Sunday, August 12, 2007

If they really want to prove it’s non-political…

At the Commission retreat down at Callaway Gardens one of the items on the agenda concerned hiring the new in-house attorney. Just in case anyone who’s reading this might not have heard, they fired long-term county attorney Bill McNally recently. They’ll tell you that they didn’t fire him because in the motion to do away with his services they said they’d like to use him as an “out-house” attorney (Commissioner Eric Maxwell’s terminology). Given the fact that they knew before they made the motion that night that McNally’s firm wasn’t going to take that bone to gnaw on (what self-respecting attorney would?), it’s pretty clear they just tossed that in so they could SAY they weren’t firing him. Knowing the firm wasn’t going to continue the relationship, the prudent thing to do in my mind would have been to continue the postpone the vote until contingency plans had been made.

Back to the ‘doings’ at the retreat. There was a lot of talk from some about making sure they keep the attorney selection process “outside the politics of the five Board membership”. Commissioner Robert Horgan suggested they put together a committee to sort through all the applications and that only the top three (later expanded to ‘three to five”) contenders would be given to the Commissioners. They would then interview the three to five and choose one. From the subsequent discussions, it was fairly evident that the committee idea had been given quite a bit of prior thought by some commissioners.

The committee the four commissioners decided upon was the Sheriff (constitutional officer), the head of Planning and Zoning, the head of the Water Department, a representative from the tax board, the head of Human Resources and the Commissioner’s Administrative Assistant. The group would be headed up by the Board’s pick for the interim County Manager.

Sounds good, right? Takes the Commissioner’s out of the mix, right?

Weeellll…. No.

To be truly independent you’d take it outside. There would be a headhunter or some agency specializing in legal personnel that would do the search. All the applications would go to them, they’d use the criteria set forth by the Commissioners to determine the top contenders.

Another scenario might be to have each of the Commissioners choose one person to go on the committee. Another might include some independent citizens.

Another additional layer which would help remove any questions of bias, which Commissioner Peter Pfeifer suggested, would be that after the committee has selected the top candidates, allow the commissioners to review those that didn’t make the cut. Pfeifer’s suggestion was shot down by the other four. They plan to shred all the applications and resumes.

At first I thought shredding the information after it was all said and done was a good idea. However, what’s the point? Applications are supposedly confidential whether they’re shredded or not. There will be so many people who’ve seen the applications prior to shredding them that a symbolic shredding will do nothing but make some people wonder why.

I would have to wonder why they didn’t want a Commissioner to see the ones not chosen. If even one of the Commissioners had a question about the process it would seem reasonable to do everything to allay his concerns.

I would also question whether any Commissioner or group of Commissioners has the right to deny a fellow Commissioner the ability to see all of the applications. The committee gets to see them, the interim County Manager gets to see them, someone on the tax board will see them. Personnel staff will see them. But a sitting, elected official partially responsible for hiring an attorney isn’t allowed to see all of the applications? Even AFTER a committee has vetted them? Sorry guys, that ain’t keeping politics out of it.

Regarding the committee itself, don’t get me wrong, I am NOT saying I think anyone on the committee is corrupt or that they’re bad people. I don’t know one of them and I happen to have a lot of respect for some of them. I’m simply talking about the fact that the commissioners said they wanted to take politics out of the mix and they wanted to handle the selection process in such a way that no one could question how they did it. Is having a committee of friends (of some commissioners) and those whose job depends on staying in the good graces of the Commissioners really an independent committee?

And, if you are serious about taking politics out of the mix, would you put the Sheriff, arguably the elected politician with the most clout in the county on the committee? What about the fact that this same politician openly worked to get three of the current Commissioner’s elected to the Board?

Taking the Sheriff out of the equation, want to know how easy it is to get around the committee they chose? Let me suggest some potential scenarios.

If any of the commissioners had a favorite in the wings, it’s easy to conceive that at least two, if not more, of the folks on the committee might know exactly who that someone might be. All that’s needed is to drop it casually into a conversation. So you could have a bias or slant walking into the mix.

I’ve already mentioned the potential problems that might creep into some people’s minds: Having a committee of employees whose future with the county is dependent upon the commissioners being happy with them. It might not be a factor. Then again it might be a factor. Either way to some it won’t achieve the goal of independence from political consideration. If even one of those on the committee knows what their boss wants, even indirectly, you’ve defeated the purpose before the first meeting.

So now, let me see if I can come up with a few other potential ways this independent committee could be influenced. The commissioners are setting up the criteria for choosing the top five. One commissioner is an attorney, all of the commissioners have lived in the Atlanta area and /or Fayette County for quite some time. They probably have a pretty good idea of who might fit the bill for the job. Again, not saying they would or they will, but the criteria could be set up in a way that pretty much assures their guy (or gal) is in the top three to five.

Let’s say one or more of the commissioners has an idea of who they want to hire. They also know the criteria. In casual conversation they happen to make sure the attorney friend they would like to see hired knows what they’re looking for so they can craft the appropriate resume.

I’d imagine if I really, really put my mind to it I could poke some more holes. However, I’ve poked more than one hole and that’s all I think it really takes. I’m sure a long time before the retreat that discussions had been had between 3 or 4 of the Commissioners about how to select a new attorney. Want to make it truly apolitical and independent? Let me count the ways it can be done…

No comments: