Secrecy in hiring chief doesn't serve public

Saturday, September 1, 2001

Cape Girardeau's city manager, Michael Miller, has decided the public doesn't need to know who the final three out-of-town candidates for police chief are.

This is ironic on so many levels, beginning with a review of the history of how the position came to be open.

The former police chief, Rick Hetzel, left the position in June after four years and some respectable accomplishments. But he departed just as a $43,000 consultant's report came out that lambasted him for not being open enough.

The city spent $43,000 to find out that the lines of communication were -- according to many of those interviewed by the consultant -- blocked in the police department. Some officers didn't feel informed about decisions that were being made. As a result, morale was bad.

Certainly, anything that costs the city more than the average Cape Girardeau resident earns in a year should be taken into consideration when city officials take action.

Yet Miller has declined to release the names and hometowns of the three out-of-town police chief candidates to even the police officers they would be overseeing.

Officers had an opportunity to meet the finalists at an informal event, and the candidates could reveal their identities only if they wanted to.

There would be so many benefits to conducting this hiring in the open. If everyone knew who the candidates were, the news media could do its job of protecting the public's interests. Reporters would do independent background checks on the candidates, talk to newspapers and officials in other cities and perhaps find good reasons why a person would make a good police chief -- or shouldn't be hired.

It's quite possible that current residents of Cape Girardeau may be familiar with a community served by one of the these candidates and be able to offer meaningful opinions on the candidate's performance.

Miller should take a page from the Cape Girardeau Board of Education, which this week conducted every bit of its application and interview process for a new board member in an open meeting. The county commission did the same thing a few years ago when it had to pick three new school board members. Southeast Missouri State University routinely lets everyone know who the finalists are for key positions.

Or Miller could take a page from his own hiring. In July 1995, Mayor Al Spradling III announced the five finalists for Cape Girardeau city manager. Miller was among them -- a management consultant at the time. The other four were working city managers.

Miller's argument that releasing the names of the finalists for police chief would make candidates less likely to apply in the future does little to serve the public's interests.

Perhaps this is something the city council should address.

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