November 8, 2013 11:42AM
By DALE P. FAULKNER
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — The Town Council voted unanimously Monday to remove the word interim from Michelle Buck’s title and install her as town manager.
The appointment will become official following a swearing in ceremony scheduled for Nov. 4. Buck has been serving as interim town manager since Aug. 5, following the resignation of Steven Hartford.
On Monday councilors acknowledged taking an unusual approach by settling on Buck, a former town councilor and town solicitor, without ever posting the vacancy or conducting a search for other candidates. They said the positive impression she had made rendered the usual steps unnecessary.
“We need to find someone who can work well with all seven councilors,” said Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. “There have been too many times when someone was appointed by a 4-3 vote or a 5-2 vote so the first thing that comes to my mind, and should almost be the headline, is that this is a unanimous decision made by this council, no politics.”
One resident, Ernest Vacca, was critical of the council for not following the past practice of conducting a search. “You didn’t give someone else a chance to apply for this job... and it’s a high-priced job,” he said.
Cooke said that the council was not bound by ordinance or the Town Charter to follow any specific method for hiring a town manager.
Council President Diana Serra said the council arrived at its decision after considering Buck’s performance during her 10 weeks on the job, her education, her experience as a former councilor and solicitor, and her knowledge of matters facing the town.
“She is highly respected by the council, town staff, and the community at large. She is familiar with the complex issues facing the town and it is felt that it would be difficult for anyone not familiar with these issues to transition into this role at this time,” Serra said.
Councilor Patricia Douglas said she had “no doubt” that Buck was “the right person” for the job and said the town had already begun, under Buck’s leadership, to make progress in the many legal battles currently facing the town. Buck takes the reins in the midst of a brewing controversy and legal battle related to Copar Quarries of Westerly’s operation in Bradford.
Rather than spending money on a search only to arrive at a previously “hand-picked” candidate, Douglas said she was proud of her fellow councilors for being honest about their intentions to immediately appoint Buck on a permanent basis.
Councilor Jack Carson said that while he did not disagree with Vacca, the council was not willing to “take that risk. We know what we have, we’re very happy with her performance and we have high hopes for her tenure.”
Councilor Christopher Duhamel said the town faced an urgency to appoint a manager quickly. He cited the Copar case, the need to develop better strategies to protect the town’s groundwater, ongoing infrastructure projects, and town finances. Duhamel said that Buck has served as interim town manager “with grace and strength, listening to staff, seeking advice and working from the conviction that she will do the right thing and play by the book.”
Councilor Kenneth Parrilla said that he had not heard a single negative word about Buck. While he was initially opposed to the idea of hiring another lawyer (Hartford is a lawyer as well) and another person with lifelong ties to the town, Parrilla said he changed his mind after considering the number and complexity of the many challenges facing the town. He said he was also impressed by a recent occurrence while he was in Bradford to monitor the quarry. Parrilla said he glimpsed the black municipal car assigned to the town manager.
“All of a sudden I thought, uh oh, I don’t know what’s coming at me, and who was it but Michelle. She was out there to listen and see what was going on,” Parrilla said.
Councilor Andrew Gencarelli said he was relieved when he heard that Buck was interested in serving permanently. “It felt like a huge weight was taken off of my shoulders because I was going to have to find someone who could take over all these issues that have been going on,” he said.
Buck, a lifelong resident of the town, expressed gratitude after the council’s vote.
“I don’t tend to get very emotional but it’s really a very emotional thing tonight. As i said to all of you, the fact that you’re united, it means absolutely everything to me and I’m flattered, I’m honored, I love the town of Westerly and I won’t let you down,” Buck said.
Under terms discussed by the council, Buck’s salary will be $119,651 per year. She agreed to a 25 percent co-pay, the most paid by any town employee, toward the cost of medical and dental health insurance and will receive a $100,000 life insurance policy.
She will receive 16 paid holidays and accrue 20 vacation days per fiscal year. Other conditions include use of a town vehicle, accrual of one day per month of sick time, and a town contribution of 10 percent to a retirement account.
Buck’s performance will be evaluated at six-month intervals for the first year and every year thereafter.