Hiring of deputy city manager spurs criticism in Morro Bay

Sam Taylor
Sam Taylor Courtesy photo

The new deputy city manager in Morro Bay was hired without any public advertising of the position, prompting criticism from some residents.

Sam Taylor, the former assistant city administrator in Ferndale, Wash., started work in Morro Bay on June 1. He is paid $113,000 a year plus benefits.

Taylor has assumed a variety of roles to help the city meet several goals set by the City Council — including upgrading the city’s website and computer systems, as well as undertaking community and economic outreach.

City Manager Dave Buckingham said he pursued Taylor for the department head position after Taylor pulled his application for a similar job with the city of Atascadero.

Buckingham said he sat on an interview panel that considered the top nine contenders for the Atascadero job among a field of 112 applicants — and thought Taylor stood out.

“Since I was ‘in the market’ for a similar position, and since Sam was a perfect fit for what I was looking for, and well after Sam withdrew from the Atascadero process, I recruited him, vetted him with Morro Bay residents, council members and staff, and then hired him,” Buckingham said in an email to The Tribune.

Buckingham said he had no contact with Taylor until a week after he heard Taylor withdrew from consideration from the Atascadero job.

However, some members of the community believe the Morro Bay position should have been advertised publicly.

“I’m not questioning the need for this position,” said Morro Bay resident Janice House during public comment at a City Council meeting before Taylor’s hire. “That’s up to you guys to figure out. It’s the process. Maybe there are people locally with great experience. You don’t know that because you didn’t go through the process. That’s my main complaint.”

Joan Solu, a Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce director, echoed House’s concerns, adding that the public would feel more comfortable about the hire if the process were less “opaque.”

“It’s about completely opening up a transparent, open process for hiring,” Solu said. “I’m sure Mr. Buckingham has selected a great candidate, but nobody is going to know that unless the process is opened up.”

Asked by Councilman Matt Makowetski whether Buckingham was within legal bounds, City Attorney Joseph Pannone said the hire was a “legally acceptable process by the city’s policies.”

The Morro Bay City Council delegates its city manager — who is hired by the council — to make hiring decisions for positions he supervises, which are all staff members except the city attorney, who also answers to the council.

Councilwoman Christine Johnson said that because Buckingham consulted with her on the hire and allowed input from council members individually, she felt comfortable with Taylor’s appointment. She added she was glad to hear public feedback on how to improve the process.

Councilman John Headding said he has “trust in our city manager” to assess an individuals qualifications, but that he would recommend that Buckingham present the information about the details of a potential hire at a City Council meeting in advance of placing the item on the agenda for approval.

That would help provide more information for the public.

Buckingham said that by bypassing the typical recruitment process, which can involve hiring a search firm at a cost of $10,000, he saved the city money.

Before hiring Taylor, Buckingham said he was told by the city’s director of administrative services and human resources manager that he was not required to conduct a competitive hiring process for a department head position.

He noted that many department heads have been hired without a full recruitment process.

“In fact, all but two were simply picked from within by the previous city manager,” Buckingham said.

In talking to officials in other cities, Buckingham said he found that was “normal” for city managers both to conduct a broad recruitment for department heads and to simply promote from within.

City officials in San Luis Obispo and Grover Beach told The Tribune they typically announce department head job openings and assemble a panel to interview multiple candidates — the same process Atascadero used.

“We typically use an open recruitment process,” Grover Beach City Manager Bob Perrault said.

In San Luis Obispo, human resources director Monica Irons said the city sometimes also conducts community outreach to see what the public wants in its candidates.

“Our process is very extensive,” Irons said.