Robin Benning hadn't made the list of five finalists who were going to be interviewed to fill a vacant Town Council seat in Queen Creek. That might explain why he was so surprised when he was asked to interview for the job Monday night, then selected for the seat on a unanimous council vote.
Robin Benning hadn't made the list of five finalists who were going to be interviewed to fill a vacant Town Council seat in Queen Creek.
That might explain why he was so surprised when he was asked to interview for the job Monday night, then selected for the seat on a unanimous council vote.
"I'm very excited," Benning said. "I think that the process worked the way it was supposed to, and I'm frankly really pleased and excited to be able to serve the community in this way."
Benning will fill out the rest of Gail Barney's term after Barney resigned in October to run for mayor.
Benning's confirmation vote came just after 10 p.m. Monday, after a more than six-hour closed-door session that involved interviewing and deliberating over seven candidates.
An executive committee made up of council members Gordon Mortensen, Craig Barnes and Joyce Hildebrandt had picked five candidates to interview out of 11 residents who submitted their names. But two other council members and several community members voiced outrage that Benning, who is chairman of the town's Transportation Advisory Committee and a graduate of the town's Citizen Leadership Institute, and former councilwoman Lisa Coletto-Cohen were left off the short list. Those in favor of them argued that the two were more qualified for the job than some of the people who were picked for interviews.
Members of the executive committee declined to say what criteria they used to make the five selections, citing laws that govern executive sessions, which are closed to the public. But Benning and Coletto-Cohen were ultimately asked to interview.
Benning said he attended the meeting to see the finalists and because he hoped that there was still a chance he could be interviewed.
But that didn't prepare him for ultimately hearing his name read as a new council member.
"I heard my name called and sort of thought, 'No, that's not me.' And then everybody turned and looked at me and I realized it was for real," he said. "I flew home. My feet didn't touch the ground."
He's now focusing on his job as a council member - he was sworn in Tuesday morning.
Benning said he's especially interested in bringing jobs with high-paying wages to the area to lessen the town's dependence on development to stimulate growth.
Mayor Art Sanders said before Monday night's vote that it wasn't unprecedented for the full council to interview candidates who weren't originally on the short list to be interviewed. The same process was in place when the council selected a new town manager, he said.
Sanders said Benning was well-suited to serve based on his length of residency, membership on a town committee, understanding of current Queen Creek issues and municipal governance, general knowledge of finance issues and experience working in diverse groups, among other qualifications.
He said Tuesday that the council wrote down that criteria before making its selection, and it was the goal of members to find the person who best matched it.
Coletto-Cohen said she was pleased with the direction the council went and believed Benning will serve Queen Creek residents as best he can. However, she also didn't think she or Benning would have gotten an interview if people in the community hadn't spoken up in their support.
"It was a little indefensible to leave the top two qualified applicants off the selection list," Coletto-Cohen said. "And it leads one to think there's a personal agenda behind it."
Specifically, she cited the conflict she had with Hildebrandt and former councilwoman Toni Valenzuela while serving with them on the council. In 2007, Valenzuela was accused of threatening Coletto-Cohen shortly before a vote on whether to forward a conflict-of-interest issue regarding Valenzuela to the state Attorney General's Office, an incident Valenzuela characterized as a misunderstanding. Hildebrandt was the only council member to vote against sending the incident to the Attorney General's Office.
"I've been one to not be shy about not going along with the pack along the way," Coletto-Cohen said. "That tends to ruffle feathers. I speak out when I see issues that are wrong."
Barnes, who did not serve on the council with her, likely didn't know what to make of her, Coletto-Cohen said
Hildebrandt could not be reached for comment. Barnes, however, said the conflict had nothing to do with the selection.
"I think that while (Coletto-Cohen) was on council, she did a wonderful job," Barnes said. "I think if she had been picked again, she would have done just as good a job."
Barnes said he still couldn't describe much of what happened in the first meeting due to it being a closed-door session, although he did say there wasn't a specific list of criteria written out for the first meeting like there was for the second meeting.
"We went through and talked about who we thought would step up and do the job originally," Barnes said. "Everybody can't be on the list."
He also noted that while the original committee was only looking at the candidates on paper, the full council was able to see how they performed in an interview.
Mortensen, though, said the criteria used to pick the original list was similar to the one Sanders ended up reading Monday night.
"And each of us, as council members, have our own intangibles we bring to the table," he said.
Councilman Jon Wootten, who wasn't on the executive committee but had been critical of Benning's and Coletto-Cohen's absence from the finalist list, said he was pleased with the outcome, but he still had no idea why those two were initially left out.
"In terms of doing things better the next time, there are certainly steps and discussions the full council has to have before a subgroup goes off to perform a task," Wootten said. "We need to focus on not why something specific happened, but how do we do things better next time."