COVINGTON — The Covington City Council voted 4 to 2 to have a consultant bring them more candidates for city manager Monday night, and denied a motion to appoint Capt. Craig Treadwell to the position.
Following an executive session, or closed meeting, the council entered back into regular session, at which time Councilman Chris Smith made the motion to appoint Treadwell. Dalton gave a second, but the motion was denied 4 to 2, with Councilman Mike Whatley and Councilwomen Ocie Franklin, Hawnethia Williams and Janet Goodman in opposition.
Whatley then made the motion to have the city’s consultant “submit to us another group of candidates to choose from that have the credentials that we asked for to become city manager.”
That motion passed 4 to 2, with Dalton and Smith opposed.
“I would like to thank the mayor and council for allowing me the opportunity to participate in the selection process,” Treadwell said. “I was honored to have been selected for the final three applicants. I’m disappointed that I was not their choice, however it is their decision and I respect that.”
After the meeting, Whatley said, ”We need to speed this thing along and get the right candidates in here to choose from. I’ve not been happy from the beginning with the list of candidates we’ve had.” Whatley indicated he is not sure if the next set of candidates that are submitted to the council for consideration will be candidates who have already applied.
Mayor Ronnie Johnston said after the meeting that he’s not yet clear on what the directive from the council will mean, and said he will need to consult with the city attorneys. A question that has not been answered are whether Jim Mercer of The Mercer Group, the consultant, will provide the city with candidates who have already applied for the position or solicit new applications. Johnston said he’s not sure if the entire process can legally be thrown out and restarted. Per the city’s contract with The Mercer Group, there will be no additional cost to the city, whatever happens.
Mercer has already brought the top 20 candidates to the council and assisted the council in narrowing those candidates down to the top four. Two of those candidates dropped out of the running. In addition, the city council agreed to interview the six city employees who applied for the position, as a show of respect, Johnston said. All told, there were 104 candidates, including the six city employees. The two remaining outside candidates and the six internal candidates were extensively interviewed by the council and the interviews were each handled the same, Johnston said.
Johnston said he asked the council members to write their top three choices down during an executive session on Jan. 14 He also participated, with the council’s approval. The top three candidates were Treadwell, Finance Director Leigh Anne Knight and Oel Wingo, a city manager from Florida.
However, Johnston said one council member only wrote down one name instead of three. There was a request for another vote after a council member stated displeasure with the top three. Johnston said he did not allow that in order to keep the process fair. The council then voted in regular session to name the top three and was split 3 to 3, with Johnston breaking the tie in favor of Treadwell, Knight and Wingo. Whatley, Smith and Dalton were in favor and Goodman, Williams and Franklin were opposed.
But Johnston said he wasn’t willing to break a tie when it came to the appointment, because, given that the council was divided, he didn’t want to be in a position a month down the line of splitting the tie on whether to fire that person. Johnston has said all along he wanted a unanimous or majority vote on the position, given its importance and the fact that the city manager will have to work with all council members.
After Monday’s vote however, Johnston said he was disappointed in the council’s decision and regretted that he’d said he wouldn’t break a tie. Johnston said the process was legitimate and as fair as it could be, and was overseen by the city’s legal team.
Council members have acknowledged that the disagreement over an appointment has stemmed largely from a perception of conflict of interest in the business relationship between Dalton and Treadwell and the friendship between Smith’s and Knight’s families.
Dalton and Treadwell own rental properties together through the business Hat Creek Properties LLC.
Smith said his daughter is best friends with the Knights’ daughter and the families have taken trips together due to their children’s friendship.
Dalton said he consulted with the city’s two lawyers, another lawyer in town and two in Walton County regarding his business relationship with Treadwell, and all five advised him that under state law it was not a conflict of interest. He said he never tried to hide their partnership.
Dalton noted that he has a long friendship with former City Manager Steve Horton, and other city employees who applied for the position as well. He also said he initially did not want to look internally for a candidate. ”I’m not the one that asked to look inside,” he said.
Dalton also said he never wanted someone with only government experience because “I don’t know many things the government does well.” More importantly, he said, is the business sense to oversee a $127 million budget and 300-plus employees. He pointed out that Treadwell has overseen employees older than himself since he was 24 years old at the Police Department and has a master’s degree in public administration.
“I feel like the message they’ve sent here is, ‘I don’t care if you work nights and weekends and holidays, you sacrifice and give up time with your family, you’ve been a great employee, we’ve never had a problem with you ... Basically, we’re going to wipe our feet on you and then say, sorry, we don’t think you cut it,” Dalton said. He added that the council’s decision sends the message to city employees that there’s no incentive to advance their education.
Johnston said he obtained a commitment from former City Manager Steve Horton, who is still working for the city on a part-time basis, to mentor and train the new city manager for 12 to 18 months. He said that solution should have addressed any concerns by the council.
“I think as of right now the city has lost some great opportunities,” he said.