THROWBACK THURSDAY: The Town Manager Hunt Revisited

THROWBACK THURSDAY: The Town Manager Hunt Revisited
"Deer Hunt," by Jan van der Straet, ca. 1590. Image courtesyCooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum via Smithsonian Open Access.

Given that we're going back to the drawing board to find a Town Manager, here are excerpts from a couple columns I wrote for The Millbury-Sutton Chronicle back in 2020 when we last went through this dog-and-pony show. First column was originally published on 10 September 2020, the second on 6 February 2020, and the last on 20 February 2020. The reason for the non-chronological order of the excerpts will become apparent shortly...

Millbury is finishing up the long-awaited process necessary to get a permanent town manager in place. It’s been over a year since our last manager departed, and the Board of Selectmen held interviews last week with the set of finalists from the Town Manager Screening Committee...

If you didn’t watch, three candidates got the interview treatment from the Board, with questions led by the consultant brought in to assist in the process. The consultant asked the major questions, and I was surprised at how little overall engagement there was from the Board. You’d think, after the drama of the last few years, they’d be a little more inquisitive, but there wasn’t a lot of follow-up. A missed opportunity.

The first candidate was Sean Hendricks, former town manager in Uxbridge and Killingly, CT. He  has military experience and gave some stories about living in Millbury once upon a time. I also wish I could pull off a bow tie like he can, so that’s another mark in his favor. While his experience best fits Millbury (managed small historic towns, has familiarity with the area), he also came across as less skeptical of police and union interests, two areas where some pushback and resistance to counterbalance the necessary collaboration in municipal government is needed. He definitely showed the most promise of the three presented in all areas, but also perhaps the biggest drawbacks...

Some quick background for those just joining us: the Town Manager Screening Committee, who held their first meeting last week, is required by Millbury’s charter and bylaws as part of the process of getting a new town manager. The screening committee is appointed via a number of different authorities patching together a cross-section of people in town (not townspeople, as we will get to) to see what is available in the pool of potential managers. Long and short, this is a pretty important committee that holds significant responsibility in the direction of the town over the next few years.

After their first meeting, though, I’m faced with a lot of questions:

Why are there two members of the Board of Selectmen on this committee? The Board of Selectmen already make the final call on this, so having Board of Selectmen representation on this committee feels like two bites at the proverbial apple. Their appointment on this board does not appear to violate any of the charter or bylaws (although I have not reviewed state law on the matter if it’s relevant), but if we are looking for a good cross-section of representation within the town, do two people already on the most powerful board in town meet that standard?

Why is Greg Myers on this committee? Nothing against Myers and his superlative work as school superintendent. My question is why one of the nine slots has been given to someone who is not a resident of the town. The School Committee, rightfully, is allowed to select a person for this committee given that they are a governing board with a large budget (and a side question: the Millbury Library Board of Trustees... is also a governing board, yet does not get to select anyone?), but should one of the nine picks go to a non-resident at all?

Why is Andrea Warpula, Millbury Police Detective and Worcester resident, on this committee? Again, nothing against her qualifications or work at the MPD. However, the Police Department is directly under the Town Manager who appoints the Chief of Police. Does it create an additional appearance of conflict of interest to have someone who will report indirectly to the chosen candidate as a member of this committee? I am told that she is filing with the ethics commission to be sure, and James McKenna (the Town Moderator and the person who nominated her) told me she was appointed to provide “the perspective of the police department.” Is that sufficient justification?

...There has been an open question for a while regarding Finance Committee participation on boards and committees like this. Millbury Municipal Code 2.35.010 notes that “[a]ny member of the finance committee who accepts an elective or appointed office during the term for which he or she is appointed shall vacate his or her office on the finance committee.” To be clear: this bylaw has not been followed for some time (and I could write a month’s worth of columns on how poorly this town follows its bylaws)... but either the bylaws matter or they do not.

Speaking of bylaws, the Acting Town Manager got to appoint someone? I asked Jamie Kelley directly about this; he received advice from town counsel regarding this appointment that would normally be exercised by the Personnel Board, with counsel citing numerous previous precedents. Given that Kelley is likely to have his name put forward and, at worst, would be reporting to the new Town Manager if he went back to the Human Resources Director position, this definitely raises some questions... I just have a lot of early questions and concerns about how this process will result in something positive for the town.

Some notes from the last few weeks of Town Manager Screening Committee meetings. I attended the last major one they held, but not a smaller, half-hour meeting following that. I want to hit as many as realistically possible, because it doesn’t look like many others are…

I credit the committee, first and foremost, for explicitly trying to keep politics out of the proceedings. The spectre of the last committee’s results looms large over this operation, and that is shading the discussion surrounding their first big choice: whether to use a search firm.... A criticism I heard from leaders in town is that these search committees largely end up recycling the same candidates due to qualification concerns, and I am not convinced that will benefit us when our committee is required to produce three candidates...

(Bylaw note: “The screening committee SHALL review all applications…” in 2.20.020. Bylaw, at the very least, suggests (thanks to the word “shall”) that they can’t outsource some of this basic work anyway. I doubt legal counsel would agree, nor is anyone going to enforce the bylaw if they did anyway…)

There were plenty of things that frustrated me about the committee meeting I went to (and, upon reflection, a lot of it is due to my inability to keep my thoughts to myself and wanting desperately to jump in), but the one that is still stuck in my craw is about not only the relative lack of transparency in the process, but the deliberate intention to avoid it.

First off, the meeting I attended was in the large community room in the library. The meeting before that (which I could not attend) was in the small meeting room at Town Hall. I could not find the Town Hall meeting on television when it was live (the station was instead showing the Board of Appeals), and the large community room is wired for television but was not being taped for broadcast. This, to me, is unacceptable. This is arguably one of the top three most important government committees in town at present, and the work this group does has significant repercussions to how our community is run. Granted, we have a perpetual problem with meetings not being taped or aired with no immediate solution (and this is not a criticism of those over at cable access, to be clear), but this specific committee not broadcasting their meetings is bad for the town.

Worse, however, is the concern about deliberations of members and open meeting law. It’s one thing to use subcommittees to ensure that a board can work and bring ideas and solutions to the greater group later. It’s another, as one committee member put it at the meeting, to argue that hiring a private search firm would be a positive because it would remove the deliberations from the public eye. Yes, some will argue, anyone can attend these meetings and see the open deliberations. But will I, for example, be able to go to the search firm’s office and hang out in their boardroom? Review their minutes? Upload some video on YouTube? Of course not.

Secrecy in government benefits no one. A secrecy-minded committee is, in my mind, likely to recommend secrecy-minded candidates to the Board of Selectmen, which will harm the rest of us if we end up with a secrecy-minded Town Manager. I don’t like it.

Jeff Raymond is a Founding Editor of The Bramanville Tribune. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @jeffinmillbury