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EDITORIAL: Pressure’s on in PA – city manager search must succeed

Rebecca Underhill’s resignation as interim city manager last week, revealed this week in The Port Arthur News, may leave the city of Port Arthur without a sure hand at the helm — or at least a hand as sure as her own. She may be replaced, but it will take a long time and a determined effort to replace her well.

Underhill, who retired once before after long service for Port Arthur and five years in a high administrative post in League City, took the interim position in April, replacing another interim leader, Harvey Robinson, who was hired as a temporary city leader after the resignation of former city manager Brian McDougal in 2017. She rejoined the city administration at Robinson’s behest.

With steep personal knowledge of Port Arthur city government and long experience in dealing with complex disaster challenges like insurance rules and regulations and FEMA mandates, Underhill served the city well as it launched and continued a long, slow slog out of Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey’s flood disaster in 2017 and into its recovery period. That recovery period continues still.

“It’s my second time to retire and I hope to do a better job at it than the first time,” she quipped this week.

Underhill told city leaders she’d stay to help the transition to the next city manager — whether that person is an interim or a permanent replacement.

City Councilmembers will meet Monday in a special meeting to at least discuss hiring another interim replacement or perhaps a permanent one. The burden is on the City Council to find not just a capable interim but to provide a final answer about who the next permanent professional city manager will be.

Consider this: Robinson was hired in late 2017 as a six-month replacement for McDougal, but remained on the job for 18 months as the City Council struggled to replace him. His departure followed a failed search for a permanent city manager that foundered in March 2019. Councilmembers took the search as far as interviewing four finalists for the job, but could not agree on a final selection. That has to change this time.

Job searches are expensive and time-consuming. Councilmembers have complained about both challenges in the past.

But with Underhill leaving and no clear replacement in sight, the pressure will heighten for Mayor Thurman Bartie, elected in June, and for councilmembers, especially those who face re-election in 2020.

Port Arthur may not be a preferred destination for most experienced city administrators, but it provides a noteworthy challenge for the right candidate who wants to make an impact on a municipality.

Councilmembers cannot risk another false alarm when it comes seeking and selecting a worthy, permanent replacement.

Come Monday, we expect the start of something better.