Time to Review the Department Head Hiring Process

Beverly Hills org chartHave you wondered why Beverly Hills has taken none of the steps toward safer for cyclists that other cities have? One can point to a few factors that get in the way: an outdated 1977-era Bicycle Master Plan; our Traffic and Parking Commission which doesn’t recognize road safety as a mandate; and a City Council that historically has shown little interest in cycling. All are true but not sufficient: probably the biggest obstacle has been our Public Works department where managers and staff seem not to grasp the importance of multimodal mobility to our city’s future. But now that it’s time to name a new PW director, we can help to change that. How difficult can it be?

More difficult than one would imagine! The department head selection/hiring process has historically been shielded from public participation and oversight. In ‘general law’ cities like Beverly Hills, you see, the City Manager hires and fires. Even the council has no formal say (much less a veto – read the staff report for details). Aside from the recent Chief Financial Officer hire, we can’t think of a case where the public was invited to participate.

Mayor Mirisch ran his campaign on a City Hall for the residents, and he sees an opportunity to revisit the hiring process in order to give the City Council a greater role. In a representative democracy (even Beverly Hills!) the public would then enjoy a greater say too. We favor any step to make City Hall more available (and accountable) to the people.

An open hiring process is not only good practice it it much needed. Good practice because the public can play a key role in vetting candidates. We can suggest criteria for consideration and reflect on prior candidate experience. Good practice too because we see some need for improvement. We have found it difficult to wheedle information from City Hall about hiring the next Public Works chief, for example. Since late-April we’ve asked about criteria and timeline to no avail:

  • 4/26: (email to Transportation) “Would you know who in City Hall is handing that search, or if there are any candidates under consideration?” Reply: “Mahdi Aluzri, Assistant City Manager, will be the Acting Director of Public Works & Transportation.” We followed up with a call to HR but no further information was available.
  • 5/15: (email to Transportation) “Can I ask where we are in that process, if you know? Or should I put the question back to HR or the City Mgr. office?” Reply: “The PW Director, the City Manager determines the process and timeline for selection. I am not privy to that information.” We followed up again with HR in mid-May but again, no information was on offer.
  • 6/6 :(email to HR) “When we spoke [in mid-May], you mentioned it was very early in the process and that neither the process nor the criteria were formalized yet. I wonder if you could give me an update?” Reply: “The selection criteria and process for the Director of Public Works position have not yet been formalized. I’m not sure what the timeline will be at this point….”
  • 7/9: A phone message to HR was returned the following Friday at 4:45 pm — to late to return it. A follow-up email produced an auto-reply: “I am currently out of the office and will be returning on Tuesday, July 16th.”
  • 7/16: A phone message to HR asking about that day’s City Council discussion on hiring department heads, but again no reply. Then a call also to Public Works. Finally we sent an email to the Public Works Acting Director. (We got a call back on the afternoon of 7/19 but are still waiting to connect.)

What we do know is that the city is working on a ‘transitional plan’ for hires, but we don’t know what that means. And it didn’t come up in Tuesday’s City Council Study Session [agenda] where department head hiring was preliminarily discussed.

[Update: We heard back from acting director Mahdi Aluzri who explained that the city is considering reorganizing the Public Works department, including the relocation of transportation planning to Community Development. More on this shortly.]

What was interesting about the Study Session is that it occurred at all. The session had already been cancelled but was resurrected late last week by the Jeff Kolin, the City Manager. But the Mayor couldn’t attend to speak on the issue that he had raised for consideration. (Councilmember Bosse too was unavailable.) According to the Beverly Hills Courier, the City Manager on his initiative scheduled the item. And it would have been summarily considered and dispensed with if Nancy Krasne had not suggested that the item needed the Mayor’s input. It was then continued to a later date. (We’ll be there.)

(Listen to the discussion [mp3) or tune in for our short statement [mp3] about the value of public participation.)

What a New Public Works Chief Can Do

Bringing the public in should lead to better city performance. We believe that to be the case with the Public Works chief – especially where mobility is concerned. For example, Beverly Hills explicitly endorses multimodal mobility in our General Plan’s circulation element. It says we should:

Strive to maintain operations on roadways and intersections within multimodal districts…characterized as areas within the City served by frequent transit service, enhanced pedestrian and bicycle systems, and areas that include a combination of uses (commercial, retail, office or residential)….” Circulation goal 1.4c

We agree. But our investments in our circulation system don’t reflect that view. As we reported last fall, the Request for Proposals for Santa Monica Boulevard Construction didn’t even mention ‘complete streets.’ That’s despite the General Plan stipulating that

provisions [be] made to improve the overall system and/or promote non-motorized transportation, such as bicycling and walking, as part of a development or City-initiated project.” Circulation goal 1.4a

A Public Works chief that understands the importance of multimodal mobility, and the value of safe streets, could make a real difference in the rider’s experience. And our city’s much-overlooked Sustainable City Plan (2009) would back her up: it calls on residents to ride a bicycle in order to reduce congestion and emissions. She would only need to heed the plan’s call for encouraging “alternative forms of travel” in order to realize the plan’s aspiration for multimodal mobility. “If there are safe bicycle routes and if secure bicycle parking is available then people will bicycle more,” the plan concludes.

We can achieve such policy goals in the future. And the good news is that the stars are already aligned. Today we have a City Council that has expressed general support for cycling (and even said the words ‘complete streets’). We have taken a baby step toward safer streets with Pilot program improvements on Crescent and Burton. And despite the three-year interregnum where our Traffic and Parking Commission made no progress on updating that old 1977 plan, we ourselves have taken another look at it and found that it’s not so bad after all. It’s something we can build on.

With public participation in the hiring process we can at least help to identify a Public Works candidate who would value multimodal mobility and work for safer streets for Beverly Hills.

(Disclosure: We supported Mayor Mirisch in the last election and attend his ‘Sunshine Task Force’ meetings because we believe that open government is a key step toward good government.)