Tulare council hurries to interview candidates for city manager

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Two council seats to change with November election
By Nancy Vigran @TheSunGazette
TULARE – The City of Tulare has called a special session of council for Wednesday, Sept. 26. On the agenda is a closed meeting with regard to the appointment of a city manager.
During the meeting council will be interviewing seven applicants for the city manager position, according to Janice Avila, city human resource director. Or at least, some council members will be. On short notice of the meeting, Councilman Jose Sigala has previously arranged engagements and says he’ll be unable to attend. He stands behind what he has been saying for more than a month – “what’s the hurry?”
“I don’t personally see the need to hire a city manager before the election,” he said, which is the same train of thought he discussed during an August council meeting, and what the majority of council had decided in June. Then, a 3-2 consensus to hold off on appointing a new city manager until after the November election was made, as two members are not running for re-election and their seats will be filled by new council members.
“My preference throughout,” Sigala maintains, “has been the city council follow the original decision to wait until after the election.”
The most recent city manager, Joe Carlini, was fired in March, just nine months after receiving the permanent position by the currently seated council. He received a nine-month severance package. The city’s fire chief, Willard Epps, began serving as interim city manager a week following Carlini’s dismissal.
Come August, the consensus shifted to a 4-1 decision to move forward with the appointment, and quickly. This was enhanced by Avila revealing a new California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) requirement where vacant city personnel positions could now only be filled by an interim employee for 960 hours. The new fiscal year started July 1, meaning Epps can only fill the interim city manager position to sometime in December.
The city manager application period had closed in early May. No further application period is warranted by the current council. There were close to 40 applicants.
During the August 21 council meeting, Mayor David Macedo asked fellow council members to each view the applications, which were being held in Avila’s office. They were each to prepare a list of their top 10 candidates. Discussions were scheduled on each of the regular September council meetings closed sessions agendas with no reportable actions following either sessions leading up to this special meeting.
Candidates for two council seats this November, are not happy about the situation. While he trusts David Macedo’s judgement, Dennis Mederos, who is running for the seat Macedo will be vacating in District 4, has concerns about the “rush” to decide.
Mederos would like to allow for more applications, as he is afraid the field may have dwindled following the early May close date. He believes, he said, that a firm could be hired to search for applicants and to vet them producing the best candidates available to council.
Candidate Chris Harrell also expressed his concerns. Harrell is opposing Mederos for District 4 in November. However, the two are on similar pages with regard to slowing down the city manager appointment. Harrell wonders, he said, “why the change in course, and without a reason?”
It first changed from waiting, he said, to the current council sifting through the applications and narrowing the field. Then, current council wanted to start to move on the official process and maybe conduct interviews, but possibly allow council candidates of which there are four, to sit in during the interviews. And now, they are holding the interviews with only current council and Avila. The city attorney would normally be present, Avila explained, but he, like Sigala, had a prior commitment.
Harrell wants to know, “What is going on? It’s not fair to everyone involved, especially the city manager candidate pool. It’s not fair to the applicants [as the newly formed council may have called in others for interviews]. It’s not fair to the citizens of Tulare, who were told [the council] would do one thing and now they’re doing something else.”
As for the concern of the permanent solution running out the time Epps can temporarily serve in the city manager capacity, Harrell pointed out there are several other current department heads who could temporarily step in until the position is permanently filled.
Terry Sayre, a candidate for District 2, concurs. When she learned of the special meeting, she immediately sent an email to Avila, she said, asking just what was going to happen at the special closed meeting.
“They were going to review and choose their Top 10 and vet those people,” Sayre said. And, she thought that was all the current council would be doing. She wants to know if there was any recourse for the council candidates.
There is less than six weeks until the November election, and unless there is a very close race for either district seat, new council members will be sworn in the first council meeting in December. But, that doesn’t matter, said Councilman Carlton Jones, who has another two years remaining on his current term.
“I told council it is their responsibility to work,” he said, most specifically aimed at the two members who will be stepping down in December. “We have an important position to fill,” he added.
The fact that the city manager position needs to be filled is “one hundred percent the responsibility of the current city council,” Councilman Jones said. The possibility that newly seated council members may have a different choice should not be a consideration, he added. Jones says a city manager should be able to work with, and follow direction of, whomever serves on council, now or ten years from now.
Jones disagrees with Mederos’ concept of using a firm to help search for applicants. “We’ve worked to save money by not using a head-hunting recruitment firm,” he said. “We have some pretty talented people on the list.”
“There really is no hurry. What I wanted to do is get the candidate field narrowed and start the process,” Macedo said. “I would hope the candidates would have the respect for the seated council to narrow the field down to four or five. And then, let the new council take it from there.”
It may be they will need to open up the candidate pool again, he added. In which case, he could understand the need for a recruitment firm.
“One of the most difficult things a council will do, is decide on a city manager,” Macedo said, “and they’re gonna need a strong one. It’s going to be an inexperienced council.”
Current council members Jose Sigala and Greg Nunley are only just completing their second year of a four year term, and the newly elected members, whomever they are, have had no council experience.
District 2 candidate, Alex Gutierrez was not available for comment for this article.