Town Manager Derrik Kennedy is leaving Westerly. Whether he is leaving voluntarily or he was forced out by a majority of the council is an arguable but moot point. The bottom line: He is gone. So what happens now?
The Town Council immediately needs to begin the process of hiring a new town manager. This should be a two-step process. The first step is to engage the services of a qualified and experienced interim/temporary manager. The second step, which should occur concurrently, is to begin the process of selecting an experienced and qualified permanent town manager.
According to The Westerly Sun, Mr. Kennedy has volunteered to remain at his post for two months to assist in the transition to a new manager. The council would be fools, I repeat, “FOOLS,” not to accept Mr. Kennedy’s offer. Why? Someone has to run the day-to-day business of the town. Someone must coordinate and implement the guidance of the council, must sign contracts, must hire new employees, and ensure bills/salaries are being paid.
In addition, the town is in the middle of the budget season. Budget development is a complex and exacting undertaking. There are a myriad of interconnecting details. And, this year, it looks as if development of the budget will be contentious, with an increase in taxes possible. Only someone with municipal budgeting experience can coordinate input from the council, the School Committee, the Board of Finance, charitable organizations lobbying for their annual stipend, and the public.
In accordance with the Westerly Charter, the council cannot perform these tasks. It cannot appoint a member of the council to act as manager, nor can it establish a subcommittee to do so. If Mr. Kennedy leaves immediately, the council must hire a qualified interim/temporary manager. And, no matter how qualified the interim/temporary manager, it will take weeks or even a month for the individual to get up to speed on the budget process. If Mr. Kennedy stays, the town can get through the budget process with a minimum of disruption.
It is vital that the council hire a qualified and experienced town manager, one with a master’s degree in public administration. This should be the first requirement. Regretfully, the Town Charter does not require the manager to possess such a degree. This was one failing of the 2015 Advisory Charter Revision Commission, which failed to act on a recommendation submitted to it that the Charter be changed to require that the manager have a master’s degree in public administration.
The current council should follow the process used to hire a town manager in 2015. The council must engage the services of a professional search organization. A nationwide search should be conducted after the council identifies the specific qualifications that it desires the new manager to possess. The search organizations would screen all applicants and the best qualified would be invited to Westerly, where they would be interviewed by a committee of citizens and a committee of senior members of the town staff. These two committees would rank the applicants and provide their recommendations and rankings to the search organizations. The top three applicants would be interviewed by the Town Council, which would make the final selection of the new manager. This is a slow and laborious process, but it will ensure that the town gets a qualified manager.
This search process, if followed, will take six months (thus the need for a qualified interim/temporary manager), as was predicted by Councilor Mario Celico in 2015. Anyone who thinks it can be accomplished in a month or so is naïve.
The Town Council must not revert to the “Westerly Way” of hiring a town manager, in which an unqualified lawyer is selected to be the manager because the council is “comfortable” with the individual. The only qualifications that these individuals possessed was that he/she were active in town party politics and demonstrated a willingness to do exactly what a majority of the council desired, regardless of whether or not it violated the Charter, town ordinances, or was not in the best interest of the majority of the citizens of Westerly. These individuals got us Copar quarry and the Carpionato rezone decision. They also helped prevent action on airport zoning, the harbor management plan, and the rights-of-way issue.
The town is a $90-million-dollar-a-year business. If you owned a $90-million-dollar a-year business, would you hire someone to run it who did not have any qualifications in that business? Of course not.
The Sun has indicated that the council members it spoke to were committed to conducting a nationwide search and to hiring a qualified, experienced manager. Only time will tell if these council members will keep their word.
Hiring a town manager probably is the most critical decision a council will make. This decision will have a long-term impact on the success or failure of the town. I am hoping that our Town Council will make the right decision.
The writer is a former member of the Town Council.