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Guest opinion: Transparency tossed in waste director pick

So ends another rocky year in Spokane. One event after another has shaken our faith in those who are elected or hired to serve and protect us. This is unfortunate, because the overwhelming number of men and women who serve this community in all city departments are skilled, dedicated and hard-working. So why was our faith in them challenged?

One possible explanation is the failure of the city to fully inform its citizens of the business of the community. The city’s business should be conducted in a transparent fashion so that all can see and understand what their government is doing and how. Whether it’s the investigation of the firehouse sex scandal, the tragic death of Otto Zehm or the sex offender living in the basement of a Spokane police officer, the manner in which the city chooses to inform, or in most cases not inform, the community creates an atmosphere of distrust.

Transparency must start in the mayor’s office. Unfortunately this transparency does not exist, and we have yet another example in the choice of a new director of our solid waste utility.

The City Charter calls for the mayor to conduct a search for a candidate, make his selection and submit it to the City Council for affirmation.

The mayor started the process in the right fashion by forming a selection committee to “do a national search.”

The committee advertised the position nationally, reviewed resumes, interviewed applicants and then provided a ranking of the finalists. Out of a possible score of 600, the top choice received 522 and the second highest score was 468. Of the six committee members, five had the same top choice; the sixth member had the top choice as a close second. If the mayor’s goal was to find the best solid-waste director available in the nation, then the final choice should be obvious.

After the selection committee had completed its work, however, the mayor re-ranked the finalists, using his own criteria, criteria not shared with the public or the City Council, resulting in the No.2 candidate now becoming No. 1. In the mayor’s presentation to the City Council on Dec. 18, he defended his selection, saying, “The thing that is important to me is that I’m the only one that has all of that information.” The mayor indicated that his final decision was based on information available only to him, not to the public or the council! That’s outrageous!

The Solid Waste Department has 184 employees, 176-plus vehicles, 68 routes per week, and collects garbage from 65,000-plus residences and 2,500-plus businesses every week. The mayor’s candidate currently manages a recycling program with five employees in a community with a total population of 80,000. The mayor’s selection has no scientific education, no technical training in solid waste collection, no experience managing a waste-to- energy plant (the department’s largest asset) and no experience in managing a system as large as this department. That’s like hiring Sheriff Andy of Mayberry to run the FBI.

The selection committee’s No. 1 choice was our own acting director of the Solid Waste Department. This individual has more than 15 years experience in the department, degrees in both chemistry and biology, and was mentored for the position by our previous director, recognized as one of the best solid-waste directors in the nation.

When the mayor determines that it is OK to alter process outcomes and conceal decision-making criteria from not only the community, but also the City Council, why should we be surprised when the community distrusts its own government? The previous director informed the mayor in December 2005 of his intent to retire in July 2006. It took the mayor a year to replace our previous director with the second-best candidate. How long should we have waited to be able to get the best candidate?

The mayor received the minimum amount of votes required to move forward with his selection, but one of those council members said, “While I might not fully agree with this, I gave you my word,” and another stated, “I’m easily willing to extend my trust.” Only two votes for the mayor’s selection were unqualified. Is this the best we can do? Is this the best we can hope for? Is this selection in the best interest of the city?

Transparency at City Hall shouldn’t be optional, it should be demanded. We deserve no less.

Tags: Otto Zehm

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