The board of NB Liquor and Cannabis NB has been forced to reverse its go-it-alone hunt for a new president by retaining an executive recruiting firm, after Premier Blaine Higgs expressed misgivings to Finance Minister Ernie Steeves.
"We want the best candidate," said Higgs in a Thursday interview.
The two critical Crown agencies bring in around $500 million per year in combined sales.
"The last thing that I want this to be is any political appointment like it was for years, whoever happened to be on the [campaign] bus," he said, in reference to party loyalists regularly getting the job prior to rule changes in 2013.
NB Liquor and Cannabis NB have been without a permanent president since former chief executive Patrick Parent resigned in December after just 15 months in the job.
Two weeks ago, CBC News reported the board of directors had begun a search for his replacement, but without hiring a third-party executive search firm normally used for senior Crown corporation vacancies.
Instead, board chair John Correia said he was confident the placement of online want ads would turn up the leader needed.
"The process is led by our board of directors, who are working closely with our HR [human resources] team," said Correia, in a statement at the time.
New Brunswick Liberal Leader Roger Melanson sharply criticized that process and questioned whether Correia, a former chief fundraiser for the Progressive Conservative party, might be controlling the selection with an eye to appointing a pre-picked and party-friendly candidate.
Higgs now says he had concerns.
"We've always gone out for an independent search," said Higgs.
"I said, 'Why wouldn't they do that?' When I was told the board thought they could do it and the [finance] minister and I discussed it and it was, 'Well, how do we analyze these applicants?'"
After the premier's intervention, it was decided an outside firm should be retained, although that has stirred up its own controversy.
In a move announced Thursday, Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette (KBRS) has been hired to screen candidates NB Liquor has already found, but not search for new or better ones.
"It's window dressing by adding this company at the tail end of a process," said Melanson.
For credibility sake, Melanson said KBRS should be asked to find more applicants.
"By doing the searching on their own, we'll never know if the best candidate is actually identified," he said.
NB Liquor said board chair John Correia was not available for an interview, but in a statement Correia made it clear KBRS will be involved only in the "candidate evaluation step," even though its primary expertise is in candidate recruitment.
Without explaining how, Correia said the hiring of KBRS gives the selection of a new president "additional transparency."
"We are confident in the selection process, the selection committee of five board members and the ANBL [NB Liquor] HR department to select the best candidate," said Correia's statement.
"The timeline for the application process and review remains the same and the Board will make the final decision."