Both Boston mayoral candidates favor a transparent search process for a new police commissioner. But neither state Representative Martin Walsh nor City Councilor John Connolly boasts a lot of executive hiring experience. David D’Alessandro, the former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, does, however. And he is convinced that an open search process for a big city police commissioner practically guarantees second-rate results.
D’Alessandro led the search committee in 2006 that resulted in the hiring of Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, who recently announced his intention to retire. No one would describe that hiring process as transparent. D’Alessandro said he agreed to accept the task only if he could limit the size of the search committee to four members as a way to reduce the possibility of leaks. D’Alessandro was so insistent on protecting the privacy of applicants that he blacked out the names and many of the identifying characteristics of applicants before vetting them with his own committee.
“You don’t get the best person through a wide, democratic process,’’ said D’Alessandro. “I know it sounds despotic. But we got the right candidates.’’
It gets better. D’Alessandro said none of the seven finalists identified by the search committee were interviewed in Boston for fear they might be recognized at the airport or downtown. Instead, Mayor Menino interviewed finalists in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., where no one would think twice about the presence of high-level police officials or a big-city mayor.
At the root of this subterfuge is the business tenet that in-demand executives won’t risk their current positions by disclosing their interest in another job. Such secrecy might be a common business practice. But it violates a politician’s instinct to build the broadest public support for any important decision. So where does that leave Walsh and Connolly? Each recognizes that an open search might drive away some talented applicants. But they are willing to risk it.
“People need a comfort level with the police,’’ said Walsh. “There has to be an opportunity for the public to have some input.’’
The idea of job hunting on the sly also rankles Walsh, who headed an umbrella organization for Boston’s building trades. “The fact that someone would interview and not let their boss know . . . That would lead me to be concerned,’’ he said.
Connolly takes a somewhat more nuanced approach.
“There is a lot to be said for any process that would bring you Davis,’’ said Connolly. “But I lean more toward an open process.’’ He added that the names of applicants should be held in secret during the weeding out period. Finalists, however, should expect more scrutiny.
“We want to see you before the public and [see] how you handle yourself,’’ said Connolly.
Maybe it’s urban sacrilege, but D’Alessandro makes the stronger point. An open search process for a new police commissioner is less important than finding the best candidate. Some Bostonians, especially those living in high crime areas, might have preferred to vet Davis and other finalists seven years ago. But how does that stack up if compared with the 30 percent drop in violent crime during Davis’s tenure, not to mention his strong leadership after the Marathon bombings?
Any credible candidate in the mix for a big city police commissioner’s job already has shown the ability to communicate effectively with the public. It’s more important to create a private atmosphere where a search committee can evaluate a candidate’s crime reduction strategy and record of dealing effectively with police unions. And what a shame it would be if superb candidates refused to apply for the Boston job for fear of undermining their working relationships with their current mayors and colleagues.
In recent years, some large school districts, including Boston, have insisted that finalists for school superintendent posts make their cases openly to parents and education advocates. But public education is a different environment. It’s common for a dozen or more cities to be looking to fill school superintendent vacancies at any given time. Mayors and school board members are more likely to assume and accept that their superintendents will be testing the waters. That’s not the case, however, in the world of urban law enforcement, where the safety of the public can be affected by a politically compromised commissioner.
Walsh and Connolly, nevertheless, choose to err on the side of transparency. And that prompts a final bit of advice from D’Alessandro.
“The public won’t be held accountable for the pick,’’ he said. “It’s the mayor.’’