NAACP Protests City Manager Hiring Process
By Tim Pompey
Just as the City of Oxnard is on the verge of hiring a new city manager, the Ventura County Chapter of the NAACP has raised concerns about the transparency of the process as well as the city’s treatment of Interim City Manager Karen Burnham.
Calling it “odd” that there seemed to be little or no consideration of Burnham as a viable local candidate, Regina Crawford, First Vice President for the Ventura County Chapter of the NAACP, suggested that the process has not been transparent and open to community input and that one of the announced finalists, Modesto City Manager Grey Nyhoff, will actually end up being hired by default.
“We’re not questioning whether he’s qualified or a good candidate,” said Crawford, “but will he be a good manager for the City of Oxnard?”
Requesting that the decision about hiring a new city manager be pushed back until at least after the upcoming elections in November, the NAACP’s recommendation would delay a hiring that has already been more than two years in the making.
After former City Manager Ed Sotelo was put on administrative leave in January 2012, Assistant City Manager Burnham was asked to serve as an interim in his absence. Forced to wait until Sotelo’s contract expired in February 2013, the City of Oxnard began its search last December when it put out bids on a contract to solicit a recruiting firm.
Eventually, Bob Murray and Associates, headquartered in Roseville, California, was awarded a contract to conduct an executive search. In consultation with the city, it has been responsible for gathering resumes and making recommendations regarding viable candidates.
Recently, after narrowing the list down from more than 50 submissions (including Burnham), the City of Oxnard announced its two finalists: Nyhoff and former Santa Barbara County CEO Chandra Waller. Both were introduced to the community at a special Oxnard City Council meeting on April 2, a meeting that was met with further protests by community leaders.
“There’s a hole in the heart of this city,” said Reverend Ralph James, a pastor at Overcomers Community Outreach Ministries. “The people of Oxnard deserve the most qualified city manager and the decisions and actions that were taken by the mayor and the city council have created a groundswell of emotions, questions, and reactions about the measures.”
Calling the city “trapped by the past,” James questioned how Burnham could have been overlooked in the hiring process. “She was good enough to be the interim city manager but she wasn’t good enough to be the permanent city manager. Ms. Burnham’s many years of highly competent and professional executive experience doesn’t seem to matter to this council.”
James raised concerns about the credibility of the process itself, asking if the decision about whom to hire was already made by the mayor and the city council before the interview process even began.
John Hatcher, president of the Ventura County NAACP, called the policies which ignored Burnham’s qualifications unbalanced and racist. “You can take it from my word,” he said. “I think it was a racist move. We didn’t call anybody racist. I just said it was a racist move, and we need to take a look at those people who are representing us who have racist tendencies.”
Responding to the NAACP’s charges, Mayor Tim Flynn noted the sensitive nature of the hiring process. “Being fair and transparent is what any city should do,” said Flynn. “But because of the nature of employment issues, it is sometimes very frustrating that there are elements that are not transparent.”
Flynn explained that the city must comply with the Ralph M. Brown act, which ensures that personnel hiring decisions are limited by laws that protect a candidate’s confidentiality.
As for charges that the process was rigged and that he was involved in racism, Flynn pointed to a city staff that is racially and ethnically diverse. “I think very highly of Mr. Hatcher and the NAACP,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that he has drawn that conclusion and it means that I need to try harder as the mayor to erase that perception in his mind.”
Asked whether or not he held undue influence over the hiring process, Flynn responded, “I’m not aware that anything existed before the process began.” In terms of his own involvement in the matter, he stated, “I have no more influence as mayor than anyone else. I’m only one of five council members involved in the decision.”
Pointing toward elections in November, James implied that the city’s treatment of Burnham may be an issue when it comes to upcoming reelection bids for the mayor and members of the city council. “The mayor and the council must own the decision they made,” James asserted, “and they must give an account to the people of Oxnard, all the people.”
Flynn insisted however that the hiring of a new city manager has already been adequately and openly discussed as part of the city council’s agenda, that the process is fair and has worked as planned, and that final hiring of a new city manager is nearing completion.