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Hire locally!

Orrin J. H. Johnson
Orrin J. H. Johnson

There are a number of public officials who are not elected, but nevertheless are critical to the smooth functioning of crucial sectors of our government. It’s a big responsibility to pick the right people, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be a more complex process than necessary. 

The trend has been to hire a headhunter to undertake a nationwide search, which in theory involves an intrepid consultant setting out like a sixteenth century explorer scouring the continent for the Northwest Passage or the Fountain of Youth for some mythically perfect candidate. We’ll see it play out as the Reno City Council looks to replace the outgoing city manager, for example, and education entities in particular also seem to love this ambitious recruiting method.

It’s one of those things (like communism) that sounds great in theory but never works out the way you want it to. Fortunately, one of the silver linings of The Plague may be to rid us of this impulse.

The University of Nevada, Reno, for example, is in the market for a new president. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval has applied, as has UNR Provost Kevin Carmen. It is hard to imagine anyone better qualified than Sandoval – he’s an unquestionably proven leader of multiple major bureaucracies who knows the budget process (and the politics that go with it) better than anyone, and he is already familiar (to say the least) with the school and the community. I don’t know anything about Carmen, but if outgoing UNR president Marc Johnson has been doing his job correctly, he has been preparing his existing staff for the transition, and mentoring his subordinates to be ready to fill his shoes. And surely there are other local leaders, both within the current university administration and outside of it, who could do the job well. 

I’ve seen chatter indicating that we should treat Sandoval like any other candidate while casting that nation-wide net. But why waste that time? Why bring in someone with no real local ties, who must learn the issues and the politics and the unique needs of UNR’s student body from scratch? Unless the organization is a complete disaster and needs to essentially be rebuilt from the outside with some sort of fixer (and I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that’s the case with UNR), why not use the superbly qualified local candidates who have already effectively recruited themselves?

I get the desire to avoid the appearance of cronyism – Nevada’s politics have certainly suffered from more than its share of the inbreeding that occurs from a too-tight good old boy’s club. But letting that fear steer you away from an obviously highly qualified known quantity is to cut off your nose to spite your face. 

And there are other pitfalls, as illustrated by the Washoe County School District’s search for a new superintendent. An out-of-state consulting firm was hired, and presented the school board with nine candidates (a list which was subsequently winnowed further). Of the nine, only one was local (current interim superintendent Kristen McNeill), and at least three of them were available because they’d been fired from their previous positions. 

WCSD has been dysfunctional for long enough that an outside candidate makes sense in theory, and I have my reservations about McNeill for those reasons. But such a candidate would have to have serious credibility to come in and clear the decks, if that’s what you’re after. After the last several superintendent debacles in our county, no competent hiring committee could seriously entertain someone who had just been forced out of his or her last job. Clearly, we didn’t get any value for the consultant fees we paid.

Fortunately, one of COVID-19’s very few redeeming qualities is the elimination of a lot of bureaucratic nonsense, and the school board has announced they will suspend the search and stick with the horse they’re already riding by hiring McNeill, likely with a shorter contract period in case she proves not right for the job.

I still would have preferred a local principal who could combine a fresh leadership perspective with the local knowledge necessary to lead the district forward most effectively from the first day. But McNeill seems so far to be getting the job done, ensuring her schools were ready for distance learning on schedule and with initial apparent success. Time will tell, but at this stage, who can believe the national search effort added any value to our community when we had plenty of other options available?

In a lot of ways, retaining hiring/recruiting consultants is an abdication of local government’s responsibility. Part of what I expect from government leaders, whether in elected or appointed positions, is to identify and cultivate the leadership skills and professional development of the people already working for them, so that when vacancies for key positions appear, we have already-qualified people to step up. When possible, it is almost always better to promote from within, and making it known that advancement is possible is a major motivator for employees of any organization. If school board members aren’t already aware of who in their organization is poised to lead our schools to the next level, they’ve failed in the most fundamental aspect of their position. The same is true of Reno’s City Council or the regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education. 

The good news is that we have great local options. Let’s take full advantage, and even after the current clarifying public health crisis passes, not waste our time in the future on far-flung searches for out-of-state saviors. Our time, money, and efforts are better spent cultivating our local homegrown talent. 

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected].


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