Editor's note: A quote from Missouri City council member Vashaundra Edwards that was originally abbreviated for brevity and clarity has been included in its entirety to provide additional context.
The city council for Missouri City took another step in the process of finding its new city manager by narrowing down its choice of three search firms. But is it necessary?
The answer varies, depending on who you ask.
During a June 1 meeting, Martin Russell, the city’s director of human resources and organizational development, said Baker Tilly U.S., LLP; CPS Inc.; and GovHR USA were the three highest-scoring firms and were selected as finalists.
During a subsequent June 7 meeting, the council said it planned to meet with the search firms after press time on June 15.
Council member Vashaundra Edwards said she was concerned about the cost of hiring a search firm after going through the process last year when the city hired Odis Jones during the mayorship of Yolanda Ford. Jones was fired in April by a 4-3 vote of the council.
Jones succeeded Anthony Snipes, who was fired during a Feb. 24, 2020 meeting, also by a 4-3 vote. The division on the council can be traced back to this decision, followed by the rush to hire Jones last July, and then the new council majority’s choice to dump him 10 months later.
Edwards said she would prefer to hire from within and consider promoting Bill Atkinson, the interim city manager, if it would ease the financial burden on the city by eliminating the need to spend money on a search firm.
“And so that being said, if we’re going to do that – but, us making that decision, or I have the option to vote on it, I would love to save the city some money and just go with that option, as opposed to us continuing to go through this process to end up at the – maybe my colleagues can speak on that, but I’m just kind of concerned of us making that decision if we’re going to hire within,” Edwards said.
The combined cost of the severance payments issued to Jones and his predecessor, Snipes, was $652,979.22, according to Missouri City CFO Allena Portis. The city spent another $562.50 to post the job opening online prior to hiring Jones, and it also spent $4,103 on a search firm during that time, according to city spokesperson Stacie Walker. The city spent $25,000 on a search firm before hiring Snipes in 2015, Walker said.
If the city’s budget for a new search firm is within that range for finding Jones’ replacement, Missouri City will have coughed up almost $700,000 to cycle through three city managers in less than a year.
“Utilizing an executive search firm is paramount,” Councilman Jeffrey Boney said. “It protects the city from most liabilities that you face when you go to find your own candidate and do all the due diligence. To me, it’s a minor investment compared to the risk you run by making a mistake and not checking all of the boxes.”
The last 12 months have revealed that hiring a search firm does not guarantee the city will hire a city manager that the council and mayor want to keep around. That’s why Missouri City finds itself in this predicament.
Missouri City residents should expect their elected officials to get it right the first time, and maybe they don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars just to identify someone worth paying a salary.
But Councilwoman Cheryl Sterling and Mayor Pro Tempore Anthony Maroulis both said they had the impression the city did not have enough human resources staffers during the search to replace Snipes with Jones last year.
“It’s been consistent for many years,” Maroulis said. “Our HR doesn’t have the bandwidth.”
Councilmember Lynn Clouser agreed with Maroulis, saying it was “essential” to seek outside help for the city manager search.
“They don’t have the resources to do the nationwide search that we need,” Clouser said. “We need to look at cities that are our same size, and we need a search firm that has experience hiring government officials.”
Of course, by now we all know how the last city manager search went, and it doesn’t reflect well on anyone involved.
Russell said the city still has the list of candidates it interviewed or was interested in during the last search, and that it would make that information available to whichever search firm the city selects.
“We have, depending upon the search firm, guarantees in place that if there is something that did not work out in a specific period of time, we have a guarantee that the firm will go back and do another search without charging the city any additional money,” Russell said.
This would be a step in the right direction. It’s something you should demand of your city council if you live in Missouri City and want to ensure you’ll have the chance to relay your concerns to the selected search firm and potentially shape how they conduct the search for the next city manager.
Russell, who leads a department with just two other employees, said it would be important to have the assistance of a search firm to ensure the city hires the right candidate.
Ford, who used her majority on the council to allow her the opportunity to unilaterally negotiate Jones’ contract, found herself out of a job just four months after the controversial hiring was made. It was Ford’s belief at the time, according to meeting minutes from several meetings last summer, that the city council could and should be responsible for hiring the city manager.
It is imperative that new Mayor Robin Elackatt, who effectively launched his campaign against Ford by filibustering in council meetings over this very issue, does not succumb to the same power-hungry temptations of his predecessor.
As Councilman Floyd Emery pointed out during a July 16, 2020 meeting, following the meeting that led to Jones’ hiring, the mayor should not have carte blanche to negotiate on anyone else’s behalf.
Edwards is nothing if not consistent on her stance on using search firms — she did not want to use one to hire Jones, and she’s against them now. According to meeting minutes from June 24 of last year, the city received more than 50 applications for the city manager position.
The city needs to do a better job of vetting its applicants, with or without a search firm.
As Boney noted, the hiring process seemed to be broken during the last go-around. Will the third time be the charm? Missouri City residents need to continue to be vigilant to make sure their elected leaders break them out of this cycle and put them on a path toward a functional and fiscally responsible government.