best.
For Rush, a 25-year veteran of local government, the opportunity to work in Tahoe, a place he has visited several times, was too good to pass up.
“There’s probably very few places as nice as Emerald Isle and South Lake Tahoe is one of them,” he told the Tribune Friday.
“What’s appealing to me is new subject matter, new challenges and new people, and I’m just really excited about the opportunity.”
Rush has served for the past 17 years as town manager in Emerald Isle, a coastal town of about 3,784 people that relies heavily on tourism.
Much like South Lake Tahoe, the number of people in town can skyrocket during peak tourist season, with more than 30,000 people in town during the summer season, according to a story in the Carteret County News-Times.
Rush oversees a 2017-18 budget of $9.45 million and a staff of 61 employees — smaller numbers than in South Lake Tahoe.
The News-Times reports that Rush has “been hailed as an expert in obtaining grant money for the town …” and that his tenure has been largely free of controversies.
The proposed agreement that City Council will consider Tuesday is through 2023. Rush will start with an annual base salary of $200,000 and will be subject to performance reviews at a minimum of once per year.
He also will receive up to $5,000 for moving expenses, $150 per month for personal mobile phone service, and a $500 per month vehicle allowance for traveling within El Dorado County. Travel outside the county would be reimbursed on a per-mile rate.
Still, some are questioning the process.
“I think there should be a little more exposure …” former councilor and current candidate Bruce Grego said Thursday.
In the past council would interview candidates in closed session but there also would be public interviews, according to Grego.
However, Tony O’Rourke, a previous city manager who was hired during Grego’s previous term in office, remembers a different hiring process.
Essentially, O’Rourke told the Tribune Friday, he was brought in and interviewed by City Council in a closed session meeting. There were no public interviews or meetings. A typical search process, according to O’Rourke, involves committees consisting of employees and key stakeholders in the community.
That was the process used to hire David Jinkens, who served as city manager for eight years before deciding not to seek a contract renewal in 2010.
Jinkens, who was hired in 2002, told the Tribune in an email that he and the other finalists at the time met with department heads and community members picked by council. Those meetings were not public. Each group then made recommendations to the City Council, which met with each finalist in closed session for extended interviews. After all of that a preliminary offer was made.
“The process was very open, inclusive and done in what we would call in the city management business, a professional way,” Jinkens said.
Involving the different groups is critical, according to O’Rourke, because a city manager does not just interact with City Council.
“That doesn’t show very great leadership when you’re not engaging the employees and the public in the process, because you need their buy in,” said O’Rourke, who now serves as the city administrator in Cañon City, Colorado.
Brazil counters that search processes are not one-size-fits-all. There is an ongoing debate about the best process for hiring executives in local government.
Historically, searchers would bring in three finalists who would do various interviews with groups and the public, Brazil explained. In those cases, though, a person’s employer could learn if their city manager was interviewing for a job elsewhere — which actually happened while O’Rourke was city manager in South Lake Tahoe.
Concerns about souring a relationship with a current employer could limit the applicant pool, Brazil said, adding that every process he has been involved in resembled the process City Council just went through.
David, who is nearing the end of her first term on council and running for reelection, noted this is the first city manager hired during her tenure, and said council followed the recommendations from its consultant, Washington-based recruiting firm Prothman.
Council was unified in believing this was its choice to make, David said. The goal set months ago was to find the best person for the job and council believes it has done that.
If hired, Rush would replace former City Manager Nancy Kerry, who split with the city in March for reasons that have not been publicly disclosed.
She was placed on indefinite leave in early February. Shortly after she was placed on leave, the Tribune published an investigation into Kerry’s tenure as city manager. The story was the first time it was publicly revealed that council had hired an outside consultant, Mary Egan, in closed session.
Exactly one month after being placed on leave, Kerry and the city reached a separation agreement that paid Kerry $176,321 — the equivalent of nine months of her salary. Both sides also agreed to a non-disparagement clause that prevents them from writing anything “negative, defamatory or critical of the other party.”
Facing criticism and questions over the process and the lack of transparency, some councilors have pointed to the non-disparagement clause as reason for not being able to discuss the matter.
However, other councilors have openly criticized the process used to hire Egan.
In an open letter to local media outlets, Councilor Brooke Laine alleged council had violated the Brown Act. The letter led Mayor David to request an investigation by the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office.
The DA issued a brief report saying council may have committed a few Brown Act violations but he did not see any need for criminal charges.
What followed was a roundabout of bickering at City Council’s meeting after the report was issued.
Specifically, Mayor Pro Tem Tom Davis called out Councilor Austin Sass, who was mayor at the time Egan was hired, for misleading members of council and pushing his own agenda.
Sass has chalked up Davis’ critiques as election-year politics — both men are on the November ballot along with Mayor David.
At the council meeting following the release of the DA report, Sass criticized Laine’s “unsubstantiated” opinion piece, adding that he hoped the DA’s letter, and the lack of any criminal wrongdoing, would renew the public’s confidence in City Council.
Whether that has happened could be determined in the coming weeks.
Non-incumbents running for City Council point to the handling of Kerry’s departure as yet another reason for a change on council.
Asked about the politicization of the issue and the potential for a different council in a matter of weeks, Rush said he is not concerned.
“I’m just looking forward to coming in and providing a fresh perspective and doing the best job that I can to help the council achieve the goals of the community.”