Saturday, April 12, 2014

Resume The Town Manager Search - NOW!

At the April 7th meeting of the Southbridge Town Council, Councilor Darlene Marcucci announced the suspension of the search for a town manager to replace Christopher Clark. Based upon the advice of the search committee’s consultant, the committee decided that to continue at this point would result in a dearth of candidates because of the pending petition to return the community to a selectmen/town meeting form of government.

In an earlier article I suggested a course of action that would result in delaying the effective date of any adoption of the proposal for at least a year and the date of it actually taking effect for at least two years.

In a comment on the same article I stated that I would put forth a suggestion for dealing with the town manager issue in the interim.

Well, here’s the fulfillment of that promise.

Southbridge, by its nature, has little that would attract an outstanding candidate for the town manager position. The accelerating downward spiral over the last two decades has essentially made it a haven for someone who wishes to close out their career or to merely add experience to their resume for an upgrade to a better position. Certainly the pending petition does not enhance that perception.

At least that would be the conventional view.

However, those very perceived weaknesses can actually serve as a strength.

It is all a question of what audience is forming the perception.

When I was involved with the discussions surrounding the hiring of interim town manager Jack Healey I recall that he went on at some length about how there was a very limited pool of town manager prospects. In my experience chairing the last town manager search committee I was appalled by the mediocrity of the candidates who applied for the position.

The current situation (one might say dilemma) with which the town manager search committee is confronted also presents it with an unprecedented opportunity.

Addressing the dire straits in which Southbridge finds itself and reversing the current trend requires bold initiatives. It requires leadership as well as grounding in the most current ideas regarding economic development. Ultimately it calls for a candidate who would view Southbridge as an occasion to demonstrate exceptional ability.

For the conventional crop of town manager prospects such a set of circumstances would be seriously outweighed by the downside potential. Foremost, of course, is the prospect of, at most, a two year tenure. Second is the reality that, based upon my experience in the search process, they are about as innovative as a buggy whip repairman.

There is, however, a group that I believe would offer candidates who can meet the desirable criteria while viewing the downside potential as acceptable.

That group would be the upcoming field of graduates from leading schools of public administration and business management across the country.

Rather than chasing after a group of burn-outs why not pursue those with a burning desire to distinguish themselves?

Rather than courting someone whose primary talent is deflecting blame, why not consider those who embrace a challenge?

Those coming forward for such a position would most likely have salary demands that are minimal relative to conventional prospects. Further, many graduates of such institutions have real world experience prior to their matriculation.

That preceding factor has a bearing given the terms of the Town Charter regarding the hiring of a Town Manager. The Charter states:

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.

However, such a person could be hired as acting town manager for up to a year, insofar as the Charter also provides:

4-7-1:  During the absence or disability of the town manager, an acting town manager shall be appointed by the council to perform the duties of the town manager.  Any vacancy in the office of the town manager shall be filled as soon as possible by the town council.  The term of service of any person as acting town manager may not exceed twelve months.  Compensation for such person shall be set by the town council.  Except as otherwise prohibited by this charter, nothing in this section shall prevent an acting town manager from being appointed as town manager.

Thus, to strictly comply with the Charter, a person with only two years of experience could be hired as acting town manager and after 12 months, if so desired, be chosen as the Town Manager. That of course assumes strict compliance with the Town Charter, a matter that has merited scant deference in recent years. In that respect, the definition of experience could easily be subject to interpretation.

The net result is that, assuming that the Town Manager Search Committee is willing to engage in a real search, I suspect that there are numerous candidates of exceptional capacity who will be graduating from the kinds of programs suited to the role in question. One thing to realize is that most town manager search consultants are hidebound hacks. Their process perpetuates the past and services the existing clientele.

Further, I believe that among the subset of upcoming graduates, there are numerous candidates who would view such a position as a rare opportunity to excel and thus establish their reputation. I know from experience that such candidates would have ample access to advice from their recent alma maters. Also, the young are far more daring in their strategies than those who are seeking merely to preserve an established lifestyle and avoid risk.

The major shortcoming of any such candidate might be a lack of familiarity with fundamental mechanics such as paperwork and the filing of such paperwork with appropriate agencies in a timely manner. I would suggest that the well-paid and top heavy bureaucracy we have in town hall can either make up for any such deficiency or be relegated to the ranks of the unemployed.

Even the potential downside for such candidates would be minimal. If it came to the point of becoming a town administrator this would still be a notch or two above what they might have reasonably expected upon graduation. If termination after one year was on the horizon, they could blame it upon the prospect of the adoption of the town meeting petition.

Other points frequently mentioned might include town residency. Who is more likely to move to the community where they are employed than a recent graduate? Furthermore, such a person, having recently been on campus, would likely have a far greater affinity with the sentiments of our community’s youth than many who have preceded them.

In an effort to avoid mundane trivialities, I would characterize this proposition as no lose/no lose.

It might even show that the manager/council form of government can be made to work. In that case proponents of the selectmen/town meeting agenda might call it whine/whine.

What do you think?
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  1. The dude has to stand up to the Town Council (or whatever the elected officials are called). If a recent MBA grad has the mojo to do that, then fine. I would think an older guy with more experience can help the politicians when they are being inexplicable.

    1. I’d be far more concerned that such a candidate would be unable to hide their contempt or, alternatively, simply be overcome by uncontrollable laughter.


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