Editorial: Lack of search for new county leader shortchanges us all

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

As evidenced by their support for mental health care and social services in general, Douglas County commissioners certainly are kindhearted. But they aren’t always business-minded. That was highlighted in their regrettable decision to seemingly forgo a search process to find the next county administrator.

Two of the three commissioners last week said they have no desire to conduct a traditional search for the next county administrator, who is the top nonelected official in county government. Instead, they are ready to give the job to interim County Administrator Sarah Plinsky.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly was the lone commissioner who urged caution. He noted the commission hadn’t even sat down and formally listed what they were looking for in a county administrator. Kelly was on the right track in urging a more thoughtful process, but there is no reason to believe that Commissioners Michelle Derusseau and Nancy Thellman are going to agree to conduct a search.

That is a shame because it is unfair to both Plinsky and the community. A county administrator already has a tough enough job. She oversees a budget of about $90 million, supervises a few hundred employees and has the prickly task of working for politicians. Those are challenges enough, but now the County Commission’s process opens her up to criticism that she didn’t win the job but simply was given it.

It would be unfair for people to hold that against Plinsky, but some will. More to the point, the evidence suggests that Plinsky is more than capable of winning the job. Commissioners should have let her do so. Maybe commissioners think she did win the job by serving well as an interim. But winning implies competition. The county never evaluated anyone else for the job.

Plinsky would have benefited from an interview process. People who have competed for high-level jobs will tell you that good interview processes not only help you win a job but also help you do the job better. It makes you be intentional about what your strengths and weaknesses are and what strategic direction you have for the position.

That is why well-run businesses use a process in identifying their leaders. This is particularly the type of situation businesses relish. You have someone already identified who you think is very well-qualified for the position. You open the position up for a search, and the only way that person doesn’t get the job is because someone truly outstanding came along. The business, or in this case county government, ends up in a no-lose situation.

Maybe some would argue the county would lose by conducting a search because it would cost money. A search process, though, doesn’t have to be expensive. You don’t have to hire a consultant to help you understand candidates. Others might argue that a search process would be costly in time. Perhaps, but it was the County Commission that decided to wait eight months to get to this point in the process, following the retirement of longtime administrator Craig Weinaug.

The community would have benefited from a search process too, and that is probably the most important point in all of this. A search process would have forced county commissioners to do more thinking about the direction of the county and the vision they are trying to fulfill.

Hiring a top-level administrator like a county administrator is an opportunity for elected leaders to have such reflections. Good for Kelly that he has pressed his fellow commissioners to have some of those discussions. Such a discussion will be on a County Commission agenda this week. But the fact that two commissioners had to be talked into such a process makes it seem almost like an after-the-fact exercise.

But maybe this decision by the county ends up being a situation of “all’s well that ends well.” There is evidence that Plinsky will do well in the job. Criticism of the lack of a search process isn’t criticism of Plinsky.

But it is fair to question whether Douglas County would benefit from better strategic thinking. Failing to go through a process that would engage the community in big-picture thinking seems like a lost opportunity.

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