Stolz may be the clear choice for county manager, but keep the process open

A vote to appoint Interim County Manager Tom Stolz as county manager could come as early as next week.
A vote to appoint Interim County Manager Tom Stolz as county manager could come as early as next week. The Wichita Eagle

Sedgwick County Commissioners likely have found the best person to lead the county through its current upheaval.

Interim County Manager Tom Stolz, with his 37 years of public service, appears to have earned the respect and gratitude of county employees as well as commissioners, who voted unanimously Wednesday to start negotiations with Stolz for the county manager position.

If selected, Stolz would replace former County Manager Michael Scholes, who left in December after a tenure marred by FBI investigations and charges of unethical and illegal acts.

County employees and constituents need a leader who can clean up the mess and renew trust in government — a daunting task that Stolz appears ready to face. It’s great that officials identified such a quality candidate from within their ranks.

Unfortunately, commissioners opted to forgo a traditional search and move ahead without considering other candidates or involving the public. Their confidence in Stolz may be understandable — Commission Chairman David Dennis mentioned “a flurry of emails” from county employees who think Stolz is the top choice — but their haste could undermine people’s trust at a time when it’s especially needed.

Widening the search could take a little time, though it need not take months. Stolz was a top candidate for the same post four years ago, he has led the county as interim manager, and it’s unclear whether other qualified candidates would surface now. It’s also possible that many would view a broader search as mere formality, with Stolz being the obvious favorite.

Nevertheless, Sedgwick County manager is a pinnacle post, the top non-elected official for one of the largest governments in Kansas, and people deserve to know that their leaders considered all options.

At the very least, a public forum where Stolz could talk about his priorities and residents could voice concerns — a process sorely lacking from the county’s last search for a new manager — would be a nod toward openness and transparency.

Opening the search establishes consistency and acknowledges that government serves the public. Stolz said he would not have objected to a search — if he’s the best candidate today, he likely would be the top choice after a public vetting — and the only thing lost is a little time. (There could be some cost to list the job or entertain additional candidates, but likely nowhere near the $205,427 the county just paid Scholes to leave.)

Two years ago, Wichita school board members opted to forgo a nationwide search when they appointed Alicia Thompson, another highly qualified internal candidate, as superintendent. That process raised concerns when the board declared a week-long private session so they could interview internal candidates in secret, a move the Kansas attorney general later determined to be a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Thompson may have been the best candidate for that job, and she has proven to be a well-respected superintendent. Similarly, most signs point to Stolz as being the best person to lead Sedgwick County. He certainly has earned the admiration of commissioners as well as county employees.

The choice may be clear. It’s crucial that it also be transparent.