Search firms advise Portland to delay posting city manager job

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The two firms being eyed to search for Portland’s next city manager cautioned officials against proceeding now because uncertainty about the job will deter qualified applicants.

During a meeting with the two firms last week, the city manager search subcommittee asked the firms to chart a path between June and November, when voters will likely vote on proposals from the Charter Commission.

The biggest decision they will face is on the roles of the mayor and city manager, and whether to create an executive mayor who will assume many of the duties currently held by the manager.

Edward Williams
Edward Williams of Baker Tilly US. (Courtesy Baker Tilly)

Both search firms – Baker Tilly US of Chicago and GovHR of Northbrook, Illinois – told the committee that the city’s position is challenging and that because the job description could change, the pool of applicants will almost certainly be smaller than expected.

Edward Williams, a director at Baker Tilly US, said the city is in a “very precarious, very unusual” position. He said city managers apply for their “dream jobs,” with some more inclined to operate in a manager-city council system where they have more power, and others in an executive mayor system where they act more as an administrator.

“Not knowing what the job is will significantly impact the level and quality of applications we receive,” Williams said. “… We’re willing to work with whatever you have, knowing that the number of and quality of applications may suffer.”

Joellen Cademartori, co-owner and chief executive officer of GovHR, had a similarly grim message.

“Not knowing what’s going to happen, people are going to watch it,” Cademartori said. “It’s going to hinder the candidate pool until the answer is known.”

Joellen Cademartori
Joellen Cademartori, chief executive office of GovHR. (Courtesy GovHR)

She added that “in good conscience” she could not recommend the city go forward with a full-fledged search at this time “with all the variables in the air.”

Both firms said the city can take a multi-pronged approach and have two contracts. Members of the committee at the April 28 meeting, including Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Pious Ali and Mark Dion, concluded it might be the city’s best option.

The first contract would be for the firm the city picks to begin the process of community outreach, speaking with councilors to develop a leadership proposal, and corresponding steps during the summer. If voters reject what the Charter Commission proposes, the city would then be poised to enter into a second contract for the firm to begin recruiting candidates.

If voters end up approving an executive mayor, then the city would still have the original information the firm compiled and could decide its next steps.

But the November vote could change everything.

One of the Charter Commission’s proposals would be for the executive mayor to have the power to nominate department heads, including the revised city manager. And since there is a mayoral election set for 2023, and the winner would nominate the manager (who the Charter Commission is calling a chief operating officer), Dion suggested the COO may not be appointed until 2024.

Another challenge that presents is whether interim City Manager Danielle West would agree to stay on the job that long. West was appointed last November, when former City Manager Jon Jennings resigned to take the manager’s position in Clearwater, Florida.

Michael Kebede, chairman of the Charter Commission, said he believes most of the commission’s reforms, if approved, would take effect in 2023 unless otherwise noted. A recommendation on clean elections, for example, has an effective date of 2024.

James Katsiaficas, the commission’s attorney, said revisions approved by voters would become effective July 1, 2023, “but would take effect immediately for the purpose of conducting any elections required by the new provisions.” Charter revisions by voters take effect the next fiscal year; Portland’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. 

Snyder said the path forward would be to prepare to be able to post the job in November since GovHR’s Cademartori said that would be the routine timeline. If the government structure doesn’t change and the job description remains the same, the search can move forward.

But if everything does change, “we don’t have a job to do,” and it’s up to the executive mayor to nominate the COO, Snyder said.

Dion also asked for additional responses from the two firms because he didn’t believe they had been fully prepared for what the committee was asking.

While committee members had specifically wanted to know how each firm would respond to the challenge presented by the charter uncertainty, he said “clearly both came in thinking they were going to regurgitate their sales pitch.”

He asked city staff to get a “mini-proposal” from each one.