Q&A: Choosing a city manager

On Nov. 15, the day Paul Eckert resigned under pressure as interim city manager after nine days on the job, the Free Lance emailed Hollister City Council members questions that asked them to reflect on their six-week roller-coaster ride attempting to hire a new city manager.

The council’s debates, deliberations and decisions about a new city manager occurred in private meetings. All council members felt constrained about talking about what occurred behind closed doors, citing state confidentiality statutes.

The Free Lance sought explanations and comments on the outcomes of those decisions, not the content of the executive sessions. Mayor Ignacio Velazquez and Councilmember Rolan Resendiz responded with telephone interviews; Vice Mayor Marty Richman and Councilmember Honor Spencer responded in writing. Councilmember Carol Lenoir chose not to respond.

The responses are shown in full, with minor editing for clarity. The council member responses, written before the Nov. 18 council meeting, showed continuing deep divisions and mistrust among Hollister’s elected leaders.

PAUL ECKERT

How did the city council’s unanimous choice for city manager become someone who had to withdraw?

Mayor Ignacio Velázquez

Everybody agreed that [Paul Eckert] had the abilities to lead the city. I definitely looked into it. There was an allegation but nothing to back it up. This guy had the experience and was probably the best pick we had from the group. I found nothing but signs of strong leadership. This guy worked at building a good team.

Look, everybody on the city council knew exactly what was going on and what was there. This was nothing that sneaked up on anybody.

I’m not the one that voted for him not being there. I fully supported him and still do. It concerned me that there were exaggerated claims, but it was one of those things. I thought, “Let’s let this guy perform for 90 days.” I warned everybody that you can’t be the investigator, judge and jury.

But my gut told me it wasn’t going to work, that he wasn’t going to get a shot at it. There is a problem with bringing in a new city manager upfront. I predicted that this is what would happen, and this is exactly what happened.

Vice Mayor Marty Richman

I changed my focus and that changed the result. I realized that our background information and information on the organization culture at Sioux City was very incomplete. That’s why I voted to make Mr. Eckert only the interim city manager pending a further review. During that review and several hours of one-on-one interviews, I decided that I had been focusing on technical expertise and buzzwords rather than demonstrated leadership effectiveness and the best overall fit for the city. That was an error. The lawsuit made serious claims against the city of Sioux City as an organization, and that was of great concern. Yes, technical expertise is great, but demonstrated leadership and overall compatibility are much more important.  

Councilmember Rolan Resendiz

I still feel that if we did not appoint him as an interim city manager, he would not have had the votes to be appointed manager that night. I thought when we supported that, that he would have served as an interim for 90 days, that after a new background check would have been done he would have become a full-fledged city manager.

The message I had hoped to send to the public was that by supporting this gentleman with a 5-0 vote we were no longer a divided council and we were ready for a fresh start. Everybody knew the background and we all came together.

This whole year has been a soap opera. I was hoping to send a message to the public that it’s over.

But there is clearly a divide. The influence on the other three council members—Marty Richman, Carol Lenoir and Honor Spencer—especially by outside parties, special interests and lobbyists, is a huge problem in Hollister.

I think it’s ironic that they are willing to settle with him and pay him off. It’s ironic and unsettling.  It’s shameful because we should not have been in that situation to begin with— one night he was to be appointed, and now he’s to be paid off quietly and go away.

Counclmember Honor Spencer

[I changed my mind] after learning the facts about Mr. Eckert. I listen to the people in our community concerning their issues and safety. And I will always do what is right for Hollister and San Benito County.

LESSONS

What message or lessons can Hollister draw from this hiring process? What might you have done differently in this selection process?

Velázquez

We’ve got to stop playing these games, and giving some of these special interests their way.

We are a dysfunctional community with a lack of leadership. We as a community are trying to work through that, we are trying to change things.

The city is being controlled by special interests, and if they don’t like a decision, they are going to be doing everything they can to guide the decision.

You can’t just change your minds because someone is throwing a grenade into the conversation  that misleads the public.

What I’ve seen is you have had different factions in the community for years, and I have been trying to break these up for a long time. We have had too many people going in a different direction rather than one focused goal. If we don’t have that common goal or focus, we will always have the problem of the city being in a survival mode.

I think you have a majority that is going to go against whatever I want to do.

Had I been against this person, he would be the city manager right now.

Richman

What the public can take away, and this is important, is that I’m willing to get my priorities straight, look deeper and do the right thing for the good of the city residents. Hopefully, I’ll be living here for many years after I’m out of office, so I need to make a good decision because it’s my future, too. For me, being in office is a great responsibility and I take it seriously.

Values, leadership and dedication are the three most important attributes of a good city manager; therefore, they should be the primary concern and the focus of our search.  

[I would tell prospective candidates:] If you think you have our values, are a great leader and are prepared to dedicate yourself to our residents, you should come apply at Hollister. It’s a great place to live and work. 

[If I could have done things differently:] I would have focused on what counts most from the beginning, and the only way you can determine that is to do a more comprehensive background checks and do extended one-on-one freewheeling interviews as well as using prepared group questions.

Resendiz

The assumptions that I had about having a fresh new start and becoming united were inaccurate. The result solidified the idea that there is a clear division and a divide.

I am extremely sensitive to any kind of social justice issue. I am an openly gay Mexican person who comes from a low-income background. I have championed social justice issues my entire life. I empathize with people’s concerns.

But given the information that we were given, there was no logical rationale for us to conclude that this gentleman would not have been a good fit for the city of Hollister. There was no actual proof or evidence to solidify the claims of Mr. Eckert’s behavior: It could have been true, or it could have not been true.

Spencer 

The City of Hollister will only hire individuals that fit our hometown values and morals.

[If I could have done things differently:]  I would have done a thorough third-party background check before offering the job. A thorough background check.

THE NEXT MANAGER

Will you select a new manager from the five remaining finalists picked by you and your consultant, or will you start over?

Velázquez

I hope we’re going to go back and reopen the whole thing again. It’s going to be tough, but there’s always people who are looking for the challenge. Of the finalists, there were probably three I thought were good leaders.

What we should be doing is having a professional interim city manager to help us plan for the bigger picture. We should start over.

Richman

The method of continuing or restarting the search has not yet been determined by the city council. I want to hear their thoughts prior to taking a position.

I believe it is essential that we name an interim or acting city manager so we have leadership continuity; it’s critical that the lines of authority are perfectly clear. Whoever it is will be working for the majority of the city council as provided by our municipal code. There is a saying that nature abhors a vacuum, so do organizations. If we leave a vacuum someone will try to fill it for their own purposes; it’s human nature. I want to make sure we make that selection, not have it put upon us by default and/or lack of structure.

Resendiz

In my opinion, the most responsible thing to do is to go for our second choice. I would support that. But to be quite frank, it’s really going to be up to the majority of the council. And they don’t want things to change in the city.

We need someone from outside, an economic development expert, a specialist in finance and in infrastructure who is engaging to the public and who is not going to play politics…

I wouldn’t support appointing Brett Miller as city manager. I think we need to get away from that path we have been on. We need an expert, someone who’s an expert, who is highly qualified. I don’t think there is anybody within the city ranks who is going to do that.

We need new energy, new ideas and a fresh perspective: We need to bring in somebody from the outside. The city staff needs a clear strong direction from the council and the city manager  to bring us together.

Spencer

We have already selected a very qualified individual as interim city manager. We had applicants in all three tiers that I wished to interview. I hope to get that chance this time around.

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