The Santa Maria City Council is scrambling to find a replacement for City Manager Rick Haydon, whose retirement becomes official less than two months from now.
Unfortunately for the city’s taxpayers, some of the scrambling is taking place behind closed doors. Such a session occurred last week, and another could happen during tonight’s council meeting.
In fact, a council meeting out of the public view is, in part, supported by state law, specifically the Ralph M. Brown Act, which was enacted more than a half-century ago and ensures that citizens have access to deliberations of their elected representatives.
Except when the deliberations pertain to certain personnel or legal matters. Last week’s closed session apparently had to do with the council discussing how it would replace Haydon, and one might reasonably assume that because the session was closed, one of the options being considered is either hiring from within city ranks, or naming an interim manager.
Both those options would ostensibly be exceptions to the general rules established by the Brown Act, the purpose of which is to promote transparency in government.
Hiring from within or replacing Haydon with an interim manager, while the city searches for a permanent candidate, would legally qualify for the closed-door sessions. Among the Brown Act exceptions are anytime the council discusses job performances or salaries.
When the doors finally came open after the closed session last week, a few members in the audience questioned the need for the lack of transparency. We agree with the sentiment, but we also understand the need for elected officials to protect current employees from such public scrutiny.
Mayor Alice Patino assured everyone that the final process for choosing a successor to Haydon would be completely public. Fair enough, but we still must question the need for secrecy.
We could make a compelling case for all deliberations by elected officials being in full view of members of the public, which, after all, are the people paying the city’s bills through taxes and fees.
Those taxes also are paying the salaries of the employees council members may be considering for Haydon’s job in closed session. So in a sense, city employees work for taxpayers.
The problem — and something creators of the Brown Act took into account in the early 1950s — is that when elected officials discuss such matters, they also must consider job performance and other issues a city employee may have, which is protected under the Brown Act.
It’s a tricky situation. On the one hand, the public has a right to know what their elected representatives are up to, know just about everything, and how their tax dollars are being spent. On the other hand, public employees seem entitled to a degree of privacy — all of which is made abundantly clear in the Brown Act.
We will take Mayor Patino at her word, that the process of selecting Haydon’s replacement, once the council has settled on which process is to be used, will be wholly and completely in the public view. Anything less would be a disservice to taxpayers.
As we’ve said recently, replacing this city manager will be no walk in the park for council members. Haydon has performed his duties with extraordinary skill and dexterity, making it all that more important that the City Council get it right.
If that takes a couple of fully-noticed, closed-door council sessions to accomplish, so be it. But as a general rule, we encourage elected representatives at all levels of government to do their work in the sunshine, and not behind closed doors.