Executive recruiter Bobbi C. Peckham, hired to find a new town manager, had listened to four residents sing the praises of outgoing (and absent) Town Manager Susan George. Ms. Peckham then asked the residents to name a few problems that Ms. George, who led Town Hall for the past 18 years, might not have addressed.
After 15 or 20 seconds, uninterrupted by so much as a syllable, resident Sandy Fontana broke the silence. "Nobody's perfect," she said.
The ideal, said Tony Fontana, would be to find a clone of Ms. George and hire her.
The meeting's agenda was simple: a community discussion, led by Ms. Peckham, on desirable traits and values in a new town manager. Ms. Peckham is expected to present a draft candidate profile to the council on April 12. Ms. George has said she would retire in January 2012.
Not unlike a cheerleader, Ms. Peckham raised questions in an effort to get a "conversation" going among the gathered residents on current and future issues and challenges, as well as elicit comments, whether of praise or otherwise.
That conversation never really got going, but there was plenty of praise for Ms. George, particularly for her fiscal acumen. The town, which has a mandate for a general fund reserve of 15 percent, had a projected reserve of 34 percent in June 2010. That is expected rise to 40 percent by this June, Ms. George said.
Residents commented that Ms. George's successor should have similar people and leadership skills and, most important, experience in small-town government. Ms. Peckham should start by looking in Woodside itself, they said.
"If we find someone that lives in the town now, that's the way we ought to go," Mr. Fontana said.
Resident Ronald Frede agreed. "There's no way that we can explain what we're like by going to other communities in California," he told Ms. Peckham. "I certainly believe that everything we stand for in Woodside is conservative (fiscally) and tradition, tradition, tradition."
"Woodside is constantly facing pressure from outside," said Betsy Hobson, a member of the town's Planning Commission. "You hear things like, 'We don't want to look like Atherton.' That's true. Woodside is really concerned about staying rural, but what does rural mean? I wrestle with that question a lot."
The manager faces daily interactions with "all kinds of people," from town staff to big-shot Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Ms. Hobson said. "It's quite a difficult juggling act to be able to manage all those people. The town manager has to be a leader of his or her staff so that all those people pull the wagon in the same direction."
Isn't a town's character, rural or otherwise, a matter for elected officials? Asked in an interview to comment, Janet McDougall, assistant town manager in Portola Valley, said staff's understanding of public policy is important in ensuring that legalities and issues surrounding fairness and liability don't get lost in the discussion, and that the discussion takes place in public.
"It's our responsibility to make sure that, if it appears that issues that need to be raised to protect the integrity of the town and the financial stability of the town, that they not get overlooked," Ms. McDougall said. "It's important that we have a role, but it shouldn't necessarily be at the forefront."
Ms. Peckham, who works out of Sacramento, said her candidate search would start with the Peninsula, followed by the East Bay, Marin County and Santa Clara County. "There is a certain culture in the Bay Area that I'm not going to find in Southern California," she said. "I think what's really critical is to start right here in this county."
Ms. Peckham said she expects to receive 50 to 80 resumes. Of those, she said, she expects to choose 20 to 25 for follow-up questionnaires. Face-to-face interviews with 12 to 15 will follow, then a recommendation of about eight finalists to the council, she said.