At the urging of Mayor Marylee Abrams, the Maplewood City Council recently chose to fast-track the hiring of former city employee Michael Sable as the next city manager, without opening the application process up to the general public or internal candidates.
It’s a decision that has irked two of the five council members, who issued an open letter of objection on Monday. Sable, who worked for Maplewood as assistant city manager for more than two years, is currently an assistant city manager in Bloomington and had expressed interest in the job, said the mayor.
City Manager Melinda Coleman, who is retiring, presented three leading options for choosing her own replacement to the Maplewood City Council on Nov. 27, including paying $25,000 to a consultant to lead a recruitment process, having the city advertise the position on its own or simply choosing the employee outright, without a more deliberative process.
“There’s no statutory requirement for the city council to have a process,” Coleman said. “Generally speaking, if we have internal candidates, we promote from within if we can. … Other times we would go to a consultant. … It runs the whole gamut.”
The council, without holding a formal vote, then directed Coleman to begin the screening process and background check, effectively treating Sable as an internal candidate. Sable worked for Maplewood from September 2019 through October 2021, when he became assistant city manager in Bloomington.
Abrams said Coleman “has done an absolutely amazing job” and expressed interest in finding a replacement she could work just as closely with. During Sable’s time in Maplewood city government, “I observed the same kind of passion for the city and for our staff,” she said.
Abrams emphasized that the position of city manager is the only staff position over which the council has direct oversight, and needs to know the city intimately and relate to each member of the five-member council. The mayor sits on the council.
Council Members Chonburi Lee and Nikki Villavicencio said the city was shortchanging residents who expect a thorough examination of job applicants, plural. They noted that one of the top priorities in Maplewood’s 2023 strategic plan is community inclusiveness, yet the public has had no chance to weigh in on the hiring process around the city’s top staffer.
“I think this process is narrowing out a lot of candidates who may want to apply,” said Lee at the time. “There’s a proper way to look for a position as big as city manager. … We talk a lot about equity, diversity and inclusion. … We want to find the best candidate, and if Mike Sable ends up being the best candidate out of the pool, then I would be interested in hiring Mike. But this is the due process we owe our constituents.”
Lee and Villavicencio issued a written public statement on Monday reiterating those concerns and urging residents to contact the mayor and council members with their objections.
Among them, they said the process lacked community input and transparency around “one of the highest publicly funded roles with the greatest responsibility and operational autonomy over the city. This process keeps in place the idea of business as usual — gatekeeping.”
Their letter goes on to say that “by eliminating a broader search for a new city manager, the city is stripped of the opportunity to be introduced to the new perspectives, approaches, or innovation that neighboring cities exercise and other candidates bring. If nothing changes, nothing changes.”
Council Member Rebecca Cave, who was absent on Nov. 27, submitted a letter to the council supporting moving forward with a background check for Sable, whom she praised as the right choice for the job.
Objecting to spending $25,000 on a consultant, Council Member Kathleen Juenemann called opening the hiring process to a wide range of recruits “chaotic at best. … I just don’t see the point of going through the motions with that when we know this man’s work ethic.”
The next city council meeting is Dec. 11.
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