Column: Rest in peace, Phil McGovern

careyThe City Council was gathered one evening long ago in the City Hall conference room. We had a difficult problem and, as mayor, I was expected to lead the way to a solution.

Our city manager had abruptly resigned. This was a relief, because otherwise we would have been inclined to ease him out—no fun for anyone involved. Never mind why. Happily for him, he was able to land another job upstate.

We on the council did have a bit of experience in finding city managers. We had tried advertising in trade publications and been disappointed with the results.

I am sorry to see that this is the approach of ICMA, the firm to which we are now paying $40,000, supposedly for an “executive search.”

Our 1970s council had also tried using a “head hunter,” with great success in the case of Frank Culross. But how we got Phil McGovern for our city manager was different. You might say in Phil’s case we used the “devil you know” approach, recalling the old saying that, “The devil you know is better than one you don’t know.”

As we sat around the big table in the City Hall conference room trying to figure out what to do, Councilman Fred Hunziker would occasionally ease the tension by breaking into his inimitable bird-song imitations. Very occasionally, he would do the same during a public council meeting and all present, except those of us on the dais, would look around for the bird.

Fred was a tax lawyer at Con Edison, a position of heavy responsibility. We were lucky to have him on the council. On that evening in the conference room, Fred suddenly came up with a novel idea: He said the Rye assessor, Phil McGovern, was working overtime in his office downstairs, so why not see if he would like to be Rye’s next city manager. Fred and I were delegated to go down and find out.

As I write this, it suddenly dawns on me, after all these years, that Fred must have had a word with Phil ahead of time. Phil said yes, and the rest is history. He was an outstanding city manager.

Since the “devil you know” approach worked so well in Phil’s case for picking a new city manager, I can’t help wondering if it would work in the selection of a new top cop for Rye.

Back in the days when we had a police chief instead of a commissioner, that was how it generally worked. A chief would normally be selected from among the existing members of the department.

I don’t see why the City Council would pay ICMA $40,000 for an “executive search” consisting only of interviewing people like me and then giving “training” in reading resumes and interviewing candidates. That is what two ICMA representatives told me they do; they don’t search for candidates.

I have looked in vain on ICMA’s website for any offer to do an “executive search.” What I find instead is this: “Our progressive, research-based assessment process trains and advises city managers and their staffs, and HR directors and their staffs, in the use of a complete and comprehensive selection process that begins with an in-depth analysis of your department and chief’s position, allowing you to appoint the most qualified candidate for your next fire or police chief.”

Anyone who said we were getting an “executive search” from ICMA for $40,000 was pulling the wool over the eyes of the council members, who, even at this late date, should without delay dig in and find out how this foolishness came about and how it can be rescinded.

The New York Times, on Monday Feb. 10, carried an article at B1 entitled “Local papers shine light in society’s dark corners.” The story began: “A lot of important journalism begins with a simple question, like why traffic is snarled in New Jersey on the way into New York.”

Rye’s simple question is, why are we paying $40,000 for interviewing people like me and for training in reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates?

I hope the lawyers on the dais will inform their colleagues about the concept of “due diligence,” and show the way by their own example in practicing it.