The Las Cruces City Council never publicly named J.J. Murphy a finalist for its open city manager job, but the private company running the city’s search appears to have told Murphy he was a finalist earlier this year.
That search firm, The Mercer Group, officially notified Murphy that he had been “selected as a finalist for the Las Cruces City Manager position,” according to an April 11 email made public by Murphy. In the email, Catherine Burton, a senior associate with the company, wrote that she was notifying Murphy “on behalf of The Mercer Group and the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico.”
Murphy included the email in another recent application for the open city manager job in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where he is currently a finalist. Port St. Lucie posted Murphy’s application online, which is how the email became public.
The April 11 email adds to the confusion that has surrounded the city manager search and questions about transparency. In recent weeks there have been conflicting statements from the city about the number of finalists for the job and whether the City Council had made a final decision about who to hire. A battle over whether some job applications are public records has also colored the search.
What’s certain is that councilors don’t currently consider Murphy a finalist for the job. Councilors recently named two finalists for the job — Stuart Ed, who most recently was president and chief executive officer of Goodwill Industries of El Paso, and Dan Biles, deputy county manager of infrastructure for Jefferson County, Ala.
Back in April, before Ed and Biles applied, Las Cruces was considering other candidates, including Murphy. The Mercer Group’s email to Murphy came 13 days after the company gave officials in Las Cruces 11 candidates’ applications for consideration, including Murphy’s. On April 29, city councilors interviewed three of the candidates — not including Murphy. Instead of naming finalists or making a hire, they then opted to continue their search.
Burton’s email references the April 29 interviews, asking Murphy if he was available on that day.
NMPolitics.net first raised the issue of whether Murphy was a finalist in July. When applying for another city manager job — that one in Dunedin, Fla. — Murphy claimed he was a finalist for the Las Cruces job. At the time Murphy refused to comment to NMPolitics.net and didn’t mention the April 11 email.
But Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said at the time that the city had not named finalists. The mayor said he had “never met with, spoken to or interviewed Mr. Murphy ever.”
Miyagishima reaffirmed those comments on Wednesday. “That’s correct — I never spoke to him, nor interviewed him,” Miyagishima said.
So did Mayor Pro Tem Gregory Z. Smith. “As far as the candidates in April/May, I don’t believe we referred to any of them as finalists, and we did not interview Mr. Murphy,” he said. “I am not privy to what Mr. Mercer might have said to him.”
Smith was referring to James L. Mercer, The Mercer Group official who ran the Las Cruces search. Mercer and another official with the company haven’t respond to emails sent Wednesday seeking comment.
Asked about the April 11 email he received from The Mercer Group, Murphy said Wednesday he was “being 100 percent honest” when he claimed to be a finalist for the Las Cruces job.
“I will not comment on what others interpreted or how my character may have been questioned,” he said. “Beyond that, I will have no further comment at this time.”
Miyagishima’s statements have caused at least some of the confusion surrounding the search. Last month, he said there were four finalists for the job. In addition to Ed and Biles, he was quoted by the Las Cruces Sun-News as saying the city’s two assistant managers were finalists.
One of those assistant managers, Daniel Avila, quickly said he wasn’t interested in the job. The Council declined to name the other, David Dollahon, as a finalist. Miyagishima later clarified that he wanted the Council to name four finalists, but councilors named only two.
Then two weeks ago, the city stated in a news release that the Council had selected Ed to be its next manager. But the Council never voted publicly to make that decision, and the N.M. Foundation for Open Government said such an action in private would violate the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Three councilors later said the news release was inaccurate and they were still considering both finalists. How the news release that communicated a different message came about still isn’t clear.
The city’s manager search has also included a battle over whether certain records are public. Though the city has released 13 applications for the job, it has withheld dozens of others from the public.
The state’s Inspection of Public Records Act makes applications for high-profile government jobs like city manager public. But the city contends that applications The Mercer Group hasn’t turned over to the city aren’t public records. NMPolitics.net has sued, seeking release of all applications. The case is pending.