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Metro loses general manager candidates for lack of confidentiality

dcogcadmin | March 1, 2015

The D.C. Metro transit system is in the news, of course, as it recovers from a recent accident and rebuilds an aging rail system.  With the retirement of GM Richard Sarles, should the public know who is being considered to lead the transit system? 

Both the Metro board and the candidates apparently badly wanted the names kept confidential. The board met the finalists for a day of interviews February 13 in an undisclosed location. 

Paul Duggan reported in Saturday’s Washington Post print edition that all three of those in the running have now withdrawn. Their decisions, reported to the board Thursday (26), came after the board chair told them their names remained confidential, but a reporter had learned where the finalists work and the locations.    

Loyalty can always be an issue–see, for example, the reports about now-departed Montgomery County, Md., schools superintendent Joshua Starr, that his brief flicker of interest in the chancellorship in New York City schools was among the reasons he lost his board’s confidence.  Job boards are filled with advice to candidates about how to keep job-hunting quiet to avoid just such questions.  

The job is a public position. Members of the public might like to know, or even be heard, on who should fill these important shoes.

Would records of the names have been released if someone asked for them under the WMATA policy on access to records?  “Personnel files” are exempt, under the policy, if disclosure would be a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”  Is being an applicant for a big public job just a private matter?   And in any court challenge, would a court say that applicant names qualify as personnel records?

We won’t know now, as this candidate trio (the result of a $90,000 executive search contract) has pulled out and their files may well no longer exist.  

Here’s an older case in another state that Metro lawyers may be reading.  The Supreme Court of North Carolina held in 1992 that county manager applicant names could be confidential, as a county ordinance requiring open records of government workers’ names applied only to employees. 

It will be interesting to see how Metro handles any renewed public interest in knowing the names of the next round of candidates.