Irving council members may have improperly picked finalist in closed meeting

By Avi Selk
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published Jan. 21, 2014

Irving City Council members may have broken transparency rules when, in closed-door talks, they told staffers to start negotiating with Steve Sarkozy to become the next city manager.

The council was scheduled to interview three finalists for the job on Friday. After the interviews, according to people in the room, members told the staff to begin pursuing a contract for Sarkozy, the former city manager of Bellevue, Wash.

By doing so, the council essentially chose a lone finalist without public notice, according to a legal expert and two council members who skipped the meeting.

“Friday was just supposed to be an interview,” said council member Allan Meagher, who said he stayed home to care for his ill son. “But they picked out a city manager without the entire council there.”

In a statement forwarded by Mayor Beth Van Duyne, the city attorney’s office defended Friday’s discussions, pointing out that no city manager can be hired until the council votes to approve a contract.

Friday’s “posted agenda authorized the City Council to deliberate regarding the appointment or employment of any” candidate, the statement said. “The consensus to bring an action item back to a future council meeting” complied with the Texas Open Meetings Act.

But the city attorney was wrong, according to Bill Aleshire, an open-meetings lawyer in Austin who volunteers with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“They can’t take a decision in executive session” without public notice, he said. “And from what you’re describing, it sounds like a decision was made. They’re negotiating with only one person. That direction had to come from somewhere.”

Aleshire said the city needs to call a new meeting to discuss the candidates, vote for Sarkozy as the finalist and begin negotiations. Friday’s agenda simply read: “Personnel Matters — City Manager Interviews.”

“They get a mulligan under the open meetings act if they go and properly post and take action,” he said. But: “The longer they wait, the greater the chances that someone’s going to sue them over this and enjoin them from even discussing it.”

Meagher said he was waiting to hear from the city attorney and outside experts before he decides what to do.

He and the other council member who missed the meeting, Joe Putnam, both want to scrap the search process and extend interim City Manager Steve McCullough’s contract.

No one at Friday’s meeting has publicly acknowledged that council members tapped Sarkozy for the job, though many have confirmed it in private.

Reached by phone, Sarkozy said no one had told him he was the lone finalist. He resigned as Bellevue’s city manager last year, after 12 years with the booming Seattle suburb.

“I would be very interested in that position if we can work out some of the details,” he said, adding that he has been scouting possible homes and schools in Irving.

But, he cautioned: “We’re still just talking.”