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The Day Jon Ruiz Came to Eugene

October 24th, 2019 by dk

Eugene’s City Manager Jon Ruiz is retiring today. I remember the day he first came to town. The Eugene City Council chose 36 residents as a “citizen panel” to interview the three finalists for the job on Feb. 1, 2008. I was among them. A few days before the interviews, we were each asked to formulate a question that could be asked for each interview.

Group interviews are always strictly scripted, to make everything fair for all candidates. The questions are usually very predictable, and they have a cadence that doesn’t resemble the tone and tempo of real life.

I set out to disrupt that cadence. Here’s the question I offered: “You have three dozen citizens in the room with you this afternoon who know this town better than you. Choose one, at random. What’s the one question you’d most like to ask? After you ask that question, but before they answer it, tell us what you expect their answer might be.”

City staff initially rejected my question because it was “too weird,” but they listened to my reasoning. I wanted a question that had a different give-and-take rhythm. I wanted to measure not the candidate’s intelligence, but their demeanor — maybe even their character. Staff relented and my question was included.

I remember Ruiz chose the person closest to him. Ken Tollenaar was seated in the front row. He asked why there were so many potholes in the road coming into town. He didn’t know what Ken’s answer might be, which was why he asked the question. Ruiz described himself as a “public works guy,” but we saw a curious mind in action.

He nailed it — especially the last part. Anyone hoping to lead an organization with 1400 employees had better not assume they will always be the smartest person in the room. “I don’t know” was the correct answer, and Ruiz was the only candidate with enough humility and self-confidence to give it.

One candidate asked a question that was so simple that everyone would have known the answer, but it was asked to produce a feel-good moment for the answerer. The other asked a question that was designed to display some academic detail he had gleaned about Eugene — homework he had done in preparing for his interview.

One question was too easy. Another was too hard. Ruiz’s question was just right.

I wrote to a friend later that day this quick evaluation: “I think everyone in the room would agree we met one has-been, one rising star and one roll-of-the-dice. We’d all agree who was past his prime, but the room was split on who of the remaining two is a gamble and who is a rising star.”

City council chose Ruiz — a gamble to some. We watched his star rise together.

It’s good we had a diverse committee evaluating candidates, and it’s good that staff was willing to vary the style and content of questions asked. Also, it’s good there were potholes in the road from the airport. They served us well, as did Ruiz.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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