My recent work as a member of the Board of Trustees of Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) has tested my resolve.
DMWW is in the process of selecting a new CEO. Because we wanted to look far and wide for a new and competent leader, DMWW hired a recruiting firm to conduct the search, screen applicants and guide us through the process. I am glad we did. The help this firm provided has been invaluable to our small board. Last month, the search consultant provided board members with a book containing exhaustive research on the semifinalists that weighs just slightly less than a concrete block.
When the time came to pare the semifinalists to a list of finalists, some of my board colleagues felt uncomfortable doing so in open session. What if something we said harmed the reputation of one of the semifinalists? Could a board member’s comment unintentionally haunt a person? I understood this concern and Iowa law does permit a board to close a meeting should a candidate request a closed session. Only one of the semifinalists had requested his information be kept confidential, which could be interpreted as a request for a closed discussion.
The recruiter began calling the other candidates to see if they wanted a closed session. As he did so, our board agreed to refer to candidates by the tab number under which their information was filed in our heavy books and not disclose anything specific about candidates’ backgrounds. We quickly agreed two of the candidates would be finalists without any discussion. There was no need to talk about them behind closed doors. As the recruiter continued to call the others, we took a short recess so we could discuss options for moving forward with attorneys.
I needed to call my lawyer. I was uncomfortable no one had discussed the process with the candidates prior to the meeting and they were now getting this fever pitched call asking if, in effect, the board had their permission to close the meeting. That seemed backwards. The law says a board can close a meeting if a candidate asks. The action is to be initiated by the candidate, not the other way around.
I imagine some of you just rolled your eyes. You think I am splitting hairs. Perhaps, but I was not surprised when we came back into session that all of the remaining candidates had agreed to a closed session. My guess is that 99.9% of people are going to say ‘yes’ when the guy who is their contact with a potential employer asks if it is OK for the employer to close a meeting.
If the CEO application had cited the Iowa Code – a meeting of a public body may be closed to evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance, or discharge is being considered when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation and that individual requests a closed session – and then asked ‘should you be a semifinalist/finalist for this position, do you request a closed session,’ would all of the candidates have done so? We will never know. If I am ever a part of public body conducting a search again, I will insist we ask the question that way.
I am proud of the DMWW process thus far, even though we stumbled slightly with the semifinalist meeting. DMWW conducted wide open interviews with five outstanding finalists yesterday – the board interviews were open as were the panels conducted by members of the community and employees. Next week the board will meet again in hopes of making a selection. All of the finalists have signed forms requesting a closed meeting. I voted ‘no’ to close the last session. I will vote ‘yes’ next week. The requests were made in advance of the meeting. I understand why protecting a candidate’s reputation from harm is an important consideration.
Even though the mechanics of good government can be bothersome, I remain a strong believer the public’s business should remain in full view except in the most limited of circumstances. Fortunately, I serve with board members who agree and who are willing to tolerate my calling a timeout every now and again to make sure we are doing as we should.
It’s good when a loudmouth like me has his beliefs put to the test.
Graham Gillette can be reached at email@example.com
This entry was first published as a Des Moines Register online essay.