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Secrecy in hiring process for Spokane Valley city manager breaks from regional norms

By Pia Hallenberg piah@spokesman.com, (509) 459-5427

Spokane Valley may hire a new city manager Tuesday evening, but the City Council is keeping secret the names of the final three candidates – as well as their interviews – with a group of select community members.

The process breaks from regional norms regarding public observance and participation in the hiring of top-level government executives.

For example, the city of Spokane released the names of police chief candidates during its recent hiring process and held public interview sessions. And Spokane County commissioners disclosed the names of finalists for the new county chief executive and held interviews open to the public.

Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins said there’s “nothing untoward” about the hiring process, and that the group interviews are a way of getting input from the community.

According to city code, the City Council can hire and fire the city manager without seeking input from anyone.

Higgins said City Council members asked Jack Pring of the Pring Corp., Rob Gragg of Crown West Realty, and the superintendents of three Valley school districts to participate in the interview group.

“We called a lot of people and not everyone could make it,” Higgins said, adding that the group is a good way to represent the public.

Higgins said this is nearly the same process that was used when the City Council recently selected a Spokane Valley police chief. However, the names of the three candidates for police chief were disclosed because they had been submitted by the sheriff.

The closed meeting of the community group and the job finalists becomes a quasi executive session by a group that’s not an elected board.

Spokane Valley City Attorney Cary Driskell said that under state law, the legislative body calling the executive session can invite in people who will be helpful in discussing issues related to the executive session.

“It’s not improper,” Driskell said. “The council wanted to have a bit broader view from people who are well respected in the community and will be able to contribute from the standpoint.”

Some Spokane Valley residents filed formal complaints with the state auditor after the controversial February firing of former City Manager Mike Jackson, alleging the council violated the state Open Public Meetings Act leading up to the firing.

Jackson hired an attorney and settled with Spokane Valley for approximately $450,000. The city remained mum on Jackson’s settlement, and the final agreement included a gag order for Jackson.

Councilmen Chuck Hafner and Dean Grafos resigned in protest over how Jackson’s firing was handled.

The majority of the council consisted of Mayor Rod Higgins, Deputy Mayor Arne Woodard, Councilman Ed Pace and then-Councilman Bill Gothmann. That group of councilmen later rejected a request for a third-party investigation into how Jackson was fired.

Driskell said the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the motion to appoint the new city manager. That motion may come Tuesday evening at the regular 6 p.m. meeting.

“People will have a chance to speak then just like on any other action motion,” Driskell said.

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