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Empire editorial: Pool of candidates needed to run deeper

Posted: December 18, 2011 - 1:18am

The City and Borough of Juneau’s Assembly narrowed the focus of its search for a new city manager to two people Wednesday: current Deputy City Manager Kim Kiefer and the chief of staff for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Juneau-based District 17, Capt. Norman “Buddy” Custard. The qualifications of both for the position are unquestioned: Kiefer has been the No. 2 person in the City Manager’s Office for about five years — moving to that position after success at several other high-level city slots. She served as interim city manager when Rod Swope, Juneau’s current top administrator, took a leave of absence a few years ago. Custard’s 30 years in the Coast Guard would also prove valuable in terms of motivating employees and efficiently navigating through not only Juneau’s bureaucracy, but the other state and federal ones it must work with. Both also bring great experience working with publicly funded budgets, which, given Juneau’s looming $7.5 million shortfall in the next two years, is a necessary skill to have.

So, it’s clear the City Assembly picked two well-qualified candidates to chose from. We just wish they’d offered up more finalists, particularly some that could bring in experience from Outside.

Don’t get us wrong — institutional knowledge can be a good thing. Those that have it know the people they need to convince to get buy-in on new ideas. They also know how things have been done before, which means they don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time a familiar problem comes up.

However, familiarity can also be a problem. When the same sets of eyes look at the same problems over and over, they often see the same solutions. A fresh perspective on issues can often come up with an untried answer, see issues coming on the horizon others may have missed or come up with new ideas to keep Juneau constantly improving.

The Assembly whittled its list of candidates from 25 to two last week during a Committee of the Whole meeting. We don’t know how many of those 25 were candidates with strong Juneau ties and how many came from Outside, because the Assembly chose to do its narrowing process behind closed doors. But, almost certainly, some strong resumes came from Outside, and it would have been better to include a couple of those in the final candidate pool. Yes, that would have meant some expense in flying those people in and putting them in a hotel for a bit, but the city is choosing its top administrator, and it’s a decision the Assembly has to get right. Plane tickets and a few meals would have been a small cost to ensure a candidate pool that encompassed as many quality choices as possible.

Now, might the Assembly have picked one of the two candidates now on its really short list? Sure. There’s nothing wrong with picking institutional knowledge over a fresh perspective. And, if it’s a close call, hiring local is about the best tiebreaker we can think of. We just wish the final pool had allowed Juneauites who attend the coming meet-and-greet and Q&A sessions — not to mention the Assembly members who will make the final decision — a wider choice in who will best serve Juneau’s needs.

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