Saturday, November 23, 2013

Advice To The Next Town Manager Search Committee

With the announced departure of Town Manager Christopher Clark Southbridge is about to embark, again, upon the joys of hiring another Town Manager.

Having been the Chairman of the last search committee I feel that I may be able to offer some advice to those who will be appointed to undertake this task.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must preface my remarks with the fact that I am an avowed advocate of Southbridge adopting a mayor/council form of government. 

However, I recently put that issue forth on this blog. Several hundred page views were recorded on the article addressing that matter. In association with that I also posted a poll where readers could express their opinion for or against such an idea. The results were 7 to 3 in favor of having a locally elected mayor. But that ratio is deceptive given that only 27 people, about 10% of those who visited the article, bothered to vote. Given that overwhelming expression of unbridled apathy I am compelled to assume that we will continue with the current system that has yielded such stellar results.

Having set forth this disclaimer, I will proceed with my observations on the matter of hiring a new Town Manager.

The Town Charter sets forth the provisions that relate to the process:


 4-1-1: The town council, by a majority vote of its full membership (i.e., a minimum of 5 votes) shall appoint a town manager who shall administer and implement the directives and policies adopted by the town council.
4-1-2:  In seeking candidates the council chair shall appoint a search committee of five members, two of whom shall be members of the council and three of whom shall be citizens of the town who are not holding elective office and are not compensated employees of the town. The appointment of the non-councilor members of such committee shall be subject to confirmation by the council.
The committee may, in its discretion, engage a professional search firm and the council shall appropriate sufficient funds to allow the committee to engage such a firm, to place appropriate advertisements and to meet such other expenses as the council and the committee deem appropriate.
4-1-3:  The manager shall be appointed solely on the basis of educational, executive and administrative qualifications and experience, which shall include at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year degree granting institution and shall include professional experience of at least three years full time, compensated, supervisory service in municipal administration or related administrative activity, and shall serve at the pleasure of the council.  To be considered for appointment such experience shall be certified to the council by an appropriate official of the entity where such experience was obtained.
If a resident of the town, the successful candidate shall have held no elective municipal office for a period of one year prior to appointment.
4-1-4:     Upon appointment or reappointment, as the case may be, the council shall enter into a written contract with the manager.  Nothing in said contract shall affect the appointment or removal powers of the council over the manager, as hereinafter set forth.

What I learned, and perhaps should have foreseen, from my experience in chairing the search committee will sound to some like paranoid conspiratorial thinking.

Having had five years to think about it I do not think that is the case. Rather, I think it is a realistic assessment of a convergence of self-interests that work, by and large, to the detriment of communities in the position which we now find ourselves.

There are at least four elements that comprise a self-interested, self-serving and mutually reinforcing network that come to bear in the process of hiring a town manager. There are, of course, the professional associations that create a cadre of “professionals” schooled in the art of municipal management. Then there are the municipal law firms whose influence is a function of the communities where they are the legal counsel and who, in turn, seek to guarantee that a given candidate will be favorably disposed toward them. Third are the multitude of professional consultants who, for the most part, do not involve themselves directly in attempting to influence the selection process. Rather, they have their relationships with the former and the fourth group of selection influentials. That fourth group is the executive search firms specializing in this process.

My first piece of advice would be, “Don’t hire a search firm.” Not only is it an unnecessary expense, but their efforts are limited to hackneyed patterns of behavior. In addition, the ones that have the best recommendations are those most likely to be in the pocket of municipal law firms and other municipal consultants. They are little more than a feeder for these larger interests. After all, when is the next time you are going to think about hiring one of them?

My next piece of advice would be to the council prior to the appointment of a search committee. Meet in Executive Session (I believe this would fit within the constraints of the law) and clearly delineate what you feel that the shortcomings of previous Town Managers have been as well as the most beneficial of their traits. Then, rather than hiring a town manager search consultant, hire an academic professional to compose questions that members of the search committee can ask that would highlight those qualities.

Third, appoint members to the search committee – to the extent possible – who have absolutely nothing to gain. No relatives employed by the town or dependent upon town licenses or other perceived benefits.

Fourth, do not allow the interim Town Manager to participate in the process. All the preceding caveats about special interests probably explain why he has his current job.

Fifth, be flexible about the conditions outlined for the position. A corollary to this would be “don’t discriminate against youth.” Southbridge is clearly a community in trouble. New ideas do not come from those pursuing the safe path and relying upon outdated nostrums. Sure, you have to take a chance. But, given where we are, what have we got to lose? Besides, the hardest working person is the one who is trying to build a career, not the one coasting through the end of one.

Sixth, and somewhat surprising to me in light of my prior comments, I would like to quote from the minutes of a Council of the Whole Meeting on March 13, 2008 dealing with the search for a new town manager. “Mr. Healey [then the acting Town Manager] stated a criteria could be someone who is willing to commit and put down roots, and if it came down to two candidates then this criteria could be considered. Mr. Groux [the search consultant] stated the Town Charter did not make this a requirement, that is, town residency, and this criteria could be used if all other things are equal, in this particular search, and to establish this criteria this wording could be used.  

These are my initial thoughts. There are very detailed elements of procedural advice that I would offer. But, as the old saying goes, “more to come”.


  1. Just a note – while I was in charge of the search committee – which offered the council 5 candidates, Councilor Nikolla was put in charge of negotiating the contract.

  2. Make sure Buzz Nim. is on the list. I am sure that he could manage both.


All comments subject to moderation. All commenters must use their own name or a screen name. No comments labelled as "Anonymous" will be published. To use your name or a screen name select "Name/URL" from the drop down menu. Insert you name in the "Name" space and leave the "URL" space blank.