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A city manager at long last

The Medford City Council has, at long last, chosen a city manager. That's good news because the selection process is finally over. But councilors should not expect praise for a job that is more accurately described as finally done, rather than well done.

There's unquestionably risk involved in the council's selection of Medford Parks Director Brian Sjothun, who has never held a city manager's job. He deserves the benefit of the doubt for the time being, with the hope that his administrative experience as a city department head for 12 years has prepared him for the task. And there's no question he knows Medford and City Hall.

Sjothun has a record of success as parks director, most notably in the creation of U.S. Cellular sports park, a major asset to the community that brings sports teams from far and wide here for tournaments, boosting the local food and lodging industries.

As with any government administrator, openness and transparency are of primary importance. That has not always been the case with the city and we hope that Sjothun will now set a standard of openness in recognizing that the city not only provides services to the public, but works for the public.

The process that culminated in the city offering him its top position, however, was anything but transparent. It could charitably be described as secretive and chaotic.

After the abrupt dismissal of City Manager Eric Swanson, the City Council launched a search 14 months ago, installing Deputy City Manager Bill Hoke as acting city manager. An executive search firm, hired for $24,500, reviewed applicants based on criteria supplied by the council.

For reasons that are still not clear, the council chose three finalists, two of whom were rated as qualified by the consultants. The third candidate was Klamath County District Attorney Rob Patridge, a former Medord City Council member and state legislator who is also chairman of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. A deeply divided council then chose Patridge, but Mayor Gary Wheeler vetoed that choice and the council was unable to override his decision.

The council held multiple closed-door sessions throughout this process, leaving the public in the dark about what was discussed. Weeks elapsed between the veto of Patridge and the announcement that Sjothun had been selected. The council's top candidate withdrew prior to that, which the public knew only because a councilor slipped and said so outside a closed executive session. There's still no word on what happened to the council's third choice.

Now Sjothun, who applied for the position but was not selected as a finalist, will take over as the city's chief executive, assuming the council votes to ratify his contract this week. For anyone not privy to the executive sessions, that choice came out of the blue.

It's interesting that the contract contains a clause allowing Sjothun to change his mind and return to his Parks Department job within nine months. Given recent history, it's a smart move for him to keep his options open.