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February 6, 2013

Ottumwa approves transit director amid interview concerns

Councilmen allege interviewees did not receive due process, propose new policy to address the interview process

OTTUMWA — Four out of Ottumwa’s five city councilmen say the interview process for the new transit director gave the city another black eye.

Dave Silverio was approved 3-2 as Ottumwa Transit’s new director at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, with Councilmen Brian Morgan and Bob Meyers as the dissenting votes.

Out of 30 applications received, City Attorney Joni Keith said a committee narrowed those down to five to be interviewed for the position, which supervises 50 employees, handles a nearly $3 million budget and also supervises 10-15 Transit.

“I prepared a detailed list of questions, and three questions were given to each person in attendance [on the interview committee] to ask,” Keith said.

The consensus of the interview panel of eight was to recommend to the council that Silverio be hired. Councilman Jeremy Weller also applied for the position and was among the final four interviewed.

“I want to thank this council and this city for this opportunity,” Silverio said. “I want to take transit to where I believe it needs to be and that is to the premiere transit agency in the state of Iowa, and I will settle for nothing less.”

But four of the five councilmen had concerns with the interview process.

“For four years and two months, we’ve dealt with a situation where it appeared to me that the louder you were and the more profanity you used, you got the attention of the city administrator,” Meyers told the Courier after the meeting. “This time it went too far. I respect [Keith and City Administrator Joe Helfenberger] and how hard they’ve worked, but this was a mess.”

Meyers said the final candidates were not equally awarded due process.

“I feel as this process went on, we had four excellent people interviewed,  but I’m concerned that due process was not afforded to all of them, or to any of them, perhaps,” Meyers said. “I think further that it is well past time the city administrator develops a policy and process so when we do have opportunities to hire people that there is a policy and process in place.”

Currently, city code outlines the hiring process of the city administrator, city attorney and city clerk by the council.

Councilman J.R. Richards said Weller had every right to apply for the transit director position. Mayor Frank Flanders said a policy needs to be developed to ensure an “all or none” concept in the council being involved in interviews.

“When it’s a position the council does not directly hire, then the interviewing panel, if a council member is on that, that would put other council members at a potential disadvantage,” Flanders said. “Perhaps a policy needs to be developed where ... it’s either all in or all out.”

Morgan said Silverio has “a tough row to hoe.”

“The transit system in my tenure on the council has probably been the most stressful or circus-oriented, black-eyed or whatever,” Morgan said. “Good things have come out of it, some things maybe needed uncovered that got uncovered and there are some other things that haven’t.”

But he said that having such high turnover of transit directors in two years is unacceptable.

“If you’re gone in six months, I’m really in favor of looking at transit as either privatized or turned into some type of taxi service type thing like we’re already doing with the vans for handicapped people,” Morgan told Silverio. “There needs to be some changes and regardless, you’re going to have to be the start of that.”

Weller said the process “was messed up start to finish.”

“I didn’t want to deal with the constant of Councilman [Mitch] Niner in my ear throughout my tenure as the director of transit,” Weller said, if he had been hired. “... I think we need to look at the Ottumwa Transit Advisory Board as a whole, and we need to make changes.”

Weller suggested doing away with the board entirely.

“There was information released that shouldn’t have been released,” Weller said. “There were people partaking who shouldn’t have been partaking. It’s been a long, drawn-out mess.”

Following the meeting, Morgan told the Courier that he voted no because the city could have found a better candidate than Silverio.

“Weller had no experience. Silverio has a year or less experience,” Morgan said. “If our No. 1 priority was experience, why not interview more than three people with experience? Four directors in two-and-a-half years — that shows there’s something wrong in there. Where is the issue and why?”

Niner said none of the tension surrounding transit is his fault.

“I think the process was completely fair,” Niner told the Courier after the meeting. “[Silverio] was just an innocent victim in all this, and he was the best candidate. And why they’re picking on the OTA board is beyond me. They had absolutely nothing to do with any of this. What it all boils down to is their favorite person didn’t get it and they’re mad.”

Niner said once an elected official applies for a department head’s position, all interviews should be done from people outside the community.

“We had 30 resumes and six to seven had transit experience,” Niner said. “My opinion is we should have interviewed them first ... and the non-transit second.”

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