Arguably the most important decision a government body, corporation or nonprofit makes is the selection of its CEO.
The chief executive runs the organization, hires the key managers and has tremendous power to influence policy direction while simultaneously being responsive to a majority of his or her board. Elected officials come and go, but ideally CEOs outlast them and provide important organizational stability and non-political leadership.
Public agencies therefore tend to proceed through a careful process when hiring a new leader, typically involving a search firm, a public discussion of the desired qualities and a selection process that includes participation from a small group of internal stakeholders and diverse members of the public who pledge to keep the identities of candidates confidential.
It's an imperfect system, since the general public and media are kept in the dark, thereby minimizing the opportunity for vetting, but it at least has a modicum of transparency and public participation.
This has been the process followed in every recent search for the chief executive of both the city of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Unified School District. The City Council took this approach when it hired current City Manager Jim Keene in 2008, and the school board has done so in its numerous searches over the last 20 years.
But for reasons that aren't clear, after Keene's announcement a year ago that he would be retiring from the job upon his 10-year anniversary this fall, giving the City Council plenty of time to determine his replacement, two mayors failed to initiate the traditional public discussion or process for months, in spite of occasional prodding by some council members and members of the public.
Instead, in a decision that publicly appeared to have come out of nowhere, on Monday the city suddenly announced the promotion of Ed Shikada, the assistant city manager, to take over for Keene early next year.
Councilman Greg Scharff, who was mayor when Keene informed the council of his intention to retire, Mayor Liz Kniss and other council members all attributed the opaque process to the need to move quickly to pre-empt Shikada from accepting a City Manager offer in another city.
The council met on June 18 in closed session to discuss selecting Shikada, and after the meeting Kniss, as required by the Brown Act, announced the council had taken no reportable actions. Yet this past Monday -- a week later and without the council having met again -- the city issued a press release announcing Shikada's appointment. City Attorney Molly Stump said nothing was reported after the June 18 meeting because there is "a need to go back to the candidate before the decision is ripe for an announcement."
(Regrettably, this type of skirting of the Brown Act is commonly done by public agencies, including our local school district, by not taking a formal vote, even though a decision was indeed made to offer the job. An announcement could easily have been made that the council voted in closed session to negotiate a contract with a candidate for City Manager, and not doing so just adds to the mystery and opaqueness of the unusual process.)
While we understand the council's decision to appoint Shikada and head off his being recruited away by another city, the explanation that it had to move quickly and thereby shortcut any public discussion or participation rings hollow. The council's former and current mayors have had a year to initiate a process for replacing Keene, yet neither Scharff nor Kniss did so. Why not?
The delay ended up putting the rest of the council in the position of having to respond to the danger of losing Shikada to another city rather than run an orderly search process with input from the public.
Shikada is well-qualified and well-suited to taking on the top job in Palo Alto, and search consultants apparently advised the council that recruiting a better candidate would have been highly unlikely, as demonstrated by the fact Shikada was reportedly being courted by other larger cities with current openings. Another legitimate factor in selecting Shikada was the current turnover taking place among senior city executives, including Planning Director Hillary Gitelman, Chief Financial Officer Lalo Perez and Public Works Director Michael Sartor. As Councilman Tom DuBois said, filling those important jobs would have been more difficult without having made a decision on the new City Manager.
We think Ed Shikada is indeed probably the best choice to run the city, but the City Council did him no favors by not carrying out a proper process. Replacing a chief executive of a public agency should ideally be a fully public process -- one with finalists, or at least the ultimate finalist, revealed in time for members of the public and media to explore their backgrounds.
With Keene having generously given the council so much advance notice of his retirement plans, one can't help but wonder why steps weren't taken long ago to recruit and name his successor.