The next step toward finding Oak Park’s new village manager was approved Monday when the village board chose Slavin Management Consultants, from Georgia, as the preferred choice to lead the charge.

Following a four-hour special meeting May 1, where four firms were interviewed about their background and qualifications, trustees agreed all the companies were strong contenders.

The initial vote, an unusual paper ballot process, at Monday’s meeting showed a slew of different opinions when the board was asked to rank the firms. The first vote left each of the firms in the number one slot at least once, with the top two being Slavin and Affion Public, a Pennsylvania-based firm.

Although one person selected Bob Murray & Associates, from Florida, as a top pick, the rest of the group agreed it was not a top pick — leaving the choices narrowed down to three. Trustee Ray Johnson said the differences between the final three firms were minor, and he would be comfortable hiring any one of them.

Vorhees Associates, from suburban Deerfield, was the only local firm in the bunch, but it was determined the group may not have a national enough reach for the job. Although a majority of the trustees said they understood how a local firm could be beneficial in terms of communication, the firm ultimately got third place in the ranking.

“I tend to think that people in Illinois are going to know that [the position] is available,” Village President David Pope said, suggesting that Slavin and Affion may have more proactive approaches to find people who aren’t necessarily looking. “To me, there are ties literally across the country.”

A number of reasons to pick Slavin were discussed among trustees, including comments about the firm’s personal approach to interviewing candidates.

Trustee Colette Lueck said unlike the other firms, Slavin’s suggestion of having a unique set of questions for each candidate, instead of a “canned approach,” was one she favored.

Overall, the qualities that put Slavin at the top were the more than 33 years of experience, the placement of more than 750 people, and its work across 44 states. The attention to site visits with candidates, it commitment to a performance management approach, and its diversity-placement record were other characteristics listed.

Trustees Johnson and Glen Brewer said what stuck out most was the 2010 placement of a new executive director at Metra, the problem plagued regional public transit system, which Brewer said was “landmine filled.”

“He helped the board in a careful and meaningful way,” Johnson said. “It was incredibly professional and empathetic.”

Vorhees Associates was the firm which recently assisted the Park District of Oak Park in its executive director search, which Pope said came with a positive recommendation. But Johnson suggested a new company could be beneficial when it came to the village manager position.

“We need a fresh approach. … A different way of doing business,” Johnson said. “We need fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.”

The board agreed Affion will be the preferred second choice should an agreement with Slavin not be worked out. Trustees agreed that Affion, represented May 1 by its chief executive officer Scott Reilly, had a rigorous interview process and seemed to understand Oak Park as a community.

“We don’t have any predetermined idea of what it takes to run Oak Park,” Reilly told the selection committee last week. “We have to listen to you; we have to work with you.”

Slavin, along with the other firms stressed during that meeting they’d be diligent in reaching out to key stakeholders, connecting with the community, be responsive to the village board and staff, and help guide everyone through the process in an open and fair manner.

Among the methods described by multiple firms for gathering community input in the process were community forums, stakeholder interviews, panel discussions and meeting one-on-one with trustees.

Slavin, represented last week by the company’s president, Robert Slavin, said his technique is “not an off-the-shelf approach,” he said, rather it’s one that’s tailored to fit the needs of each community. He said they’d want to talk with commissions, leaders and residents to understand what Oak Park needs.

“We understand who our boss is,” he said. “You folks are.”

One unique tactic Slavin discussed, which caught the attention of trustees, was going to the workplace of top candidates to observe the daily life of the person in a manner in which only the candidate knew he was being observed. He said it helps them gauge how they work with people and how people respond to them in their own atmosphere.

“What’s going on in our mind is your profile,” Slavin said. “We want to assist with the entire process from the beginning to the end.”

They also offer a follow up once the candidate is placed to ensure they fit the profile correctly and ensure the leaders are content.

“We’ll continue to work with you until you’re happy,” he said. “This is a marriage. We are seeking them for a job and the same time making sure it’s a job they want.”

The contract between Oak Park and Slavin Management Consultants is expected to be worked out this week and approved by the board at its next meeting. The final costs for the search presented to the board will be announced once a contract is finalized.

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