Friday, June 5, 2015

Why An Ex-Mayor Should Not Be Town Manager

Ken O’Brien

It is no secret to regular readers of The O’Zone that I have long advocated that Southbridge adopt a strong mayor form of government.

I have argued that, given the dire straits in which the town finds itself, such a form of government would be the only means of addressing them. 

A strong mayor would derive his authority from a vote of the town’s electorate. A Town Manager, on the other hand, is ultimately answerable only to nine councilors.

With the support of a majority of the town’s voters a mayor could outline a program that would address the town’s numerous issues. If opposed by the council a mayor could campaign against those who stood in the way of his programs. The public would be able to choose between his/her program or, conversely, endorse his opposition.

Similarly, he would serve as Chairman of the School Committee. If we wanted to go to the extreme that has been adopted by Boston, the mayor could appoint the members of the School Committee.

Such a person would have to be a resident of the town and consequently he would presumably have a vested interest in the programs he would espouse. If his plans proved ineffectual or unpopular his tenure would be subject to the vote of the public.

Under our current system the town council is the source of policy. The Town Manager is subject to their dictates and is obligated to implement their programs. His role is to be that of an administrator.

As a consequence the Town Manager is expected to refrain from involvement in political matters. In fact the charge of being “overly political” has been leveled against a number of prior Town Managers.

Therefore it is confusing to me that the Town Manager Search Committee would recommend two out of three candidates whose town management experience was as a mayor. One of the two had in fact served a lengthy stint as a State Representative.

There can be no doubt that one’s behavior in any given position is a function of their prior experience. It is indeed a rare leopard who can change his spots at will, Or maybe you prefer an old dog trying to learn new tricks when the old ones have served him so well.

In these cases you have individuals whose prior experience was in policy making roles. You also have individuals whose prior experience taught them to curry the favor of, and seek recourse to, public support in pursuit of their objectives.

These two dimensions run directly counter to the supposed role of a Town Manager. They also create the high probability of a direct conflict with the Council in pressing for the achievement of their objectives.

At the same time, however, they are outsiders whose goals are not necessarily dictated by the welfare of the community. But don’t underestimate the ability of a clever politician to convince you that a course of action that will lead to your ultimate regret is the best thing since sliced bread. Hell, we’ve had professional managers who’ve duped the Council and the public.

Alternatively, chafing under the strictures of their new role as opposed to their prior latitude for action, they are likely to be short-termers. This may explain why the council's choice is seeking to leave his first position as a town administrator after only two years.

This dichotomy explains what went on last night. The two politicians had the councilors eating out of their hands. The professional manager, by comparison, was regarded as the odd man out. Performing at a high level in a dog and pony show is, supposedly, not what we seek from a manager. It is, however, de rigueur for a mayor.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of a mayor. It’s just that I want one who lives in Southbridge now and will continue to do so in the future. I don’t want one we’ve imported from somewhere else. Nor do I want someone whose skill set is at odds with his job description.

I don't recall any of the interviewers addressing these concerns.

The Council as well as the search committee should have realized the difference between the two roles and the potential for conflict and dissatisfaction that would almost inevitably arise from conflating them.


  1. Eight councilors said yes, and we don't know if he'll accept an offer next week in Brewster, but I think we need to return to needing five votes to fire (55%) over six votes(66%).

  2. It’s easy to understandJune 7, 2015 at 11:34 AM

    The fact is that the town council has chosen to abdicate its authority. The new charter enhanced the power of the council at the expense of the manager. The reality is that no member of the council has any kind of agenda to improve the town’s situation. As a result they have sought to find someone who can offer such a vision while maintaining their ability to thwart his efforts or disagree with them outright. This continuing drift is exemplified by the current chairman who runs a decent meeting but who does little more than act as a cheerleader for fund raisers and intramural sporting events. As sad as it is to say the only leadership has been provided by Vecchia on tax cutting and Manna on the schools. Unfortunately one is the tactic of a bookkeeper that enhances the town’s downward spiral while the other is dabbling in matters that should not be the concern of the council.

  3. Where will the money come fromJune 7, 2015 at 12:19 PM

    The town’s debt capacity is at its limit. We desperately need to do something about our roads and sidewalks. Our rolling stock is aging. And what about the long delayed need for a new fire station.
    But the council can only think of two options. One is to raise property taxes. We constantly hear from the town assessor about how low we rank in terms of the burden of our property taxes. But does he look at the average family income in this town?
    The other is to expand the landfill and extend its useful life even though its only generated a fraction of the income originally promised not to mention all the health issues raised by this eyesore.
    Its past the time to do something to expand our tax base, and don’t tell me about the absurd industrial park or selling our useless, decrepit town buildings.

  4. Our Lord Mayor Ronald the 1st hath conversed with our hot dog
    vendor and the girl at the front desk at the Inn, so he is ready to fix our woes and bring crack Camelot.

    It now takes six to fire, so we will be her as long as he wants.


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.