EDITORIAL — Stakes are high for city manager search

Published 12:09 am Friday, August 30, 2019

Port Arthur City Councilmember Cal Jones was lamenting this week that it may be next year before the municipal government will have a full-time, permanent manager in place.

“I understand waiting but I want to say, personally, I think that is a long time,” Jones said at Tuesday’s regularly scheduled council meeting. “Four more months waiting for a permanent city manager after what we’ve been waiting so far. I thought we would have someone in place in 60 days or so.”

So did others. Port Arthur has been without a permanent city manager — it’s the highest-ranking professional position in city government — since November 2017, shortly after Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey devastated this city.

Former assistant city manager Harvey Robinson provided capable, mature leadership after he was pressed to return from retirement in an interim city manager role. But after a search for a permanent city manager ended without a hire in March, Robinson left.

The city has contracted with Baker Tilly Verchow Krause, an international firm, to conduct another city manager search, but a representative of those Dallas consultants told councilmembers the search is only a week underway. A national search includes outreach, advertising, marketing, screening applicants and ID’ing semifinalists. That’s a lot of work.

The end goal, the consultants say, is finding a city manager who is educated, experienced, approachable, detailed, ethical, financially strong and friendly. Sounds a lot like Rebecca Underhill, the lady who followed Robinson into the vacant interim role and who just retired from city service for a second time. Sounds something like the current interim city manager.

What the city can ill afford is another fruitless search. When the last search landed on four semifinalists, two had active legal actions against their last employer. That was peculiar. When none of the four drew majority support from the City Council, that may have sent an ominous message to others who might consider applying for city manager this time.

A failed search would be embarrassing to this City Council; many councilmembers may or will seek reelection in 2020. They can ill afford to flop on this basic task for choosing a top professional to carry out the council’s policy decisions.

For now, interim city manager Ron Burton is a most capable replacement. But Robinson had two assistant city managers — Underhill and Burton — behind him and Underhill had just one, Burton, to back her up. Burton has no one behind him.

We appreciate that a professional search firm is in charge. We understand that it takes time to find the right person to lead a city of this size. But all of us know, too, how high the stakes are for getting the right result this time.