Monday, September 9, 2013

Look Everywhere When Hiring Town Managers

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, September 9. 2013

By Bill Gouveia

            It’s not easy being a town manager or town administrator anywhere, but it is particularly difficult to hold one of those lofty titles here in Massachusetts.  As with many things in our beloved Bay State, we tend to be parochial when it comes to handing over authority and tax dollars.

            The very structure of our state and local governments here in Massachusetts is pretty much designed to prevent “outsiders” from coming in and messing up the system we have loved and lived with for the last 200-300 years.  When it comes to everything from bidding for lucrative contracts to hiring professional personnel, we tend to stick to the familiar and those nearby us.

            Of course, there is nothing bad or unusual about that – at least when it is done in moderation.  Almost everywhere in the country, local candidates and companies get preference over “outsiders”.  But here we have brought that to new levels when it comes to municipal decisions, particularly on the hiring of chief executive officers.

            It is unusual for someone to come from the Midwest or the south or really any other part of the country and become a town manager in Massachusetts.  It is not totally unheard of (see Mansfield Town Manager William Ross) but is far from the norm.  The reasons usually given are that experience with complex Massachusetts laws and regulations are crucial to being able to properly manage a local community.

            The truth is while that is helpful, it is hardly critical.  While we like to fancy ourselves as more “complex” than the rest of the country, much of that is a myth created to give local candidates and concerns an edge.  A good manager is a good manager, no matter where they come from or where they gained their experience.

            So it might make you chuckle a bit when you see manager after manager recycled through various cities and towns.  Turnover is inevitable and simply comes with this highly political job.  If a manager does his/her job well, they have to burn some political bridges along the way that may ultimately cost them their job.  If it’s stability you want, this is definitely the wrong profession.

            When Kevin Paicos left Easton after 15 years, his exit was hardly graceful.  But it was a love-fest compared to his recent departure from Foxboro after less than three years there.  He had a couple of unremarkable short stays in-between.  Still, he seemed a good choice to many - including yours truly - when Foxboro (just one town away from Easton) hired him as manager.

            Pam Nolan came to Seekonk from Truro, and now is headed to Rhode Island.  The public relations disaster that has been her tenure in Seekonk did not seem to discourage nearby Narraganset from making her their top choice.  Granted that is not a Massachusetts community, but the principle remains the same. 

            When former town manager John D’Agostino left Mansfield, the situation there could not have been any more ugly or disturbing.  Yet he wound up in Abington before once again leaving in a less-than-professional manner after some high profile performance issues.  It makes you wonder how wide the search for candidates truly was.

            The philosophy of “local is everything” goes a long way here in New England.  Our particular brand of Civil Service (though slowly dying a well-deserved death) is a prime example.  Geography rather than qualifications often decide who becomes a police officer or firefighter, or even chief of the department.

            With both Seekonk and Foxboro preparing to search for new managers/administrators, it will be interesting to see what approach each community takes.  Foxboro has discussed hiring a professional company to help with the search, and Seekonk’s post is not even technically vacant yet. 

            If it turns out the best candidate is a Massachusetts resident, each town should hire them.  But these jobs are important enough (and pay enough) to warrant a wide and complete search.  Spending money to fly a potential manager in from some distance for an interview is preferable to eventually paying a six-figure severance package to a local individual.

Almost every candidate brings with them both experience and baggage.  The trick in hiring one is being able to tell the difference.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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