Flint, MI–Flint City Council held a special meeting on Nov. 9, 2022 to invite city clerk candidates for a public interview, but the body failed to take any action after members disagreed on how to manage the process.
The City of Flint has been searching for a new city clerk since the previous position holder, Inez Brown, announced her retirement on Sept. 7, after 25 years of service with the city.
Brown’s retirement officially went into effect on Sept. 30.
In the meantime, Flint City Council voted to appoint then-deputy clerk Davina Donahue to interim city clerk during its Sept. 12 meeting. Council also requested that the city’s Human Resources and Labor Relations Department begin to solicit applications for the clerk position. The deadline for those applications was Oct. 31.
City Council President Dennis Pfeiffer said that he called the Nov. 9 special meeting to review the city clerk applications and determine the two most-qualified candidates. Pfeiffer said the goal of the meeting was to then vote on a resolution inviting those candidates to an interview.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is unprecedented territory. We haven’t done this in 25 years. This was the cleanest route that we could think of,” Pfeiffer explained.
Councilwoman Judy Priestley reminded her fellow council members that they needed to appoint a permanent city clerk before the start of the office’s next five-year term on Jan. 1, 2023.
“We have only appointed Ms. Donahue until the end of December, so we must continue this process in order to move quickly and swiftly to choose the best person for the job,” Priestley said.
Human Relations Director Eddie Smith told the council members that he had gathered 25 applications for their review, adding that two of the candidates requested to remain anonymous until the city was ready to make an offer for the position.
“There are some people that may still be working with a current employer that might not know that they’re looking for a job elsewhere, so we’re honoring their request to be confidential,” Smith said. “It’s normal to keep [their names] confidential until an offer is made.”
City Attorney William Kim explained that the council could maintain the privacy of these individuals before interviews by discussing the applications in closed session. However, he said, the council must carry out any interviews for the city clerk position in a public meeting per Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, so the candidates would have to present themselves publicly at that point.
Kim also noted that the council could continue discussing the qualifications of specific candidates, including education and previous job experience, after returning to open session, but members should avoid identifying those candidates by name. He suggested council members could instead refer to the candidates by their assigned numbers.
“This is a procedure that’s been used by several other municipalities that I’m familiar with,” Kim said. “It’s a balancing between making it so that people apply and can be confidential to a certain point, while recognizing that ultimately, we are all public servants here, and so, at a certain point, that has to be made public and the public has to see what’s going on.”
The motion to review the applications in executive, or closed, session fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority by a vote of 5-3.
Council members Ladel Lewis, Quincy Murphy, Judy Priestley, Allie Herkenroder and Pfeiffer voted yes while Eric Mays, Jerri Winfrey-Carter and Tonya Burns voted no. Councilwoman Eva Worthing was absent from the meeting.
“This is a public job and the public has a right to be concerned who the city clerk is, because the city clerk handles a lot of different departments. We have licensing, we have our city council, we have elections,” Burns said of her decision. “For me and my ward, I promised to be transparent. This does not create transparency.”
Mays also said he wouldn’t enter a closed session to discuss the city clerk position.
“As a matter of fact, I’m not even comfortable with the special meeting that’s being called,” he said. “I understand some of the parameters that are being made, but I don’t think that it’s proper not to say who [the applicants] are.”
Mays added that he was “getting ready” to make a resolution to appoint Donahue as official city clerk, citing her “fantastic” performance, but he ultimately did not motion for such a resolution during the Nov. 9 meeting.
The meeting adjourned after the motion to go into closed session failed. According to the meeting agenda, the city council’s interviews with the city clerk applicants were supposed to be held publicly in a special meeting on Nov. 16 at 5:30 p.m.
Council administrators did not confirm whether that Nov. 16 meeting would still proceed by press time. Donahue’s interim city clerk term is set to end on Dec. 31, 2022.