While the Killeen City Council prepares to interview the finalists for the city manager position later this month, a number of red flags have surfaced in some of the candidates’ pasts, according to a preliminary investigation by the Daily Herald.
On Friday, the city released the names and resumes of the five candidates selected by an executive search firm, Keller-based Strategic Government Resources, from a group of 32 applicants.
Those five candidates are slated to be interviewed by the council Oct. 28-29.
The group of finalists is comprised of Daniel Biles, the current deputy county manager of infrastructure for the Jefferson County Commission in Birmingham, Ala.; Andy Bird, the current garrison manager for U.S. Southern Command/U.S. Army Garrison in Miami and former deputy garrison commander for Fort Hood; John “J.J.” Murphy, the current city manager of Hobbs, N.M., and former city administrator and deputy city administrator of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Steven Norwood, most recently the chief administrator of El Paso County; and Ron Olson, most recently the city manager of Corpus Christi.
Despite the call by Killeen residents and the City Council for a city manager who is transparent and accountable, the professional and government histories of some of the finalists appear to compromise those values — a litany of accusations including questionable business dealings, federal subpoenas, poor attendance records and an ill-advised trip to Italy.
While SGR plans to continue vetting each finalist, with only a week and a half before the council is scheduled to meet the finalists, many questions remain on whether any of the five will become the next city manager — especially if the red flags continue to mount.
Finding the right candidate
In a brochure SGR used as an advertisement for the city manager position, the minimum requirements for the role include a bachelor’s degree in public administration, business administration, or a related field — with a preference for a master’s degree — and 10 or more years of “progressively responsible” local government experience, including five years as a city or county manager or assistant manager.
But apart from technical experience, the city also desires candidates that would bring much-needed transparency to City Hall.
“The next Killeen City Manager will be highly responsive to citizen needs and dedicated to exceptional customer service,” the brochure reads. “The ideal candidate will have the ability to unite the organization with a shared sense of purpose, promote teamwork, fully articulate expectations, delegate responsibility with clarity, and create a culture of accountability and transparency.”
But according to news outlets in the finalists’ former cities, some of the candidates that will soon go before the council have seemingly not met those two final standards in their prior posts — particularly Murphy, the city manager for Hobbs, N.M.
Murphy has served in his current role since 2012, a term which was marked by raised eyebrows from residents of Hobbs.
However, concerns about Murphy’s interests stretched beyond the Southwest, including targeting in a federal probe into his business dealings in Pennsylvania with the Wilkes-Barre Parking Authority after he left his city administrator position in 2010, according to a series of articles in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.
Though the federal probe returned no indictments with charges against Murphy or any official involved in the series of investigations, the FBI director in Scranton, Pa., Sean Quinn, referred to Wilkes-Barre City Hall as a puzzle containing “a wide thread of corruption across a wide swath of government.”
When he got to Hobbs, Murphy was soon negotiating himself into richer contracts with the city, increasing his salary as city manager by more than $30,000 through a series of contract amendments approved by the City Commission over a three-year span and securing a lavish severance package with language in his contract limiting termination without severance pending a felony conviction, according to online reports independently verified by the Daily Herald.
In any other event, the city would owe him a full year’s salary — or $173,349 as of October 2014 — to cut him loose.
Murphy also took two city department heads on a $7,741 trip to Italy to inspect a pool system for possible installation at a community center in Hobbs, according to the Hobbs News-Sun and USA Today.
While the trip was never voted upon by the City Commission, both Murphy and everyone involved said it never violated any city policy.
But the red flags don’t begin and end with Murphy.
Norwood, the former county administrator for El Paso County, was fired from his position Oct. 5, 2015, after apparently being tardy and not showing up during agreed upon work hours, according to email correspondence between Norwood and County Judge Veronica Escobar reported by the KVIA news station in El Paso.
In emails back and forth between the two, Escobar said Norwood didn’t meet his responsibilities in office. Norwood responded that he used a more free-flowing work style dependent on daily needs, saying, “If we have to work on Saturday so be it, or if you would like to take an afternoon off each week to play golf ... then so be it.”
Escober responded, “Frankly, there’s no time for golf right now.”
The issue reached such a head that the county commissioners voted to fire Norwood and offered him one month’s pay as severance to avoid litigation.
Finalist Olson, the former city manager of Corpus Christi, resigned from his post in May after the city issued its third boil water advisory during his time there. While the issue was not directly Olson’s fault, he took responsibility for the advisories at the time, telling the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, “If it happens here, I’m the guy who is ultimately responsible.”
Olson had taken over as city manager in Corpus Christi in March 2011 during a time of financial crisis similar to that currently facing Killeen and was responsible for overhauling City Hall and bettering the city’s financial health. Before the water boil concerns, no other red flags were immediately apparent in Olson’s past.
Nothing had immediately surfaced in online searches regarding the other two candidates.
The next steps
With red flags readily available, how did these concerns not arise during the search process?
Mike Tanner, the senior vice president at SGR, said the earliest stages of the selection process do not focus on extensive background checks.
“What I can tell you is that we do drive on resumes, cover letters, then some background information,” Tanner said.
“In some cases we’re familiar with candidates, and sometimes we’ve never heard of them.”
The next step in the process involves deep background checks, a search by a private investigator firm contracted by SGR, reference checks and a high intensity internet search, which essentially uses a professional platform similar to Google to look at any time the candidates name has come up in the media.
“Our position is that if we do all that, the City Council will fully understand the persons before them, and be in a position to appoint someone that they have every piece of information on,” Tanner said. “There will be no surprises after the fact.”
In the event the council is dissatisfied with their options and wants new finalists, Tanner said, a separate list could be compiled without added cost to the city.
The initial contract with SGR cost the city $27,000.
However, there is no assurance the search process will turn up an acceptable candidate, echoing the last city manager search in Killeen.
In 2011, the council halted its search for an outside candidate to fill the role after the dismissal of City Manager Connie Green. When no acceptable candidate was found. Glenn Morrison, the interim city manager at the time and former head of the Parks and Recreation Department, was hired for the role instead.
Morrison retired in April amid concerns about the city’s finances and the administration’s lack of transparency.
In this case, police Chief Dennis Baldwin, who was appointed to the interim city manager role Oct. 11, could become a candidate for the permanent position.
But concerns remain in hiring another city “insider” to the role after dissatisfaction with Morrison and former interim City Manager Ann Farris led the council to look outside the city.
Regardless, both SGR and the council will be tasked with identifying a candidate over the coming weeks that fits not only their requirements but satisfies the demand by residents for a city leader that will demonstrate accountability and leadership in the role.