The news last week that Sharon Ahern was leaving her post as the Chief of Staff in Westerly Town Hall came as a surprise. For those who watch town hall comings and goings it was a big story considering the chief of staff is the second in charge and responsible for the day-to-day operations of a $50 million-plus enterprise with several departments.
There was virtually no advance warning about this move, no public discussions among council members about the need to restructure Town Hall, and as was pointed out in Saturday’s edition, there was technically no need for that kind of debate. As described, the call was made by Town Manager Michelle Buck, who served as town attorney before she was named to the top spot in October following the resignation of former Town Manager Steven Hartford on Aug. 1. The council, after all, exists to set policy and the administration exists to ensure that town departments are functioning on a day-to-day basis and that projects are getting done on time and on budget.
In their comments to us last Friday, the five councilors who did respond had a variety of reactions. Town Council president Diana Serra said the move was in keeping with a larger, budget based objective to watch the bottom line and to consolidate functions where such opportunities exist. Serra said she felt Ahern knew the move was coming given concerns about town spending. Councilors Caswell Cooke and Ken Parrilla said they were taken by surprise and Patricia Douglas said she never felt the position was justified — or created properly for that matter — when it was created by former Town Manager Joseph Turo back in 2004. Councilor Christopher Duhamel praised Ahern, an attorney, for her knowledgeable of labor law and contracts and said she was an asset to the town.
In the only comment from a councilor that seemed to get to the heart of the matter, Duhamel said Buck is the new town manager, “and she’s got complete authority to create her own management team. She had informed the council of her decision...”
And in the most direct comment of all, Buck said simply, “she understood that I would prefer not to have a chief of staff.”
The council named Buck as the new manager in a unanimous vote that appeared to be a genuinely unanimous vote with many singing her praises as a town attorney and former councilor.
We are hopeful that Buck isn’t trying to take on too much and that this move doesn’t result in a penny wise and pound foolish outcome. We have urged consolidation in the past and endorsed the move to one director of finance for both municipal and school affairs. Buck has the full support of the council and we wish her well in this undertaking. If it turns out to be an experiment that falls flat, she and the council will have learned a valuable lesson. If it goes that way we hope all involved will admit the need for change — pehrapos there is a middle ground — before any projects or services suffer needlessly.