Board closes interviews

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Four mayors and a city manager in Marshall County have interviewed nine applicants for the job of executive director of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board, a state-mandated panel.

However, the names of the applicants are being withheld and the interviews are being conducted in private, according to three public officials participating in the interviews conducted in the Marshall County Courthouse Annex.

Private interviews of applicants for the job of JE&CD executive director appear to be a violation of Tennessee's law mandating open, public meetings by public panels.

Because some applicants have asked that they not be identified, none of the nine being interviewed for the job is being named publicly, according to Edmund Roberts, chairman of the JE&CD Board.

The candidate nominated by the five-man selection committee will be the subject of a public vote to hire the nominee during an open meeting, Roberts said. That vote would be conducted among the 21-member JE&CD Board.

It was unclear how any nominee could be guaranteed anonymity during a public vote by the board.

A salary of $35,000 to $45,000 is to be paid to the applicant hired to succeed Jamie Stitt, the immediate past executive director of the JE&CD Board. Stitt is the wife of County Commissioner Jimmy Stitt. She's now working for the state in its Three Star Program. Jamie Stitt was the first JE&CD executive director here, landing the post after she graduated from college and after Chapter 1101 was enacted by the state Legislature. The law establishes JE&CD boards, sets parameters for the Governor's Three Star Program and calls for, among other things, urban growth plans.

Roberts has been participating in the interviews, but he does not have a vote among the members of the selection committee. They include four mayors: Carl Cooper of Chapel Hill, Amos Davis of Cornersville, John Cowden of Petersburg and County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett. Lewisburg City Manager Eddie Fuller was dubbed by Mayor Bob Phillips as his representative.

"The (JE&CD) board felt the mayors are the ones who are responsible because it's their cities that are funding the JE&CD office," Roberts said in explaining how the selection committee was selected.

The board's executive director is to help coordinate community development activities, develop retail businesses, get information to further local growth, and coordinate the Three Star Program and its committees, which includes one on how federal money is distributed for rehabilitation of private homes.

Nine candidates applied by the deadline for the job, Roberts said. The deadline was in late January.

"Some are men and some are women," Roberts said.

Seven are from this county, he said. Two are from beyond the county line.

"Very few have experience in doing this" job, Roberts said. "They can be trained."

The last of three sets of interviews was to be concluded yesterday morning, Roberts said.

Meetings of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board of Directors are open to the public, Roberts said. However, the selection committee's meetings are closed to the public.

That is because some of the candidates did not want to be known as applicants for another job, presumably by their current employer.

"In an interview for those who want it confidential, it's hard to keep them open," Roberts said.

Applicants for the position of police chief in Lewisburg and the semi-finalists for the position of director of schools for Marshall County have been publicly named. All candidates for chief were publicly named because they sent applications to the city's Police Advisory Board, a government committee. Only semi-finalists for the schools director position have become known because the applications were received by the Tennessee School Boards Association, a private organization that is hired by school boards for services such as screening applicants.

In December, the JE&CD Board reported that the job description for its executive director had been recommended by the executive committee for full board discussion and approval. The 21-member board approved the job description during its December meeting.

The JE&CE Board also reported in December that resumes for filling that vacancy would be coordinated through the Tennessee Career Center and that a selection committee would consist of all mayors of county and municipalities or their appointed designees. Last week Roberts reported the selection committee had nine applicants.

A public schedule of the school board's interviews of school director applicants has been published. Those interviews are to be public.

The Lewisburg Police Board has made its interview schedule known, but the interviews have not been open to the public.

Private interviews by the police board with applicants for police chief is a violation of the Tennessee law that requires public business to be conducted in public, according to Rick Hollow, general counsel for the TPA.

Hollow also represents the Knoxville News Sentinel. Last year, the paper won a Knox County Chancery Court jury verdict that resulted in the removal of several county commissioners and county officials who were appointed during a closed meeting of the county commission.

Given the circumstances surrounding the JE&CD Board executive directorship search as explained by Roberts, the chairman of that panel was asked how the 21-member board would be able to vote for the nominee if that person was one of the applicants whose application was kept secret.

"By then," Roberts replied, "you're ready to give them an offer."

Then, after indicating he believes there had been undue attention to the application of the state's open meetings law to the process of interviewing potential public officials, the chairman of the JE&CD Board said he didn't want to discuss that point any longer.

"We really want to fill the position with a qualified person," Roberts said.

Hollow's observations about the Police Advisory Board's interviews of the chief candidates included his conclusion that interviews, by their very nature, include deliberation toward a decision.

Public panels' meetings are to be open so voters and others represented by the government may know how decisions are being made on their behalf.

The county mayor and Lewisburg's city manager were also consulted about the interviews of candidates to be JE&CD executive director.

"I've been asked not to tell," Fuller said when asked to name the nine applicants. "They don't want their name out there."

An applicant who was not successful might realize difficulties in their current position if their employer or co-workers knew they'd applied to work elsewhere, Fuller said.

"When the applications were passed out, we were asked to keep them confidential," Fuller said.

The county mayor provided similar observations about the conditions under which he was serving as a member of the search committee for the JE&CD Board.

"We're hoping to have someone in place sometime close to the first or middle of March," Liggett said. "I don't mind it being open to the public, but I respect the privacy of the individual being interviewed. It could put them in a precarious position. It could make it hard on them and it shouldn't be that way.

"Some of them have gone to extra schooling to be in the interviews," he said. "And they get a chance to ask questions of this group. Six or seven of them have indicated that they're trying to better themselves."