What Qualities Should Falmouth's New Town Manager Have?
By: Christopher Kazarian
The decision to find a replacement for former town manager Robert L. Whritenour Jr. is being called by many the most important matter the town currently has before it.
In roughly a month a search committee will be formed with the aim of narrowing down a field of candidates to three and making a recommendation on the preferred choice to selectmen, who will have the final say on who the town’s next leader will be.
The town charter stipulates that the town manager meet certain educational and professional requirements. The town manager should have either a master’s degree, preferably in public or business administration, or a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate discipline.
Those with a master’s degree are required to have at least three years of full-time compensated executive service in the public or private sectors. Those with a bachelor’s degree must have at least five years of experience as an executive in the public or private sector.
Applicants can also qualify for the position if they have held an executive position for seven or more years in public or private administration, without either degree.
Outside of these qualifications there is a laundry list of qualities residents undoubtedly have for Mr. Whritenour’s successor.
Experience in diplomacy
So what are they? Yesterday a handful of residents offered their opinion on what they hope to see in the new leader.
“How about brains and brawn?” laughed Peter F. Boyer, former town administrator, before offering more serious views on the topic.
The ideal candidate, he said, should have experience managing a town similar in size to Falmouth. And he hopes that experience also extends to the way Falmouth’s government operates.
“I didn’t use to think that was important, but I’ve come to believe the cycle of doing business in Falmouth is the Town Meeting form of government,” Mr. Boyer said.
“I think a person needs to understand that and needs to work with that.”
Other skills he highlighted as “useful, if not essential,” are having the financial ability to manage budgets and diplomatically deal with others.
“They should be able to say, ‘No,’ without being offensive,” he said.
The ability to work with selectmen, even if they are at odds with each other, is also key, Mr. Boyer said.
In recent years that was lacking between Mr. Whritenour and selectmen, who unsuccessfully attempted to have him placed on administrative leave last August while twice initiating steps to remove him from office.
In November the board accepted a letter of resignation from Mr. Whritenour, who was hired in May 2001.
Mr. Boyer said it is not unusual for a town manager to face a situation similar to the one Mr. Whritenour faced.
“I know a guy who had served a town [off-Cape] for 17 years. He was nearing the end of his career and an excellent manager, and selectmen in that town forced him out,” Mr. Boyer said. “In any community there comes a time when they want fresh leadership.”
First step: a good search committee
He called the upcoming decision in finding a replacement a crucial one for Falmouth.
“The town manager is virtually the guiding leadership for a lot of town operations. This will be a very important selection for the next few years,” he said.
Deborah Siegal of Friends Way, West Falmouth, agreed.
Her most important criteria for the next town manager is that he or she have “the intelligence to understand complex problems, the willingness to reach out to welcome the expertise and knowledge of others, and the ability to solve those problems creatively,” she said.
Ms. Siegal was one of several residents asking selectmen to form a search committee, a similar process to what was done in the hiring of Falmouth Police Chief Anthony J. Riello.
“I think it is critical and our whole reason for suggesting a search committee was to have a group of highly qualified people who would do a good job of analyzing the applications and presenting the best candidates to selectmen,” she said.
She was pleased to see that selectmen adopted that approach and wanted to ensure the process is not rushed, but all candidates are thoroughly vetted.
At least one resident is concerned with how the search committee is being formed. Former selectman Carey M. Murphy of Ostrom Road, Waquoit, pointed out that, with the hiring of Chief Riello, selectmen selected residents it wanted—Finance Committee Chairman Gary W. Anderson, former fire chief Paul D. Brodeur, and Falmouth School Committee member Susan E. Augusta, among others—to serve on the search committee.
“This is a very important hire and to put it out there and let any person apply, you better be careful what you wish for,” he warned.
Trust and respect
As to the town manager, Mr. Murphy said it was important that candidates understand Falmouth’s seasonal economy and the challenges that poses.
Another factor for potential applicants, he said, is that they understand the costs of living here.
“I hope someone could afford to live here in Falmouth. That is an issue we always faced in trying to hire top management people and maintaining them. It is tough,” he said.
He also suggested that anyone who applies for the position read a year’s worth of newspaper articles “to see what they are getting themselves into,” he said.
“To me there are some political ramifications of working with individual members of the board as it currently sits.”
As to how the next town manager can avoid the type of acrimony that marked Mr. Whritenour’s last years in office, he said, “it is like that old Aretha Franklin song: “R-e-s-p-e-c-t.” It is about respect and not trying to micro-manage a professional person.”
That is not always possible, he said, noting the board has micro-managed town staff before.
“It is all predicated on trust and respect,” he said. “The town manager has to trust and respect the board and the board has to trust and respect the town manager. It is a difficult balance to find.”
A "fatherly figure" ideal
He said the best candidate will be a fatherly figure, in line with former fire chief Brodeur and current Police Chief Riello.
“They are tough, but not concerned with being popular. They are concerned with being right,” he said.
At the same time, he said, they both have a sense of humor that appeals to people, something that he did not think was a necessity, but may be a helpful quality.
At least one person who served on the search committee for Chief Riello hopes to serve on the search committee for the new town manager: Mr. Anderson.
He explained that the financial element of managing the town will be the most significant issue facing Falmouth over the next few years. He referenced the town’s capital plan, which he said has been ignored in recent years, as an example.
“There isn’t a strategy I have seen for funding these projects other than going to voters to see if they will approve it,” he said.
“Historically we’ve used free cash to support our capital plan, but we don’t have much free cash and that strategy isn’t working. That is one area that is important.”
He also wanted a leader who looked more analytically at the town’s operating budget to assess the outcomes.
“How do we know how many people it takes to deliver a certain quality of services in town?” he asked. “We need to compare ourselves to other towns and cities as it relates to outputs and outcomes.”
In terms of what he wants out of a town manager, it is simple—leadership. “Literally, we need a strong CEO,” he said, explaining that this would be someone who is involved with the town departments to the degree they will gain his or her respect.
“You need to demonstrate that you do have a vision and you are focused on that,” he added. “You will hold people accountable and you should be someone who people will want to follow.”
He, too, termed the selection of a town manager a critical issue facing the town.
“As we move forward there are some very difficult issues that will require some strong leadership, intelligence, and wisdom to get this town to where it needs to be,” he said.
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