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Mum’s the word on next Commerce Authority CEO

Gov. Jan Brewer and Arizona Commerce Authority President and CEO Don Cardon listens to comments from a board member during the agency's final meeting before it officially transitions from the Arizona Department of Commerce to the Arizona Commerce Authority on July 1. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

More than a month after it called off a planned announcement on its next CEO, the Arizona Commerce Authority is staying tight-lipped about how it will choose the successor to Don Cardon when he leaves the economic development agency at the end of the month.

In mid-May, Cardon said the ACA had nine or 10 candidates it was eying for the CEO position, and agency spokeswoman Kristen Hellmer said the authority would announce its new CEO a week later at a quarterly board meeting.

But several days later, Cardon and Gov. Jan Brewer said the search would take a while longer. The announcement never happened.

The ACA has refused to name the candidates who have been or are being considered for the position. However, Hellmer said the ACA’s selection committee asked Sandra Watson, the authority’s second-in-command, for her résumé.

Watson, who worked at the Department of Commerce for 15 years before it was transformed last year into the ACA, has already agreed to serve as interim CEO if a replacement for Cardon isn’t found by the time he leaves on June 30.

“I believe that, yes, they have asked for her résumé. But I don’t know if it’s gone any further than that,” Hellmer said.

In March, the ACA hired DHR International to conduct the search for a new CEO, which at the time it estimated would be complete in May.

Under the terms of its contract, DHR was required to advertise the position for four to six weeks, and provide a list of 10 names to the ACA’s selection committee. Hellmer would not say whether DHR had re-advertised the position, or whether it planned to provide a new list of names to the committee.

Five of the six members of the selection committee did not return messages from the Arizona Capitol Times seeking comment on the search. The sixth, Drew Brown, chairman of DMB Associates, would not comment on the search.

The selection committee has not met since April 25, according to the Commerce Authority’s website.

Hellmer referred questions about why the search was taking so long and whether the ACA was having trouble filling the position to the Governor’s Office. Brewer is co-chair of the 19-member ACA board, along with developer and sports mogul Jerry Colangelo.

“DHR International continues to search for candidates for the president and CEO position, and will do so until the governor and Mr. Colangelo make a final decision,” Hellmer said.

Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson acknowledged that the previous candidates didn’t pass muster with the governor or Colangelo.

“I think it’s fair to say that they haven’t found exactly who they’re looking for up to this point,” he said.

Benson emphasized that, while Brewer and Colangelo play a major role in selecting the new CEO, the other members of the board must be in agreement, as well. He said he didn’t know whether other board members were supportive of candidates who had already been presented to them.

However, Benson said the delay doesn’t necessarily indicate that the ACA is having trouble filling the position.

“The fact of the matter is they still have time to get this done, and if they don’t get it done by the end of June, they’re in a position to have someone lead the authority on an interim basis until they do find the right person,” Benson said. “But they can’t let this time constraint dictate their decision-making and force them into a decision that maybe isn’t the right one. They’re going to have to live with the person that they choose as president and CEO, so it had better be a good fit.”

So far, the names of several possible candidates have emerged, but none are apparently in contention for the job now and all appear to have been under consideration prior to Watson’s agreement to take over as interim CEO when Cardon leaves.

Former SunCor Development CEO Steve Betts said several members of the ACA board, including Brown and Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill, reached out to him about the position in an “exploratory” manner, but he wasn’t an actual candidate for the job. Former DMB Associates Vice President John Bradley said he submitted an application for the job, but learned that he was no longer being considered when Watson agreed to serve as interim CEO after June 30.

Another prospective candidate, Arizona Technology Council CEO Steve Zylstra, said he was on the ACA’s “short list” at one point, but said he wasn’t interested in the job.

Zylstra said the job is unappealing to him for several reasons. One, he said, is the scrutiny the ACA and its top leader come under from the media, Legislature and others. Another is that the CEO has an “untenable position” and has to answer to both the governor and the rest of the board, who may not always be in agreement, especially if the CEO’s actions conflict with the governor.

“When you report to a governor, you can never do anything that’s going to blemish their persona or their image in any way. It’s not kosher,” Zylstra said. “What that means is sometimes you’re faced with confronting your own board on issues that may not be your issues as much as your boss’ issues.”

Additionally, he said, Brewer will likely leave office after 2014, meaning the CEO will have to report to someone new after a couple years.

“To my thinking, that means it’s like a two-year assignment, not really a long-term assignment,” he said.

Betts, too, said he had some issues with the way the ACA operates. He said he would potentially be interested in the position, but only if the quasi-governmental agency were more private sector-driven.

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