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In the days of Watergate, it was called a “modified limited hangout.” John Dean, after a secret meeting in the Oval Office, was tasked with writing a false report about the burglary and subsequent coverup that named some names but kept President Nixon out of the whole affair.

Fast forward to today’s secret government meetings on everything from lawsuits and construction bids to personnel matters. Someone has to emerge to let the public know something about what has gone on, but how much – and who?

That seemed to be the dilemma confronting Flagstaff city officials earlier this month when the City Council met ostensibly to pick some finalists for city manager to interview. We had previously reported the consultant had whittled the list of 44 applicants down to 11 semi-finalists.

But when the news came out of City Hall – as usual, at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon – it was singularly cryptic. Deputy City Manager Josh Copley had been named the new city manager and offered an 18-month contract. That was also the message the interim city manager Jeff Meilbeck sent out to city employees in his weekly memo – nothing more, nothing less.

While we in the news business appreciate being notified when there is news of any sort from closed-door meetings, this one seemed to put John Dean to shame. What, for example, happened to the 11 finalists? In fact, what happened to the entire search and interview process? And why a contract of 18 months for Copley when a year is usually the standard?

Even though City Hall was closed for the day, members of the council were still taking phone calls, and theirs was a more expansive account of the meeting. The mayor said none of the 11 finalists were up to snuff and the search would be suspended, then resumed in a few months. Copley, although given the title of city manager, would be temporary until his retirement in 18 months.

Not surprisingly, some city employees who read the mayor’s take on the city manager search wondered who was on first. And by Monday, other councilmembers had weighed in with similar accounts – the city’s modified limited hangout had spilled out entirely.

Still to weigh in is the consulting firm that screened the candidates – we’re curious how it sees what appears to be a major disconnect between its choices and the council’s priorities. And since they weren’t in the secret meeting, they are allowed to say anything they want.

We’re not holding our breaths, however, which is a shame. Flagstaff has a city manager form of government, which vests enormous power in the hands of one person. The more the public knows about how the council sets and evaluates qualifications for a new manager, the more it learns about our elected officials as well as who will run the city.

Our advice: Limit secret meetings strictly to individual personnel decisions. When the council has problems with a candidate list or decides on an interim course, that is not an exempt discussion. If the city can tell us that Josh Copley has been hired, it can tell us why others have not been hired and where the search really stands. We’ll expect as much the next time the consultant – whoever it might be – presents the next round of semifinalists.

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Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at rwilson@azdailysun.com or (928) 556-2254

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