Airport’s hiring process ‘vague’
Quietly this week on its website, the Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority released the name of the sole finalist selected in the search to take over the airport manager job — a position made vacant by the public firing of former airport head Rex Tippetts in the wake of a federal fraud probe.
However, the process in which current airport employee Benjamin Johnson was selected as the sole finalist is under scrutiny, especially compared to how other local public entities have followed open, community-driven processes to select their leadership.
In stark contrast, the authority conducted a handful of closed-door interviews for the top job with a four-person selection committee — a committee that included the eventual and sole finalist Johnson, according to board members.
Tom Frishe, vice chairman of the authority board who ran the search committee, said authority attorneys advised him that rules governing choosing a new manager were vague. Frishe said the authority posted the solo finalist announcement on its website, as well as sites for the city and county, in an effort to make the process “open.”
The board is set to discuss Johnson as the sole finalist at a public meeting Aug. 19. As with any regular meeting, the public is invited to comment, and Frishe said he already knows of a few who plan to do so.
A look back at the most recent public position hiring processes in the area reveals how divergent the Airport Authority’s process was.
The city of Fruita this week will host a public session for residents to meet and greet the five finalists to replace longtime Fruita City Manager Clint Kinney, who is leaving to take a similar job in Snowmass Village.
Fruita Mayor Lori Buck said she can’t imagine not including residents in the process to select Kinney’s replacement.
“We value what the community thinks, and we’re trying to make the best decision for the community, involving those who want to be involved. I think that’s the best way to do it,” Buck said.
“We want to make sure that we’re getting the most qualified person for the job, and we want to hear different opinions for sure,” she said.
“We work for the community, and this person is going to work for the community — so we want to know what the community thinks.”
On the other end of the valley, the town of Palisade last year brought the public out to help choose the current chief of police, Tony Erickson. The town identified six finalists for the job, and invited all six to a meet-and-greet event with the community after a day’s worth of interviews with town staff. Two candidates — Erickson included — came out to field direct questions.
“I wouldn’t necessarily do that with every position, but certainly with the chief of police and the town manager, they are public figures and how the public reacts to them tells you a lot about the pick and how they would fit in with the community,” Town Administrator Rich Sales said.
“Because it’s not only experience and technical ability, it’s the ability to communicate with the community that you’re serving — and that’s really a lot of what I hope to get out of that (public process),” Sales said.
Municipal governments aren’t the only comparable entities.
The Mesa County Public Library District — like the Airport Authority, also publicly accountable and subject to the same open meetings and transparency laws — notably announced three finalists for the executive director job vacated by Eve Tallman last year.
Before library board members selected current Executive Director Joseph Sanchez, they scheduled multiple meetings with the public and community leaders.
Not all public executive hiring processes have been as open to the public, however.
Trustees for then-Mesa State College raised eyebrows in 2003 when they selected Tim Foster as the sole finalist for the college president job from more than 90 applicants.
A college student sued the board and won, after alleging trustees violated Colorado’s Open Meetings laws in how they chose Foster as the sole finalist.
Managing Editor Mike Wiggins and staff writer Charles Ashby contributed to this report.