In May, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 (with two absences) to launch a new search for a county administrator. The lone dissenter, Dan Smith, was unhappy that “we never did take a formal vote” between the two finalists from their first search: county parks boss Bob Tetens and Muddasar Tawakkul, a Wayne County official. Commission chair Felicia Brabec was more sanguine: “If we couldn’t get there, we couldn’t get there.”
But why couldn’t they get there? The sticking point, several commissioners say, was that neither candidate was an overwhelming favorite. If a vote had been held, they say, it would have been 5-4 for Tetens. Ann Arbor commissioner Andy LaBarre says that the person chosen to head the county’s 1,200-person staff “is entitled to have the full faith of the board, or at least two-thirds.” He says some county department heads told him that a split vote would send “a really bad message” to staff.
Verna McDaniel, administrator since 2010, announced in February 2015 that she would retire that May. Shortly afterward, LaBarre threw out a game-changing suggestion that the county elect–not appoint–its administrator. The idea went nowhere, but the discussion delayed launching a search for McDaniel’s replacement. The administrator, meanwhile, agreed to stay on temporarily as a contract employee.
In December, the board chose seven finalists from twenty-nine candidates screened by the Michigan Municipal League. Using the commissioners’ ratings of the finalists on various criteria, the League narrowed it down to Tawakkul and Tetens in late January.
By February, it was clear that the commissioners were divided. They appointed county infrastructure boss Greg Dill as interim administrator while they continued to deliberate. (Dill had been one of the finalists but withdrew before it was narrowed to two.)
It was a classic example “of internal candidate versus external,” says county clerk Larry Kestenbaum. In his fifteen years running the parks, Tetens had impressed some commissioners, including LaBarre. However, a county staff union, AFSCME Local 3052, endorsed Tawakkul. “We just thought he was very supportive of labor,” says president Nancy Heine. Asked if there was something her union didn’t like about Tetens, Heine replies, “Nothing I could talk about.”
“Some employees complained about him as supervisor,” LaBarre says. He didn’t see that as a problem: if anyone ran a department for fifteen years and “didn’t have complainers, he’d be doing something wrong.” But Brabec preferred Tawakkul. She says she liked both his “energy and passion” and his well-articulated vision for the county. Trying to break the stalemate, the board asked the finalists to complete lengthy “leadership evaluation tests,” as Brabec describes them. But, she says, the results “changed no one’s mind.” In May, Ann Arbor Commissioner Conan Smith threw in the towel with a motion to start again from scratch–and everyone but Dan Smith agreed.
The commissioners may have been “searching for a special snowflake,” says Kestenbaum. He says both finalists are very capable and either could have run the county successfully. “If I were on the board, I would have pushed for making a decision,” he says. He believes the commissioners’ inability to agree “doesn’t look good for the county.”
“You could say that these are strong-minded individualists,” says a former local elected official who does not want to be named, “or you could say that this is a dysfunctional board.”
Not “dysfunctional,” counters Brabec. “People on both sides felt very strongly about their positions … I wouldn’t see it as helpful if everyone was a ‘yes’ person and we didn’t have any dissension.”
But more than sixteen months after McDaniel gave her notice, commissioners are eager to move the new search along. Says LaBarre, “Everyone’s chomping at the bit to get this finished–preferably this year.”