Editorial:

City missed great chance to involve the public

Posted

City of Powell leaders recently gave IT director Zack Thorington the ultimate promotion, naming him as the next city administrator.

It is a good decision.

Thorington immediately brings a deep knowledge of the city to his job, as he’s worked in nearly every department over the past couple of decades.

In his current position as IT director, Thorington’s accomplishments include overseeing a series of upgrades to the Powell Police Department’s communications system — and he helped save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars by seeking out grants to help with the costs.

In Thorington, city leaders chose a known quantity and we think that makes a lot of sense. The City of Powell doesn’t need a big shakeup; it just needs to continue moving forward.

“I feel it’s my time to take the city into the next decade,” he told the Tribune last week.

But while the city’s hiring process reached a good result, the way the city got there could have been better. Specifically, the mayor, council and other leaders should have made more of an effort to involve the public.

The months-long search process — which involved whittling a field of 25 administrator candidates down to seven interviewees and then four finalists — passed without any opportunity for Powell residents to participate or weigh in.

That’s out-of-step with the way that other local governments have handled similarly important hires in recent years.

Consider that:

Before the Northwest College Board of Trustees hired current President Stefani Hicswa in 2012, they held public sessions with Hicswa and two other finalists.

Before the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees hired Jay Curtis as the district’s superintendent in 2017, they held a series of public forums with Curtis and two other finalists.

And before the City of Cody hired City Administrator Barry Cook in 2014, they held an open house that gave the public a chance to meet Cook and three other finalists. Last year, Cody leaders even held a reception for the five finalists vying to be the city’s next public works director.

In contrast, City of Powell leaders did not even discuss the search for a new administrator at their regular meetings.

To be clear, there was nothing secretive about the process. While the search was underway, both Mayor John Wetzel and City Administrator Zane Logan readily answered questions from the Tribune about where things stood. They were forthright and helpful, which is typical. We have a transparent city government in Powell, with city officials who are easy to reach and quick to provide information. Look no further than the recent public meeting the city hosted in advance of construction on Absaroka Street.

However, the lack of public participation in the administrator hiring process shows there is still room for improvement.

Operating with the greatest amount of transparency is difficult, because it means not only being responsive to questions and complaints, but taking proactive steps to get people involved — and doing that continuously.

The challenges are worth the effort, though, because the payoffs are huge; it gives the public more reasons to trust their elected and appointed officials — and gives those officials potentially critical feedback from their constituents.

Considering Thorington’s skills and track record, we suspect the city won’t have to worry about hiring another city administrator for quite some time. But we’re certain there will be plenty of other opportunities for our city officials to better involve the public in their decisions.

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