Viewpoints: CapMetro needs to avoid secrecy in its search for new CEO

    8:52 a.m. Friday, Dec. 8, 2017 Opinion
Capital Metro buses drive down Guadalupe Street in October 2016. (DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Capital Metro board members are doing what they can to keep from the public the names of candidates vying to be the transit agency’s next president and CEO. We’ve seen this type of maneuvering to hide candidates’ names before, and we urge board members not go down that road again.

Seven years ago, the last time the Capital Metro leader’s post was open, the agency wouldn’t disclose candidates’ names until then-Attorney General Greg Abbott stepped in and said that withholding candidate names violated state law. Abbott ruled after Capital Metro appealed an open records request by the Austin American-Statesman for the names of 2010 semi-finalists.

More recently, the Austin City Council tried but failed to conceal the identities of candidates for city manager.

To what extent the Capital Metro board will go to make their search for its next president and CEO secret is still to be determined. The American-Statesman recently submitted a public information request asking the agency to release the names of candidates for the post. We urge Capital Metro board members to skip the drama, release the candidates’ names and to be transparent in its search.

After all, this is Austin, a city with an engaged, informed citizenry that is known for holding public officials accountable. Here, transparency ranks atop the list of Austin values. The public demands an open process any time public officials are making decisions about who will lead the region’s most important governing bodies and how to spend taxpayers’ public money.

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Along with affordability, transportation is one of the most pressing issues facing Austin. Central Texans expect Capital Metro — which operates with a $323.3 million budget supported primarily by a 1 percent sales tax — to lead in creating solutions to the city’s mobility crisis. It’s important to find the most qualified person to lead that effort.

Current president and CEO Linda Watson, who will retire at the end of the year, took an agency facing financial and labor troubles and turned it around. Under her direction, Capital Metro replenished its financial reserves and improved performance.

But there will be many challenges awaiting Watson’s successor. Prime among those is the need for a robust, efficient public transit system in moving people around an ever-congested region in which most people commute by car. Public transit must be part of the solution to traffic grid, but it won’t if people aren’t provided with transit service that meets their life and work demands. Capital Metro needs a leader that can move that needle. Other challenges include falling ridership, changes to more than half the agency’s bus routes and a crowded transportation market that includes companies like Lyft and Uber.

Capital Metro board members said Krauthamer and Associates, the search firm hired by the agency, advised against disclosing candidates’ names in order to get a better pool of applicants. We’ve heard that faulty argument before; the City Council used it in its search for a city manager. Confidentiality, the argument goes, helps protect candidates — especially those coming from the public sector — from potential political backlash, and disapproval from their constituents and employers.

Really? Head-hunting for skilled executives to fill jobs for city managers, school superintendents, police chiefs or other top administrators is common practice. Navigating sensitive situations, including potential career moves, is among the unique skills public administrator should possess.

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In the case of the city council’s search, consulting firm Russell Reynolds suggested taking extreme measures to achieve secrecy. Consultants were willing to create an elaborate ruse that included wigs, costumes and Halloween masks to hide the identities of city manager finalists, according to records obtained by the Statesman. The ploy, records show, also called for a secret change in location for the second round of interviews, a move that could have been illegal under Texas law.

Emails show the council and the city’s legal department were kept in the dark about the secret meeting move. Still, the subterfuge created loss of public confidence and trust in the city’s ability to carry out the search. Capital Metro board members should pay close attention and not make the same mistakes.

The Capital Metro board’s decision to winnow down a list of candidates compiled by Krauthamer and Associates behind closed doors betrays Austin’s transparency values. It also could have violated state open meetings law, which bans making decisions in closed sessions.

The agency should avoid more missteps.

Board members can start by making sure that they don’t pick finalists, a move scheduled for Dec. 13, behind closed doors.

The board will decide who to hire on Jan. 9 and under state, the vote must take place in public. However, Capital Metro spokeswoman Mariette Hummel said that as of last week, the only public vote that will occur is scheduled for Jan. 29 when the board, after negotiations with its final choice for the position, approves an employment contract. That final vote should be taken in public as well.

The board can and should do better. There is time to ensure they do.

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