Although the media and open government advocates often harp on transparency and openness as being in the interests of the public, government officials and agencies don’t always appear to understand how much it can benefit themselves.
That transparency — say regarding the emails of state lawmakers — may require additional time and cost to protect the privacy of a constituent, but those documents can bring context and understanding regarding the legislative process. And — as Justice Louis Brandeis wrote more than 100 years ago, sunlight being “the best of disinfectants” — it can reveal poor choices made in secret and encourages decisions to be made in the open where the public has a chance to vet them.
That’s in the best interests of agencies and officials because it’s in the best interests of the public they represent and serve.
The Snohomish County Public Utility District’s board of commissioners may be learning now that a lack of openness can complicate decisions and raises questions in the public’s mind about its choices. That’s important for a public utility that provides electrical service to nearly 350,000 customers and water service to another 20,000 in the county.
This morning, the board is scheduled to meet and could release the name of its choice for the PUD’s next chief executive and general manager. The board announced at a Sept. 7 meeting that it had selected four finalists but declined to name them publicly, assigning them designations, A through D. After further deliberations in executive session, the board announced it had selected Candidate D and authorized the board president, Kathy Vaughn, to begin contract negotiations.
Assuming those negotiations have concluded, the board today could announce its intention to offer the position to Mr. or Ms. D, pending a two-week period during which the public can comment on the choice.
At this point, however, with the decision all but final and official, that public comment period is little more than a nicety, one done for the appearance of openness rather than actual transparency.
“Too me, it’s too much secrecy,” Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told The Herald. “How can the public know if they’re making a good choice if the public doesn’t know who the candidates are? Most agencies will announce the finalists and give the public an opportunity to meet the candidates.”
Board commissioner Sid Logan responded that the PUD board is using a process it has used before that elects not to name candidates to protect their confidentiality.
That confidentiality, the reasoning goes, encourages applicants who may not want to reveal to current employers they are looking for a position elsewhere.
That could be the case, but for a position that offers a beginning salary between $350,000 to $450,000, we think most qualified candidates would be willing to risk an employer learning of her or his job search.
It, in fact, is the practice of many public agencies to announce finalists before a final choice is made, and those agencies have still landed able and qualified leaders.
Most recently, Edmonds Community College, seeking a successor to president Dr. Jean Hernandez following her retirement, announced the names of three finalists for the position in February. Those three candidates took a week to meet with the college’s trustees, faculty, staff, students and community members before the trustees announced less than a month later their choice of Dr. Amit Singh, a community college official from Ohio.
The same has been the practice in selecting superintendents for the Snohomish, Arlington and Edmonds school districts in recent years, with finalists named and opportunities for the public and staff to meet all finalists and comment before each board’s decision was made.
The issue is further complicated because of this November’s election for two of the three seats on the PUD’s board of commissioners.
Although she ran for reelection, current commissioner and board president Kathy Vaughn did not qualify for the general election ballot in the August top-two primary. That race is now between Rebecca Wolfe and David Chen. And Logan, who was appointed to the board in 2017 following the resignation of Dave Aldrich, is on the general election ballot facing Mary Rollins.
At least one — and potentially two — of three board members will be working with a general manager for whom they were not involved in the selection.
With two months remaining before the November election, and three before one or both new board members are seated, there is not an opportunity for the current board to reasonably delay a decision. The board has little choice now but to announce its decision today and move ahead or risk losing one or more of the four finalists.
The process was not rushed by the PUD board. It was aware of former general manager Craig Collar’s decision to retire in mid-April and it has proceeded with the selection at a typical pace.
But the PUD, its board, its rate-payers and the board’s final choice for its new leader would have been better served if the process had been opened up following the selection of its four finalists. That would have given the public, PUD employees and the commissioner candidates the opportunity to meet all four and advise the board on who was best suited for the position.
Whoever Ms. or Mr. D is, she or he may indeed be the best person to lead the public utility, but more sunshine earlier on in the process would have resulted in greater confidence among the public about the leadership of the PUD board and its choice to lead it.