Vaunted search just an illusion
What was expected by some to be a marathon search for a new Champaign city manager proved instead to be a sprint.
When Champaign City Manager Steve Carter announced in October that he was retiring in March 2013, city officials made much of their elaborate plans to conduct a search for a fitting successor.
They said it would take months and require careful planning. They said they would be open to the public for comments about the next manager and would invite wide participation in the search process. First, they would review the internal candidates interested in succeeding Carter. Then, they said, they would solicit applications from individuals outside. They said they would leave no stone unturned in an effort to find a worthy successor to Carter, who held the post for 28 years.
That was then. This is now.
City officials have announced that the search is over, that they have settled on assistant city manger Dorothy David, the sole candidate from the city administration who applied, and are in the process of negotiating a contract with her.
Since it's highly unlikely that these negotiations won't end without an agreement, this is pretty much a done deal. So that's that, as far as the mayor and city council are concerned. But should it be?
That question is not intended as a criticism of David. Council members spoke of her performance as a longtime city employee in glowing terms. David has 25 years of experience working in city government, has been with the city in various capacities since 1994 and has been Carter's assistant city manager since 2007.
David probably is the outstanding candidate the city's elected leaders say she is. But how can anyone say David is the best candidate if she is the only candidate council members considered?
This decision shows City Manager Carter's fingerprints.
Carter's performance as city manager in Champaign has been outstanding. Most city managers are the subject of continued grumbling by disaffected political constituencies until they are eventually sent packing. Carter has avoided that unpleasantness, serving for nearly three decades without major controversy.
He knows how to manage programs; he knows how to deal with people; he knows how to get things done. Carter also knows that a key ingredient of good leadership — an ingredient many leaders overlook — is managing a successful transition to a new leader.
One need not know much about Carter to suspect that he has been carefully grooming his assistant city manager for this position while assiduously laying the groundwork with council members for David's selection as his successor.
Why, for instance, in an administration full of talented and ambitious people was there only one applicant — David — for the city manager's post? That made it mighty convenient for council members eager to maintain the successful status quo. There was hardly anything to decide.
But the easiest approach is not necessarily the best approach.
At this point, it would be naive to expect the council to stop this speeding train and suspend contract negotiations. David is going to be the new city manager when Carter's March 29 retirement date rolls around.
But an examination of more than one candidate would have been preferable for any key role. Indeed, some might say it was minimal due diligence.
That council members might ultimately have settled on David would not have proved that a broader search was a mistake. Instead, it would have proved that hiring her was the right decision because she stood out as the best among all who were considered.