The City Council appointed a familiar face Tuesday night as city manager: Doug Smith, who has held the interim post for almost seven months.
The unanimous vote came hours after the Council held closed interviews with finalists – including Smith – at The Main. Council members declined to say who else was interviewed.
The meeting’s location had been kept secret from the public, something that’s allowed under state law when interviewing city manager candidates.
Smith has won praise from the council for his open and responsive style and for changes he’s made in how meetings are run. Councilman Martin Thomas Jr. said he has heard only good things about Smith from residents and people in city government.
“Doug’s experience in local government just makes him head and shoulders above anyone else we considered,” Thomas said after the vote.
Smith, 54, has worked in banking and consulting and had stints as a deputy city manager in Portsmouth and Virginia Beach, plus four years as a council member in Portsmouth.
A Portsmouth native who has lived in Norfolk for five years, he took the interim post when Norfolk’s previous manager, Marcus Jones, left last year to run the city of Charlotte.
Smith, who left Virginia Beach government a year ago to start his own consulting business, had signed a deal weeks earlier to advise Norfolk officials on development issues. He said he had no idea Jones would leave and had no intention of getting back into government full-time.
But after a few months filling in, Smith said, he decided the job was a good fit. He recalled someone telling him after a speech that it sounded like he’d been preparing for the job his whole life. He realized that, in some ways, he had been.
“It’s a great time to be here,” Smith said after the council vote. “It’s a city with a lot of momentum.”
In Norfolk’s council-manager system, the city manager is effectively the CEO, hiring and firing department heads and supervising 5,000 employees.
The manager is hired by the eight-member council, which acts like a board of directors. Some council members have said picking a manager is their most important job.
Tuesday’s interviews took place in The Main’s third-floor “Ghent” meeting room, a location that had not been publicly announced.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Thomas said with a smile when he walked into the room and saw a reporter.
Mayor Kenny Alexander invited a Pilot reporter and photographer into the room when he saw them in the hotel lobby watching people arrive for the meeting. After all eight members arrived, the council went into closed session, which meant the media had to leave the room.
Robert Burg, the consultant hired by the city for almost $40,000 to find candidates, said 20 people applied for the job. That pool was narrowed to five, three of whom were invited for interviews.
The council dined on a catered lunch that included applewood pork loin, roasted chicken and grilled squash, with tiramisu for dessert.
State law allows local lawmakers to meet in a secret location only to interview candidates for city or county manager. It’s the lone exception to the statute that says the public has to have notice of when and where a meeting – even a closed one – is held.
Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t entirely secret – the law says the council can publicly announce it will meet at an “undisclosed location” without specifying a date or time. The mayor did that during a recent public meeting, specifying the date and time – but not the place.
The council conducted much of the discussion about picking a new manager out of public view. Applications were taken by Burg’s firm, California-based Ralph Andersen & Associates, and the city declined to release the list of finalists.
Some council members and Burg have said keeping the process confidential attracts better candidates. They say many qualified people would not apply if they knew their names would become public because they don’t want their current employers to know they’re looking for new jobs.