August 10, 2013 in City

Questions swirl around Spokane’s hiring of Kyle Twohig

By The Spokesman-Review
 
No checklist; applicants’ data withheld

Mayoral spokesperson Brian Coddington said city business and development head Jan Quintrall did not have a checklist or a “five-star rating system” when reviewing engineer operations manager applicants. He added that the city could not share any of the applicants’ names or qualifications, citing exemptions from the state’s public records law.

Bill Meeks has gotten a lot of jobs in his life.

He’s supervised the construction of bridges, been a city engineer in Indiana, was responsible for traffic engineering, maintenance planning and permitting for the Indiana Department of Transportation, and supervised teams of up to 500 workers for Inland Steel before the company’s demise in 1998. He has a civil engineering degree from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Chicago and is licensed as a professional engineer in four states.

But what Meeks, 57, didn’t get was a second interview for the job of engineering operations manager at the city of Spokane.

“I did have a one-on-one interview with Jan” Quintrall, director of business and developer services, said Meeks, who last month began a new job with the Michigan Department of Transportation after losing out on the Spokane position. “I thought I’d be back for another interview. Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked out. … When I heard that this other guy was head and shoulders above me, I had to laugh. I’m sure that he’s a very passionate individual, and I hope that he does well for the city of Spokane. But it is a large municipality and it has many needs but not enough dollars to go around. It really takes somebody with a keen eye to keep things on track.”

The job instead went to Kyle Twohig, 32, the son of Public Facilities District Executive Director Kevin Twohig. The younger Twohig, like Meeks, also has an MBA, and has worked for large construction firms, but the nearly $90,000-a-year position is his first overseeing a municipal engineering department.

City leaders have said repeatedly that above all it was Twohig’s enthusiasm, passion and experience with project management that earned him the position. Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said it was especially Twohig’s “private-sector mentality” and his ability to “think outside the box” that put his candidacy for the job above the 12 other applicants. Quintrall reviewed all applicants’ education and applicable experience before winnowing the pool of candidates for consideration by a hiring committee.

The city recently announced a half-million-dollar estimating error on an engineering project, a mistake for which the Portland-based consultant on the project has accepted blame. But the issue focused attention on the city’s June decision to put a small-businessman with no engineering training in charge of its engineering department.

No ‘five-star rating’

Among other things, it’s unclear specifically how Quintrall chose the three finalists whose résumés and applications would be reviewed by a hiring committee composed primarily of city engineers. The committee unanimously picked Twohig from among the trio, whose hiring also was confirmed by the City Council.

“I don’t know exactly what Jan was looking for,” said Councilman Steve Salvatori, who supports Twohig’s hiring. “I know she was looking for project management experience.”

Salvatori said he was positive that Quintrall had solid criteria for narrowing the pool of candidates, but he said he had not seen it, nor had he been informed of any candidate’s background but Twohig’s.

“And that’s not unusual,” Salvatori said, adding that sometimes looking at someone’s résumés isn’t enough. “Interviewing people, it’s an art more than a science.”

Coddington said Quintrall did not have a checklist or a “five-star rating system” when reviewing the applicants. He added that the city could not share any of the applicants’ names or qualifications, citing exemptions from the state’s public records law.

Quintrall has said she believes the city has enough engineers but needed a project manager at the helm to keep the department on track. Although the job posting made it clear that applicants should have knowledge of engineering techniques, it didn’t require an engineering degree.

Twohig’s relation to his prominent father did raise questions, said Councilman Mike Allen, but ultimately those questions were put to rest.

“When Kyle’s name was brought forward, some of us on the council pushed back on the committee and said, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Allen said, adding that the committee said Twohig was the best of the three candidates Quintrall brought to them.

As for the nine other candidates, no one but Quintrall reviewed their qualifications, according to City Engineer Mike Taylor, who still reviews the engineering work done by the department he used to supervise before being transferred to the city’s utilities division.

Website listing changed

When The Spokesman-Review began interviewing city leaders for last week’s article examining Twohig’s hire, the city changed its website, inserting City Engineer Mike Taylor’s name below Twohig’s in the engineering section on the Web page listing departments and department heads.

Taylor, who used to be in charge of the engineering department, was moved to the city’s utilities department earlier this year to focus on a major water project. He is officially one of the utilities department’s two “exempt” employees, who serve at the pleasure of the mayor and are not covered by Civil Service protections.

Glenn Kibbey, the city’s chief Civil Service examiner, said listing Taylor under engineering may have violated the city’s own rules.

“If Mr. Taylor is in charge of engineering services, the assumption is that he’s in that department and responsible for that department,” Kibbey said. “If that’s the case, they’re violating the municipal code.”

Twohig and Julie Happy, who is listed as the spokeswoman for the building and services department, fill engineering’s two exempt positions.

“I don’t know why they changed the website,” said Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman. “But it’s really irrelevant what department (Taylor) is in.”

Not everyone agrees.

George Twiss, executive director of the state board of engineers and land surveyors, said he’s unaware of the specific changes at Spokane City Hall.

Still, he said, letting someone other than a licensed engineer lead a department of engineers makes him “uncomfortable.”

“There is potential that a non-engineer will override an engineer’s decisions for reasons that seem questionable,” said Twiss, adding that his board has no authority in the matter.

“It is curious to me why a credentialed engineer is moved to a department that does very little engineering,” he said, referring to Taylor’s move to the utilities division.

Mayor David Condon, whose proposed budget for next year shows his desire to combine department funding and coordinate projects in a unique way, said earlier this week that having the city engineer work in utilities is part of his larger effort to “make an old architecture meet new needs.”

“We have to get out of these stovepipes,” Condon said, referring to an oft-cited desire among his staff to work collaboratively across traditionally rigid departmental boundaries. “Having functional control versus linear control is a game-changer for our folks here in City Hall. What linear control got you was what we had for the last 20 years.”


There are 59 comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email