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Editorial: On selecting a town manager

The Westerly Town Council’s decision to select former town attorney and, more recently, interim Town Manager Michelle Buck as the new town manager presented an interesting situation.

Normally, town councils establish a search committee to interview candidates when a town manager departs. Generally, that committee is charged with whittling a mountain of résumés to a list of finalists for the council to interview. In some cases, a search firm is hired to help with the process. That wasn’t done in this case, and the council explained why.

On the night of the announcement, each councilor explained their rationale for the shortened process, and two basic concepts came to the fore: They knew Buck’s work and she knew the work in front of her.

As a news organization, we are supposed to make the call for open and transparent government. In this current scenario then, we should be railing against the decision to forgo a broad search for candidates. We might be labeling this particular case a sham and an insider’s deal.

But news organizations also have the liberty to step out of the ivory tower on occasion in appreciation of reality.

One councilor said the group would have gone through the time and potential expense of a search process only to wind up back at square one with Buck at the top of the list. She said she was proud of her colleagues for taking the route they did in being open and honest about their inclination to go with Buck in the first place.

Another said he didn’t want to risk going with an unknown when the known candidate was delivering to the satisfaction of the full council. And yet anther suggested we write a headline that screamed “unanimous decision” and made the point that the council is not bound by ordinance or charter to follow any specific method for hiring a town manager. Council President Diana Serra said Buck’s performance, education and experience as a former councilor and solicitor played a large role in her decision to choose Buck, and her familiarity with the issues was a plus.

We get it. And we support it.

Councilors were open in saying a routine search process likely would be only a charade for the purpose of appearances. And that would have been far worse than the decision to go forward with Buck and get on with the business at hand.

For some, Buck’s hometown ties as a native of Westerly are a big plus, and for perhaps an equal number those ties are a huge negative. Right or wrong, Buck will have to prove by her actions that her familiarity with the town, the history of issues and the principles involved will serve only as a plus in seeking solutions to problems and options for making improvements where needed.

We are hopeful that she will be open with us — and therefore the residents she serves — at every turn, especially when it comes to the Access to Public Records Act, an area that has proved to be a challenge at Town Hall in the recent past. News organizations represent the citizens of a community, and our work is done on behalf of them rather than exclusively for us.

One councilor said he supported Buck because she served as interim town manager “with grace and strength ... seeking advice and working from the conviction that she will do the right thing and play by the book.”

It all sounds perfect. We wish her well.

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