Council to rescreen applicants for city clerk

BROOKINGS – The Brookings City Council decided 5-1 Tuesday to rescreen the 43 applicants for the position of city clerk.

Councilor Leah Brink was the dissenting vote.

Councilor Dan Hansen was absent due to attending a conference, and councilors Ope Niemeyer and Nick Wendell attended by phone.

About two dozen people were in attendance, plus city staff.

Mayor Keith Corbett pointed out choosing a city clerk is “a brand-new topic for us.” 

Shari Thornes was city clerk for 19 years. She retired in January. Bonnie Foster was later appointed acting city clerk.

Niemeyer moved to direct city staff to follow the search process the council had previously discussed. It was approved.

Councilor Patty Bacon said they all just wanted to clarify the process.

It’s important to have a clearly outlined process going forward, agreed Councilor Holly Tilton Byrne.

“As I believe most people probably agree, the position of city clerk is one that is extremely important since it is the position that runs our elections, serves as a point for the city council to communicate with the city, and is definitely one of those that is a very public figure,” Tilton Byrne said.

“I would be in favor of seeing additional candidates for this role and potentially reposting the position, as well,” Brink said, adding that doesn’t necessarily mean stopping the process. 

Bacon moved that they clearly define the search and selection process of the city clerk position.

“I think we need to revisit that timeline,” Brink said, adding “there was some miscommunication about expectations. We were not all on the same page and tonight I hope that we can get on the same page.”

She suggested they work through the process piece by piece.

Tilton Byrne pointed out that this council has never appointed a city clerk, and the charter gives very little guidance, other than to say that the council does hire or appoint the city clerk.

“If it seems we are stumbling through this process, it’s probably because we are, because it is the first time that we’ve done it,” she said.

She said she’d like to hear from the public on what they’d like to see in a search process “so that our discussion can be guided by that voice.”

Public comment

A number of people spoke about the process and Foster as acting city clerk.

Tom Yseth is a former Brookings County commissioner. He gave some history on the origin and intent of the city clerk, that the city clerk works for the council.

The city clerk helps with meetings and research and acts as an assistant to the council.

He noted a flaw was that the council appoints the city clerk, but the city manager evaluates the clerk.

“This is a serious potential conflict,” Yseth said.

He said the council should do the evaluations of the people they hire, like the commissioners do.

He brought up debate surrounding the national search for the city clerk position.

“I will say that with the correct job description – which is critical – and the corresponding pay, you will find more than enough qualified applicants around here. Brookings is full of smart people,” Yseth said.

Gail Robertson is a former mayor of Brookings during the late 1980s while there was a push for a city charter. The city clerk position was in the initial document, he said.

There’s been a natural evolution of the city clerk’s duties, Robertson said.

Along the way, those duties were formalized as the city clerk’s, he said, adding it was up to the council how they wanted to proceed and if they wanted to change the charter.

“Be flexible” going forward, he advised.

Brennan Sullivan asked what other positions are hired by the council.

The three positions appointed by the city council under the charter are city manager, city attorney and city clerk, City Manager Paul Briseno said.

If you want the city clerk to be an apolitical position, why have the city council appointing the person, Sullivan asked. Having the city manager hire the city clerk keeps the political side out of it.

Diane Spencer is a retired city hall employee.

She asked if the council has advertised for the position and gotten applications. Corbett said yes, they have.

“So, you’ve already got applicants; now you’re gonna advertise again?” Spencer asked.

“That’s up for discussion,” Corbett said.

Spencer said she’s worked with Foster for years. 

“I don’t think you’re gonna find an employee that can do it any better than Bonnie can. And I’m here to support her. Stop spending the money,” Spencer said. “When we’ve got something that’s good, let’s stop there.”

Mike Bartley, current Brookings County commissioner, explained the county sets a deadline for applications and “no matter how many we get, that’s the deadline.”

He suggested they look at what they’ve got.

“I think you need to look at this job as someone who’s supervised by the city manager,” Bartley said, adding the city manager can move the city clerk’s responsibilities around.

Bartley said during his six years on city council, if he needed anything from the city clerk’s office and dealt with Foster, the issue was handled professionally, quickly, and with a smile.

Sheriff Marty Stanwick said he was there to support Foster.

“When you’ve got good people in house, why not promote them?” he asked.

He echoed Bartley in saying when he’s contacted Foster for things, she was always willing and quick to help.

Mike McClemans, a former councilor, pointed out Thornes did the job for a number of years and Foster worked under her “as a well-versed person. I think you’ll find no one will speak in another tone other than what a good job Bonnie has done.”

He said the problem with bringing in someone from outside Brookings was wondering how long they would stay. Foster is “very capable,” he said, and is established with family in the community.

“Why would you need to expand to a national search?” McClemans asked. “Hiring someone local just makes a lot more sense.”

Council comments

Corbett said the council agrees on the job description and asked if they wanted to discuss the timeline.

Brink said the “terminology of ‘national search’ is a little bit misleading.” 

She said they posted the job in a few locations, spending a few hundred dollars. Websites like Indeed are international, she said, “so technically anybody from anywhere could apply to the positions. So I just don’t want people to think that there was a lot of resources expended in that process.”

Corbett said advertising has cost $1,910, and they have gotten 3,172 total hits.

“I would advocate that we re-post at a couple of places, maybe not all of them,” Brink said. “I would like to see if we can augment the applicant pool a little bit.

“If we don’t have the will for that, I would like us to consider at least pre-screening some additional people in our existing applicant pool,” Brink said. “I think that we had some additional well-qualified local people who applied for this position as well that we would like to possibly take a look at.”

Tilton Byrne said she agreed with Brink, but wanted to make something clear.

“This discussion today is not a trial against Bonnie as our current city clerk,” she said, adding the decision “is really about setting the precedent about how the council appoints city clerks” and creating a strong process for that, like for city manager.

It’s about finding the best person for the job, she added.

Tilton Byrne wanted to extend the advertising period for the position. She would also like councilors, city staff and members of the public to vet the applicants, chose the best and move forward.

“We have 43 applicants, so go back and review those,” Corbett said, wanting to nail down a timeframe.

Briseno said they have advertised for a little over a month and recommended advertising for another month. The initial screening should be done by the full council, or they select the committee, he said.

Briseno said he wants to be as clear as possible in the process so the city staff can fulfill the council’s wishes. 

Niemeyer asked how they vetted the process for city manager.

The human resources director and he went through the 84 applications and narrowed them down, Corbett said. Then it went to a small group with two council members and two community members, “then the whole council got involved,” he said.

“So that’s kind of what we’ve already done here,” Niemeyer said, adding it hasn’t been done any differently than was done for city manager. “I guess I’m just a little confused as to why everybody else feels we weren’t on the same page. All but Leah were already on council at that time.”

Wendell wanted to amend the original amendment to say that they would not re-open the search but expand the screening process of the 43 applicants that are currently in the pool, with the search committee composed of the mayor, the HR director “and the few members of the council that had volunteered to serve on that search committee originally,” he said.

The motion was approved 5-1 with Brink dissenting.

“What’s challenging for me is – again, as a person that does recruiting for a living – it was not clear to me what the rubric is for evaluation,” Brink said. “I personally evaluated 43 applications. I don’t know how the three were selected that were selected.”

She asked what defining criteria was used.

Corbett said what he used was the job requirements and read them off from the job description as posted.

Briseno suggested they set up an executive session after the council meeting next week.

Niemeyer thanked everybody for showing up and acknowledged how concerned the public has been about the process. He hopes this meeting clarifies it for people.

He wants everyone to continue talking to the councilors and explain “the direction they’d like to see us go; don’t leave it at just tonight. I’d like to hear more,” Niemeyer said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]


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