Linda Coxen knew she’d be grilled on her qualifications as she interviewed for a top management position in Luzerne County government, but she was blindsided when discussion shifted to where she lives.
“I didn’t expect residency to come up,” the Colorado resident and Danville native said last week. “I consider Pennsylvania my home and was serious about coming to the county and staying.”
Councilman Stephen A. Urban told Coxen at her public interview last month he has heard many complaints from residents about the hiring of people from outside the area and believes there are qualified local candidates.
The judicial services and records division head position ended up going to Joan Hoggarth, 49, of Hanover Township, who had been the interim appointee after a promotion from deputy recorder of deeds, but the situation has stirred up unresolved questions about what — if any — impact residency should have in county hiring.
The concept of hiring people from other areas is somewhat foreign in Luzerne County government because past officials rarely reached outside county borders and, in some instances, didn’t publicly advertise positions.
Before home rule, the most memorable hiring of an outside manager — Indiana resident Kimberli Weiland as human resources director in 2004 — was a negative experience because officials were forced to terminate her after learning she was wanted in her home state for a shoplifting charge and had been disbarred as an attorney for altering her law school transcripts.
Voters demanded public advertising and merit hiring when they approved the switch to home rule government, and New York native Robert Lawton, who most recently worked in California, was named the first county manager after a nationwide search.
Lawton chose to advertise the eight home rule division head posts nationally through professional trade associations and government management organizations.
Six of his division head nominees were confirmed by council to date — four local and two outside the county. One of the newcomers — Easton resident J. Allen Nesbitt as prison system overseer — received high marks from council members during his budget presentation last week.
The other out-of-county hire — Archbald resident Richard Cardamone as budget/finance head — was deemed highly credentialed but left after a few weeks on the job to accept another position outside the area. His departure bolstered the argument of some that outsiders may not be as committed to the county.
Coxen said she would have provided “fresh perspectives” on efficiencies that have worked elsewhere but does not fault council members for promoting from within.
“I’m respecting their decision. What I respected most was their honesty,” Coxen said.
Hiring issue debated elsewhere
The debate about hiring local isn’t just occurring here.
One example: The Clark County School Board in Las Vegas recently halted plans to conduct a national search for a new superintendent after widespread community pressure to hire locally, according to published reports.
The board held town hall meetings and posted an online survey to obtain feedback, receiving mixed opinions. Critics argued the board should search far and wide to find the best possible talent, with one saying, “We seem to be afraid of competition.”
Opponents argued an outside search was an unnecessary waste of time.
The board ended up unanimously appointing a 25-year veteran employee, saying he had solid plans and would need no learning curve.
Doug Hill, head of the County Commissioners’ Association of Pennsylvania, said he’s observed varied approaches in counties.
Some outside searches are necessary due to a lack of qualified residents with necessary skills, he said. Officials may want applicants with new ideas and approaches from other areas while others see a value in local familiarity and contacts.
“I won’t say it’s uncommon for counties to advertise and recruit outside their borders, but if they do it’s strategic and in some cases necessary,” Hill said.
Lawton said he will continue searching both here and outside to fill top management positions because he must find the best qualified candidates, regardless of their residence.
He addressed the judicial services division head position during a luncheon with municipal officials last week, saying his initial nominee was not confirmed by council.
“We went with somebody who’s going to do a fine job, but my point is I have made every effort to put the quality of the job ahead of where you’re from,” Lawton said.
Lawton said many county residents have been here a long time and know each other, but his newcomer status is beneficial to the county.
“Nobody knows the county manager, and that’s how it is. That’s how it’s going to stay,” he said.
Councilman Rick Morelli said local preference in government hiring is a “legitimate debate.” He supports a national search for the county manager but believes division head searches should be limited to this area unless there’s a shortage of qualified, viable local applicants.
“The perception is always hire someone from outside because they don’t have political connections. I can understand and respect that, but it’s a slap in the face to local residents to automatically paint them as political,” Morelli said.
Morelli said local residents shouldn’t sell themselves short and believes outside hiring will contribute to educated workers leaving the area.
“Just because you bring someone in from the outside, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do a good job,” he said. “I think the majority of county taxpayers believe local residents should have the first opportunity of consideration for county jobs.”
Urban said he ultimately rejected Coxen because he didn’t believe she had experience in the departments under the judicial services division.
“The fact that she was not local only came into play after I reviewed her qualifications,” he said.
Urban: Search locally first
However, he agrees with searching locally first.
“I talked to many people upset about hirings and high salaries going to people outside the area. They ask what’s wrong with local people?” Urban said.
Councilman Eugene Kelleher said he supports hiring the best person for the job, regardless of residency. He said he supported Hoggarth’s appointment because she was already proving herself in the position on an interim basis.
“I don’t think it sends a very good message to our employees if they’re not given the chance to advance through the system,” Kelleher said.
Kelleher said Lawton is doing an “excellent job” and faces a challenging situation nominating division heads.
“If he doesn’t advertise nationally, someone will say same-old, same-old, but if he nominates someone outside people will say he’s not giving local people a chance,” Kelleher said.
Councilman Stephen J. Urban said he has no problem seeking candidates outside but said applicants from the area or state may be the best fit.
“People who have worked different places can bring in fresh ideas, but someone outside the state may not have knowledge of Pennsylvania laws and procedures, so there would be a huge learning curve,” he said.
Urban said he’s encountered both positive and negative decisions working in information technology positions at other companies and brought that knowledge to his current employer.
“That’s the good part of having experience from the outside,” he said.
Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry said she wants an open search and the best candidate, regardless of residency.
A hire-local approach “insinuates our people would not be competitive” in a regional or national search, said Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck.
She urged local residents to imagine what it would be like to be rejected from a job somewhere else because they weren’t natives of that area.
McClosky Houck believes this area is more sensitive about hiring outside because many families have lived here for generations.
“I personally think it’s in everybody’s best interest to cast a wide net to seek applicants,” she said. “Merit hiring means hiring the best person who is interested — period.”
Councilman Rick Williams said residency shouldn’t be part of the equation.
“It’s not a question of not selecting a local person. We simply want the best,” he said.
The hiring of several local division heads proves county residents have “expertise to compete,” said Councilman Harry Haas.
“We’re not automatically discounting local candidates, and they’re now competing on a national level. I think more people would be upset if we just searched within the county,” Haas said.
Council Chairman Tim McGinley supports a broad geographical search, saying there may be a shortage of qualified applicants locally or regionally.
“But I do think we have a lot of people who live in greater Northeastern PA who are very fine people with fine qualifications, and I think they should be considered,” McGinley said.
Councilman Jim Bobeck said the county, like any good business, should promote qualified individuals when merited while recruiting on a local, state and national basis where applicable.
“Good minds produce good results, and good minds can come from anywhere,” he said. “One of the area’s greatest challenges is a brain drain as excellent people move away after graduation, and it can only be reversed by inviting them back and minimizing lingering provincialism.”