Newly-appointed Los Alamos County Manager Steven Lynne, right, signs his employment agreement watched by County Attorney Alvin Leaphart following Tuesday evening’s Council meeting. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Effective today, July 14, Steven Lynne is the new Los Alamos County Manager following a 6-1 vote Tuesday evening by Los Alamos County Council.
Council Chair Randy Ryti highlighted the process used 10 years ago when former county manager Harry Burgess was hired noting that that action session with the Council chair at the time providing a brief history of the selection process for and making a statement in open session that Council had chosen Mr. Burgess as the top candidate. Ryti said that Council had a number of closed sessions prior to that open session. He also noted that there were closed sessions prior to the hiring of Philo Shelton as the Utilities Manager two years ago.
Ryti also addressed what other communities in New Mexico have had as a hiring process for administrators or managers, noting that Raton had a very similar process with closed sessions and approved the appointment in open session. San Miguel County, also used a similar process with an executive session followed by two motions – one to appoint and the other on negotiating a contract. Sie
“As far as our process, Mr. Burgess had informed Council in our strategic planning sessions in 2019-2020 of his plans to retire in the somewhat near future. He actually started informing Councilors around December 12, 2020 and a sent a formal letter on January 12,” Ryti said.
He noted that he had assigned a committee comprised of Vice Chair James Robinson, former chair Sara Scott and himself. He listed all the times the hiring process was discussed or addressed in Council meetings during the first six months of the year and referred to the hiring of a consultant, a survey of the public to determine what qualities were desired in a county manager and the brochure prepared for advertising the position.
“On June 8, I indicated we would have an additional closed session on June 17 and meetings and tours June 24-25 with a closed session on June 25,” Ryti said. “There have been some requests from the public to have some additional information provided and we included in the packet the questions that were asked by the different panels (comprised of) members of the public, senior management team or department heads and three elected officials – the County Clerk, the County Assessor and the Municipal Court Judge.”
The process continued with finalizing the questions to be asked, receiving input from the two panels and interviewing the three finalists, Ryti said. Councilor Denise Derkacs reminded Ryti that Council had also held an open house for people to meet the candidates and input was received from that event.
Councilor Sean Williams asked if in the cases of hiring in New Mexico the narrowing of the pool of candidates had been done in closed session or if it was an up or down a vote among the candidates. Ryti said he hadn’t found a case where more than one candidate was brought forward for discussion. He said in one case, the entity wanted to start over with their search but there were no cases he found where there were other alternates discussed. Ryti noted that there have been questions asked about the Open Meetings Act and the records from the closed session but that there are also the rights of the applicants to be considered.
“I think that’s one reason why the bodies tend to focus on the selection so there is a person presented for the consideration with an up or down vote. When former County Manager Burgess was hired it was 6-1,” Ryti said.
Councilor Scott made a motion to approve the appointment of Steve Lynne as County Manager of Los Alamos County and an employment agreement effective July 14 as negotiated and authorize the County Council Chair to sign the agreement. The motion was seconded by Councilor David Izraelevitz. She said the County is fortunate to have Lynne and that he is prepared and able for the position. Izraelevitz said he was excited to be able to vote for Lynne, that he did very well as deputy manager and interim manager.
“Although we had some very strong candidates I’m glad that we’re at this point where Mr. Lynne is under consideration,” Izraelevitz said.
Councilor Sean Williams said considering Ryti “just sort of dumped a whole lot of information”, he would like to ask for a 10-minute recess to reconsider, which Ryti granted.
On returning from the recess, Williams said he is not concerned with what happens in other communities and that Los Alamos has a higher standard of transparency.
“Personally I’m quite uncomfortable with narrowing the field of candidates within a closed session. My general understanding when reading the compliance guide for the Open Meetings Act is that narrowing options should not be done behind closed doors. With that in mind, I would personally prefer that we have a vote to narrow the field on July 27 and revisit this on Aug. 10 so I move that this be tabled. Councilors Robinson, Williams and David Reagor voted in favor but Councilors Ryti, Scott, Izraelevitz and Derkacs voted against.
Councilor Derkacs said she fully support the appointment of Steven Lynne as County Manager.
“My decision is based on careful review and consideration of all pertinent application materials, the candidate interviews and on input received from the public meet and greet, the community panel, the senior management team panel and from fellow councilors during the interview process,” she said. “I believe that Mr. Lynne’s years of experience in County government, his demonstrated management skills, his financial management expertise, his successful negotiation skills and in addition to the recommendations of staff and associates, clearly making the best qualified candidate for the County Manager position.”
Councilor Reagor said Steven Lynne is a really qualified candidate.
“He did an outstanding job during the interviews and I am really supporting his appointment as County Manager,” Reagor said.
Councilor Williams said he wanted to lay out the reasons he would not be supporting the motion.
“In my view, when an insider runs, essentially, the platform of change – they set themselves a very high bar to convince me of that. It is, I think, generally agreed that Steve was the most status quo of the candidates. That was certainly the position of the majority of the community panel, and even several of the community panel said that quite explicitly. But there was also a lot of implicit language that Steve was the status quo candidate. Words like continuity, longevity, institution knowledge. Unfortunately the status quo in Los Alamos is the decaying private sector so I would want a candidate that convinces me that they are going to make change. There was a general lack of specificity within the comments that Steve made during the interviews and I felt that during the interview, he also made comments that were quite status quo ,” Williams said.
Councilor Robinson said his support of the motion by Councilor Williams to table had nothing to do with the process or Steve Lynne as a candidate.
“I think Steve was a very qualified candidate. It was more just improving our processes and narrowing the candidates in a public session was the next step. I was perfectly fine doing this out in the public and then we could have those discussions. We can’t replicate the discussions we had in the closed session because time and we’ve all fallen asleep since then but I’m always in favor of doing more in the public that we can, just to give them a glance at our decision-making process. With that said, I’m still going to support this motion because I still think Steve was the most qualified candidate we had based on all the information that came in and through the various interviews I was able to sit in on as the subcommittee member,” Robinson said.
Councilor Izraelevitz interrupted with “a point of information”, which he said was not criticism of Councilor Robinson, but that he wanted to make comments as to why he voted no on the motion to table.
“I’m not going to debate the quality of the motion. I think every councilor has the right obviously to decide that they want to spend more time thinking or whatever, but I appreciate the detail you provided about the process that we went through and I think that there were many opportunities for any councilor to being up suggestions for changes,” Izraelevitz said.
He added that the Council Rules Committee is going to be making a presentation and that there are many opportunities in the future for councilors to make changes.
“I didn’t think those changes should affect the process that we’re tried to do tonight. I guess I would encourage any councilor or any member of the public who has suggestions for changes to a process to contact a councilor who may be sympathetic to those changes and then we can have that discussion. But it didn’t seem to me that it was appropriate to delay this action given that we followed the process to the letter if not further,” Izraelevitz said.
Chair Ryti noted that he had not gone into details of areas where Council does substantially more in its process than other communities. He said other communities don’t hold a town hall, that they probably generally don’t have a public panel.
“They probably just have a councilor or commissioner panel to do the finalist interviews. I understand the frustration but I think it comes down to the discussion about the people that you’re not going to appoint which is not really appropriate as that’s going to generally be opinion and the opinion would probably not be beneficial to any of the parties involved in this type of search,” Ryti said. “I’ve gotten a lot of comments and I’ve taken them very seriously about the process and I’ve tried to think very hard about what to change and if the Council had wanted to pull this item and had voted yes, I would have done that. On the other hand, I think we do have a decision in selection and it is a preference and according to our county attorney it is something we can do in a closed session.”
He noted that in terms of the negotiation of the contract with Lynne, Councilor Robinson and the human resources consultant were also involved in the process.
“I tried to include as much input as possible. The rule sometimes wasn’t specific and I think it’s a good idea to take some time and look at the rule,”Ryti said.
He added that there is some disagreement about status quo versus change.
“So I had indicated when we were discussing this that Mr. Lynne was interested in change and we are his bosses and so if he doesn’t make change it is somewhat on both him and us that change does not occur. We understand the areas where we have priorities and we need to effect change. I agree with Councilor Williams on a lot of that. I felt that Mr. Lynne would be able to implement change and I have seen that commitment so far as he has been acting County Manager as well,” Ryti concluded.
Council voted 6-1 on the motion with Councilor Williams voting against.
The discussion ended with Lynne said thanking Council.
“I’m very much honored and excited about the opportunities and challenges going forward,” he said.