City of FL hiring process dishonest, predetermined

Matthew Engstrom
Guest Columnist

I was one of the 50 applicants and eight interviewees for the engineering technician position at the city of Forest Lake. I am a licensed professional civil engineer with eight years of experience, including experience in New Zealand. I am writing to let the people of Forest Lake know how city governments and bureaucracies work and operate in regards to hiring staff.

From my experience interviewing for the engineering technician position, the city of Forest Lake had their minds made up in hiring Mark Peterson from the get-go. Mr. Peterson is definitely qualified for the position, and had the advantage of being “in” with the city already, performing much of its engineering technician work via the city’s consultant, Stantec. I’m sure he’ll do a great job at the city for his remaining years until retirement.

My issue is not with the decision to hire Mr. Peterson, but its process in doing so.

It has been my experience in interviewing with various cities and government agencies that from the start, they have already made their decision on the preferred candidate prior to posting the position, but are forced to go through the process to make it look “legit.” Not only is this a waste of time for the applicants, but it is also a waste of city resources. I guess I could have called the city administrator and asked whether it was even worth my time to apply for the position, but I suspect that to lend the process the appearance of fairness he would’ve answered, “Please do apply.”

In the end, the process wasted the time of 49 applicants and seven interviewees. It is quite frustrating to realize the deck was stacked in one applicant’s favor, and I’m sure the 49 other people who went through the process feel the same.

I am writing this as someone who is overqualified for the position. As a licensed professional engineer, I and other PE applicants (there were others, apparently) for the position would’ve had the flexibility of transitioning from the technician role to the role of city engineer, where a technician does not have that ability. I personally expected far less salary (the middle of the salary range), even as a PE, than the salary awarded to Mr. Peterson (the high end of the salary range).

Wasn’t the whole point in hiring an engineering technician to save money? With me, the city would’ve saved money, and had the flexibility of my transitioning into the role of city engineer as I earned the trust and respect of the council. I tried to make this clear to the interviewing panel in the limited time I had.

Just so the citizens of Forest Lake understand, the interview consisted of 10 generic questions that consumed the first 20 minutes of my interview, with the remaining 1- minutes devoted, in my case, to attempting to show and illustrate how hiring a licensed professional engineer was in the city’s best long-term interest. I have never sat for an interview that was so generic and with no interest shown in my specific experience (most notably my time in New Zealand). It was quite pathetic.

The city obviously chose to focus on one particular skill – stormwater management – as one of the 10 questions focused solely on this one skill, with all its jargon and acronyms, and it was likely given much weight to steer the decision in favor of Mr. Peterson. The fact that the current city engineer from Stantec sat on the interviewing panel could constitute a conflict of interest, but I don’t know how much his opinion did or did not influence the decision that the city hire his fellow consultant.

When I questioned the city administrator whether they had intended to hire Mr. Peterson all along, given that he was the current engineering technician consultant, he answered, “We didn’t know he was going to apply for the position.” Don’t insult my intelligence. The circumstantial evidence is too great not to come to this conclusion.

If Forest Lake is truly interested in something so important as transitioning to providing in-house engineering services, I find it quite baffling that a generic 20-minute interview would provide sufficient basis for beginning this important process. This is a permanent, full-time engineering position, and while their decision may be justified in the short-term, any one of the licensed professional engineers who applied would’ve yielded far greater long-term benefits.

Mr. Peterson obviously has the necessary experience in stormwater management, and may have experience in other areas of the muti-faceted field of civil engineering, but a professional engineer is licensed in all these other areas, including stormwater management, and is as qualified as the current city engineer to represent the city in every engineering scenario.

I personally have expertise in traffic engineering, which would have been very useful to the city in its interaction with Washington County and MnDOT. The other professional engineers who applied likely had their own unique areas of expertise as well. The “bang for the buck” of hiring a licensed civil engineer is just too obvious. What is the benefit of hiring the current engineering consultant? It is safe.

The people of Forest Lake should know how their city hired Mr. Peterson. I am confident he will meet the short-term needs of the city and will be able to do the job he has been doing all along.

But the process was dishonest and predetermined, and Forest Lake is not alone in acting in this manner. Many times, cities, counties, and the state only post open positions internally. Ultimately, this results in good, talented people being passed over for “safer” and “less risky” candidates.

I cannot help but wonder if this is why government is what it is, and why it rarely is what it could be.

— The writer lives in Wyoming.