Westerly Town Council expected to choose Atty. Buck
Westerly Town Council expected to choose Atty. Buck
Westerly Town Council meeting- Michelle Buck-council attorney. 3-11-2013 photo by Christine Corrigan
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November 8, 2013 11:44AM
By DALE P. FAULKNER
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — The Town Council will consider appointing Michelle Buck as permanent town manager, Monday, forgoing a search for other candidates.
Following a closed-door executive session Thursday, the second devoted to a review of Buck’s performance as interim town manager, “there appears to be a mutual expression of interest to appoint Michelle Buck,” Council President Diana Serra said Friday.
Serra said she supported the move to appoint Buck permanently rather than conduct a search because “all of the councilors came to the same conclusion — after reviewing her performance, we felt like we like what we have,” Serra said.
Buck was appointed interim town manager on Aug. 5 following the Aug. 1 resignation of Steven Hartford, who said he left because he no longer had the support of the majority of the Town Council.
Serra praised Buck’s ability to communicate with town staff and the council, and said Buck was known to the council, having served as solicitor since 2010 and from her two terms as an elected official on the council from 2004-2008.
Serra and Councilor Patricia Douglas both pointed to a legal opinion that Buck rendered in August 2012 in the midst of a controversial push to extend the town’s sewer line to the Misquamicut area as an example of Buck’s professional strength and integrity. Buck recommended adoption of an ordinance to expand the sewer district to include Misquamicut, essentially determining that the town may not have followed the proper steps to expand the district to include Misquamicut in 1993 during a previous attempt to establish a private sewer line for a small portion of Misquamicut. Advocates of the sewer project, including Hartford, contended that Misquamicut was already part of the sewer district, but Buck’s legal analysis said otherwise.
“That says a lot,” Serra said. “She has shown us she is knowledgeable and dedicated and a straight shooter. She puts the town first. We all saw that.”
If Buck is appointed Monday, Serra said the appointment would be contingent upon Buck’s successful completion of background and credit checks.
Douglas, who previously served for seven terms from 1986-2000 and was re-elected in November, said she supported her fellow councilor’s apparent move to appoint Buck, a Democrat, but acknowledged that not conducting a search is unusual. “If you know who you’re going to pick then you can’t have a search,” Douglas said. “You have to tell the public the truth, not spend money on a phony search.”
While she has heard from some residents who have said they would prefer a town manager who is not a lawyer and one bereft of local political ties, Douglas said she has watched Buck when she was solicitor and during her time as interim town manager.
Douglas acknowledged the similarities between Buck and Hartford - both are Democrats, both served on the Town Council, and both served as town solicitor but Douglas said Buck is her own person.
“I truly feel she is someone who will be an independent thinker and stand on her own two feet,” Douglas said.
When Finance Director James Lathrop announced a projected $900,000 deficit in the 2014 budget in August, Buck immediately developed a six-step action plan to address the potential monetary shortfall, Douglas said. “She is a breath of fresh air who tells us the truth and addresses things. I’m super impressed,” Douglas said. “It feels like my feet are on solid ground and prior it was quicksand or uneven; it felt like it was going to give.”
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said he was pleased with Buck’s performance as interim town manager and said the town could not afford an extended transition period waiting for a new town manager to get up to speed with some of the challenges facing the town, such as the legal battles connected to Copar Quarries of Westerly and oversight of infrastructure projects, including work to rebuild White Rock Road and parts of Canal Street. Now that Buck has expressed interest in taking the job, Cooke said it makes sense to act. “My personal feeling is I’m going to vote for her Monday night. What would be bad and a problem would be to engage in some kind of farcical search and then settle on Michele Buck anyway,” Cooke said.
Buck said her work as town solicitor and interim town manager have helped her to become acquainted with the town’s ongoing projects and with town department heads. If appointed, she said, she would focus on keeping taxes low and maintaining the town’s strong bond rating, economic development, and protecting the town’s environmental and natural resources through land acquisition or new ordinances.
“I would describe my management style as direct, decisive and no nonsense. I like to address matters as they arise. I trust in the abilities and expertise in the staff, and look to them for advice and guidance before making a decision. I prefer to plan ahead, but am not afraid to make a quick decision if necessary,” Buck said.
A graduate of Westerly High School, Buck also graduated from Bryant College and holds a law degree from Roger Williams University School of Law. She managed the clubhouse at her family’s business, Winnapaug Country Club, was an associate at the Westerly law firm, Lenihan, Grady & Steele, and opened her own law firm in 2006.
“The council has been satisfied with my performance to date, and are familiar with my work ethic and style,” Buck said. “They have faith in my abilities and have supported me. I am proud of that, and think that we work well together. I hope that the residents of the town will appreciate the approach that the council has taken in terms of making a swift decision, based on what they have experienced and seen in my performance thus far.”
In a written performance evaluation of Buck, the council found that she successfully transitioned from her position as solicitor to interim town manager with no disruption to the town and had established productive meetings to monitor infrastucture projects. The council also praised Buck for visiting town departments, especially those outside of Town Hall. Buck also earned positive marks for meeting regularly with schools Superintendent Roy Seitsinger Jr. to ensure success of the consolidation of certain town and school functions, meeting weekly with Lathrop to monitor the town’s fiscal picture, and for responding quickly to questions from residents, the council and staff.