Port Arthur city manager: Search set to begin again

The dramatic and never-ending search for Port Arthur’s city manager has taken a variety of turns, including the revelation that assistant city manager Becky Underhill – affectionately known as “Candidate L” – did indeed apply for the Port Arthur city manager position and that after much public wrangling, the search is back to square one.

A meeting is planned before the city’s next scheduled City Council meeting Tuesday, Feb. 21, according to Councilman Bob Williamson, to set the parameters for what is expected when the city begins its search anew and under what criteria the search will be conducted.

Williamson, who spent 33 years as a Port Arthur cop and faces an election this May for his District 6 seat, said he’s in favor of the search starting completely over.“I think at this point, I would be in favor of a new search,” said Williamson, who has already served two three-year terms on the Port Arthur City Council and is eligible to serve one more term if elected. “I think we’ll keep the candidates we have from the existing list, and go out for a new search, try to put additional candidates on the list. The council ultimately decides it, but that’s going to be my recommendation.”

John Beard, who has spent nine years on the council in the District 5 seat, said he’s unsure what route the search will take given the process that he says has been “corrupted” by Williamson and Mayor Bobbie Prince.

“I’m not in favor of starting the process all over again,” said Beard. “We might have to open it up some more, but change criteria? Change criteria for what? There’s no need to change the criteria or modify it. You might need to clarify some things, but as far as changing everything and throwing the baby out with the bathwater? No, I’m not going to support doing that.”

Mayor Prince, who said she’s grown weary of the public posturing by some council members, said that a press conference held Friday, Feb. 3, by council members Beard, Harold Doucet, Kerry Thomas and Raymond Scott has done more to discourage progress on the council rather than encourage it.

“It’s tainted the process,” Prince said.

The mayor was also upset about the mockery that was made regarding Underhill’s candidacy for the city manager position, and Prince staunchly denied trying to push any particular candidate or hijack the search process.

“There were no names or races attached to the candidate profiles,” Prince said, adding that she had no idea Underhill had applied for the position. “I’m not pushing anybody (for the position); the council makes that decision.”

Prince said the candidate profile sheet did not include the candidates’ race, name or sex but did include the candidate’s education, years of experience and size of city they currently work in.

“It was the only one with a CPA, and the size of the city was 53,000,” Prince said of Candidate L’s credentials. Underhill is a licensed Certified Public Accountant and Port Arthur’s population is 53,000.

Thus what helped lead to the breakdown in the search process was the special meeting requested by Williamson for the council to consider Underhill despite Beard’s contention that the council had agreed to four candidates – not including Underhill – at the special meeting with James Mercer of The Mercer Group, which is heading the nation-wide search.

“We made the decision on the 24th and Candidate L was eliminated after due and ample consideration – more than ample consideration – and I don’t see any need to go back and change it. I don’t see any need to go back and change the criteria, and I see this as an attempt to re-write the rules to let someone back in that you eliminated after we all agreed upon it. You can’t do that,” Beard said.

However, according to Williamson, the reason Candidate L was eliminated from consideration was because of a misinterpretation of the candidate criteria. Williamson said the criteria that was bandied about in the meeting on the 24th insisted that any potential candidate have at least “eight years” of city manager experience, which would eliminate Underhill, considering she’s never been a city manager.

But according to the final criteria prepared by The Mercer Group, which interviewed each council member and the mayor individually to get their input on the city manager requirements and used that information to establish the final criteria for the city manager, there is no specific mention that a candidate must have city manager experience.

According to the pamphlet prepared by The Mercer Group given to prospective candidates: “the ideal candidate for city manager of Port Arthur will possess at least nine years of increasingly responsible experience in an administrative, managerial or staff capacity in a large municipal organization involving the responsibility for planning, organization, implementation and supervision of varied work programs. Any combination of experience and training that would likely provide the required knowledge and abilities is qualifying.”

Williamson said after he discovered that Candidate L was dismissed over the incorrect requirement, he requested the special meeting to consider adding her back into the mix.

“And this was not a vote for her to be the city manager, but simply to add her to the list to be interviewed, that’s all,” Williamson said.

Beard maintains that the special meeting shouldn’t have taken place and that once Candidate L was eliminated, it was time to move on.

“When we left that meeting on the 24th, Candidate L was eliminated, no more, no less,” he said.

The veteran councilman, whose nine-year run will conclude in May, said this city manager search has “meandered for too long” and he’s got a theory on why the search is taking so long.

“They’re dragging the process out past May to hopefully get a change on council favorable to their position,” Beard said.

Williamson said that was nonsense, and added that he’s going to suggest a citizens’ committee that will have an opportunity to interview the city manager candidates.“I thought we were going to achieve hiring a new city manager in 90 days, but not now,” said Williamson, adding that he has no timetable in his mind on when the hire needs to be made. “The urgency isn’t time; it’s finding the right person.”

While all three, Prince, Beard and Williamson, admit there’s been contention on the council, all three remain hopeful that they can work together in finding the next city manager for Port Arthur.

“The important thing is to find the right person for the city of Port Arthur,” said Prince, “and the public will have a chance to meet those candidates.”