The last time Rhode Island went national in its search for a chief economic-development executive, it offered an Arizona business consultant $250,000 per year, plus a car, to lead the state out of the financial crisis.
The salary drew protests and state leaders never found out whether the planned investment was worthwhile: the nominee, Ioanna Morfessis, backed out of the job before being confirmed by the Senate.
Now what might be the most star-crossed job in state government is available again. The man acting in the role for the past 10 months, veteran R.I. Economic Development Corporation staffer William J. Parsons, turned down a permanent appointment recently because of a “serious health issue.”
Assuming Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee finds someone to take the job before the end of the year, the person he hires will become the sixth to serve or be nominated for EDC executive directorship in five years.
The rapid turnover and Rhode Island’s checkered economic record have renewed calls for a more aggressive approach, even if paying corporate executive wages for a public position remains unpopular.
“It is critical that the EDC have experienced, visionary leadership and that requires a broad search,” said Gary Sasse, director of Bryant University’s Institute for Public Leadership and a former director of administration under Gov. Donald L. Carcieri. “The best practice is to find a leader who is nationally recognized and has accomplishments and a sense of strategic direction. The last national search didn’t work out so well. It was the right process but it just didn’t turn out successful.”
The main concern with conducting a national search like the one that led to the Morfessis appointment, Sasse said, is time and the urgency to get a new, permanent leader in place as soon as possible.
From the moment Carcieri announced the nationwide executive director search until Morfessis turned the job down spanned nine months.
“I think you have to balance two things: the state’s ability to hire an experienced, effective leader with national and global exposure, and the need to move on a fast track,” Sasse said. “There is a balance required. You don’t have two years to do all this.”