As expected -- indeed, as now seems to have been all but inevitable -- Columbus Council on Tuesday confirmed James D. Worsley, a young, apparently energetic and obviously well-educated parks and recreation administrator in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., as the new director of Columbus’ troubled Parks and Recreation Department.
Worsley assumes leadership of a dysfunctional agency embarrassed and dispirited by public revelations of corruption. The fact that about a dozen of the department’s employees were on hand at Tuesday’s council meeting to applaud their new CEO attests to their hopes and wishes for a fresh start.
We share their optimism, and wish the new director all the best in taking over a job that is a challenge even under the best of circumstances -- and the department he will now lead is in anything but the best of circumstances. We hope, and believe, James Worsley can lead parks and rec in Columbus back to a level of integrity and effectiveness in which we can all take pride.
We don’t, unfortunately, share the Columbus Consolidated Government’s apparent satisfaction that the process of hiring the former Parks and Recreation director’s successor was a transparent and accountable one.
The city seems to have followed the letter of the law: Under Georgia sunshine statutes, a city interviewing for a senior management position must release the names of “as many as three persons” being considered. Hundreds of applications were narrowed down to a short list of four -- but only one, Worsley’s, was finally submitted to council. A Ledger-Enquirer Opens Records Act request for the names of the other finalists was denied by the city attorney.
Whether the spirit of the law, or any common-sense principle of civic transparency, was upheld is another matter entirely. Any privacy exception would be irrelevant here, because what taxpayers have a right to know are not personal details but professional qualifications of applicants for a job whose salary those same taxpayers will fund.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson argued that making public the names of finalists could prove professionally awkward for them in their current jobs, and might be a deterrent. It’s a legitimate point -- but in the context of open government, we believe, not a sufficiently compelling one. Somebody seeking a high-ranking post at public expense should expect a fair degree of public scrutiny; that’s part of the deal. The applicant hired for this job indeed seems eminently qualified, but the citizens who will pay his $85,000 salary have been allowed no basis for comparison.
We are hopeful and confident that, as Worsley said Tuesday, this is indeed the start of “a new chapter.” But if there was a lesson to be learned from the sad and expensive previous chapter, it’s that the process of hiring a new director should have been more transparent, not less.