The challenging process of appointing one new Lehigh County commissioner from among 16 applicants was outlined during the commissioners’ meeting Wednesday night.
“We have a very strong field of candidates,” said Commissioner Percy Dougherty. “I would consider it an honor to serve with many of them on this board.”
Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners, said she is very happy that so many people are interested in county and local politics and want to be involved.
Within the next week, the candidates will answer written questions from the commissioners, then face more questions put to them during face-to-face public interviews later this month.
Commissioner Brad Osborne’s advice to the candidates: “With 16 people, you’re going to have to find a way to stand out and persuade five members of this board that you are the one to take the vacancy. It’s not going to be easy.”
While each candidate may speak for less than 10 minutes when interviewed on June 24, the commissioners anticipate the interview sessions will last up to three-and-a-half hours that night.
The commissioners must fill the vacancy by July 14.
The Republican ultimately appointed will serve though December 2015, completing the four-year term of Commissioner Scott Ott, who resigned last month.
The county initially released the names of 15 people who applied for the position.
But Robert Hamill of Lower Macungie Township, a former member of the East Penn School Board, also applied -- only nine minutes before the 4 p.m. Monday deadline.
Hamill applied via email to Scheller, which she did not see until the following morning.
Several of the candidates were at Wednesday’s meeting.
Osborne, who explained the appointment process, wants to make sure “we give every applicant an equal and fair opportunity.”
At 6 p.m. June 24, Osborne’s Intergovernmental and Appointments Committee will interview a panel of eight candidates.
All but one of the eight county commissioners are expected to participate in those interviews.
Each candidate will have one minute to answer questions from the commissioners, followed by one more minute for each to make any additional comments.
That process will be repeated with the second eight candidates, beginning at 7:45 p.m. the same night.
“I don’t want to underestimate the value of the interview,” said Osborne. “If there was no value to it, why would we take the time to do it?
“It’s an opportunity for candidates to impress, to stand out. But if they don’t do well, it could be a disqualifying thing.
He added: “I look for someone to stand out. The way you do that in a panel of eight is not going to be easy. But if you can’t find a way to stand out from the others, then you didn’t stand out.”
While the interview sessions are open to the public, candidates on one panel will be asked not to be in the meeting room during interviews with candidates on the other panel, out of respect for the process.
Who will be on which panel has not yet been determined.
Because of the large number of candidates, no additional interview nights are being scheduled for those who can’t attend on June 24.
Osborne already knows one can’t make it and expects there may be more.
The candidates also will be sent a number of questions before June 24 and asked to respond to them. All will get the same questions –- possibly one from each commissioner.
Osborne hopes his fellow commissioners get their questions to him quickly, so he can get them to the candidates and receive their responses well before June 24.
He said those answers also will help narrow the field of candidates.
He indicated that once those questions are sent, the candidates may have less than a week to answer them, so commissioners have them well before the face-to-face interviews.
Osborne also encouraged all the candidates to reach out to individual commissioners and try to set up informal discussions with them before June 24. "I would encourage every candidate who is interested to do that," he said. "That's really your opportunity to stand out as an individual."
June 24 interviews
During the June 24 interviews, each commissioner who attends will have ask each candidate one question, said Osborne. The candidates will have one minute to answer each question.
He said the interviews will give commissioners an opportunity to ask questions that are different from those that will be sent out and answered in writing before June 24.
Candidates will be able to use their final minute to elaborate on a question they did not have time to fully answer earlier. Or they can offer anything else they would like to share to sell themselves and persuade commissioners they are the best candidate, explained Osborne.
Scheller asked about candidates who cannot attend the June 24 interview sessions because they already have long-term plans.
With 16 candidates, there is no one evening or maybe even no two evenings that will satisfy everyone’s personal schedules, said Osborne. “It’s one of the drawbacks to having such a large field.”
He encouraged candidates in that situation to reach out to individual commissioners and ask for a personal audience, “so their candidacy can be given as much weight as they can persuade this board on an individual basis to give them, even though they are not able to be here.”
He added: “One of the reasons for the standard set of questions prior to the session is so that they still participate in the process.”
Committee will recommend finalists
After the interviews, Osborne’s three-member appointments committee will recommend a finalist or finalists to be nominated, voted on and appointed by the full board of commissioners.
That recommendation must be made by June 29. Osborne intends for his committee to make it when the board has its regular meeting on June 25, the night after the interviews.
But he explained the board won’t necessarily appoint someone on June 25. He said one commissioner can’t attend the June 25 meeting, so the board might decide to delay taking action until its July 9 meeting – still beating the July 14 deadline to fill the seat.
The successful candidate needs five votes.
Noting the quality of the candidates, Dougherty said Osborne’s committee faces a very tough job narrowing down the list.
Dougherty said the full board can reject whatever recommendation Osborne’s committee might make. And, he added, “We don’t even have to select someone from the pool of candidates.”
Osborne agreed that the board can reject his committee’s recommendation.
“The full board has to first act on the committee’s recommendation,” explained David Barilla, the commissioners’ clerk. “If the committee would make no recommendation, it would go right to the board’s nomination process.”
“What the committee is doing is winnowing the field for us,” said Dougherty. “If they come forward with one candidate, it better be someone who stands head and shoulders above everybody.”
“I was thinking we’d have four or five applicants and there would be no reason to narrow them down,” said Commissioner Vic Mazziotti.
Commissioner David Jones hopes Osborne’s committee will recommend multiple candidates to the full board, rather than just one.
Although Mazziotti serves on Osborne’s committee, he said he can’t imagine voting to disqualify anybody after just a 10-minute interview.
Mazziotti said candidates will be disqualified during the nomination process by the full board of commissioners.
“Then why have a committee?” asked Dougherty.
“I see our role to be a forum,” said Mazziotti. “I assume most if not all the members of this board will be attending that [June 24] meeting.”
Asking the questions
Commissioner Michael Schware asked if a commissioner must ask all candidates the same question during the interviews or if different questions can be put to different candidates.
Osborne said the same question would be answered by every candidate, which “disallows” specific questions to specific candidates. “That may be the fairest way.”
“I don’t see anywhere in the process where we really have the opportunity to get to know that person specifically versus just hearing them giving us what everyone else is giving,” said Schware.
Jones joined Schware in favoring different questions being put to different candidates: “It shouldn’t be the same uniform question, because not everybody is bringing the same skill set.”
Jones objected that “my evaluative criteria for how I come to make a decision is being set for me. In no other venue or platform in what we do as commissioners are we constrained or limited in the type or scope of questions that we ask.”
Jones complained he was being “handcuffed” on a very important issue.
Asking different questions of each candidate would take longer, said Scheller.
Osborne said the idea of doing personal one-on-one interviews with each candidate, with no one else in the room, was ruled out as impractical.
Osborne suggested if commissioners have specific questions they want answered by specific candidates, they should get in touch with them before June 24.
But, based on the feedback he received, Osborne also promised to have some informal discussions with his fellow commissioners to further explore “how those questions will be allowed to be asked.”
Dougherty said if each candidate is asked the same question, “you’re not going to get good answers. The first person is put on the spot.
The last person has heard all the answers so far and can do better.”
Several other commissioners said that can be handled by having a different person answer first for each new question.
Added Osborne: “If your answer is the same as everyone else’s for the same question, you didn’t stand out.”