WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board is a looking for a unicorn — a town manager who can heal the town's division, promote inclusion and diversity, hire a police chief, be open and communicative with the board, and manage town operations and keep its finances on an even keel.
Neither of two the finalists interviewed on Friday morning fit the bill, though they separately fulfilled several of the criteria.
The several months search to replace Jason Hoch ended with board discussing a long-term interim town manager to take the town through the next budget and town meeting season. No votes were taken.
Richard Downey, the village administrator in Kronenwetter, Wis., and Debra Jarvis of Vision Values LLC in Overland Park, Kan., spent several days in Williamstown touring the Village Beautiful, meeting with staff, speaking to residents at an open house on Thursday night and then spending the morning in the hot seat at Town Hall answering questions ranging from how they would mount a search for a new police chief to ensuring the civil rights of the residents.
But when the board came back in the afternoon after a break, Chairman Andy Hogeland immediately broached the potential for "option C" — making no choice at all.
"There was set a significant amount of feedback last night and some of that resonated with me that if we're not happy enough with the two candidates we have, we should open our minds up to coming up with another way of going forward," he said.
Hogeland said his thoughts on the candidates had changed between seeing their resumes, meeting them, and driving back to Town Hall. He'd also had emails and that the feedback had "structured his thinking" that he expected would shortly be resolved.
His thoughts were echoed by every member of the five-member board.
"If we could merge these two candidates into one candidate, we would have found our candidate. Right. They both are very deep in different sides of the job," said member Hugh Daley. "I hate to put it like this, but because there's not a resounding yes opportunity in front of us, it feels like we're backing into another least bad decision. ...
"It's imperative to me that we get somebody to both operate the town and heal it. Without getting one that can operate it if we can't heal it and get one that can heal it but can't operate it, we are not doing our job. We have one job per the charter — and it's to select the town manager.
"And we've got to get it right."
The town's been searching for new leadership since Hoch's departure earlier this year as part of the fallout from a federal lawsuit filed in August against himself, the former chief of police and the town. The lawsuit, by a member of the Police Department, was dropped upon the resignation of the police chief in December. The rift has not completely healed, however, as the sergeant has now accused the department of retaliation for exposing racist and sexual harassment there. He has requested his disciplinary hearing next week be made public.
Town leaders want someone to help "heal" the divisions caused by lawsuit and concerns highlighted by the Diversity, Inclusion, Racial Equity Committee and Black Lives Matter movement last year. But it also wants someone who can manage the town's finances and operations.
Downey stressed his management abilities in running Kronenwetter, a town with similar demographics and population as Williamstown but largely a bedroom community. But he also expressed a strong desire to allow for different voices and perspectives to be heard and to keep an open communication with the both the board and the town.
"I can tell you right now that I will strive to make sure that rights are protected. Those of the minority, those of majority, and everyone in between," he said. "One of the things that draws me here is, I will tell you, as I drive around town I can tell that people want to be inclusive. They want to have their voices heard that maybe have not been heard for very many years."
Jarvis, a former fire chief turned consultant on diversity and inclusiveness in management systems, focused on much of her work in getting people involved and communicating but acknowledged she did not have a strong background in municipal finance and human resources.
Her take was that the town should be investing in professional personnel in those areas as they are becoming highly technical. She, too, wanted to amplify new voices and perspectives and not stick to things because that's the way they've always been done.
"It's important to note that I look at the town manager as an orchestra conductor, and you're helping to unify people," she said. "So if I'm a unifier, which is my strength, then it's understanding what each department does. ... So I have a pretty holistic view. Actually, more so than a lot of town managers do."
Member Jeffrey Johnson said maybe it was time for a reboot or redo if the board liked what it was hearing from both but could not pick between the two.
"They both have qualities and traits and attributes that I was really hoping to see," said member Wade Hastings, agreeing with Johnson and Daley that the candidates separately didn't have what they were looking for. "Unfortunately, so I have strong reservations ... I think we need to keep looking."
The writing may have been on the wall even before the board convened. Hogeland said he had spoken with Lee Szymborski of GovHR USA, the firm hired to assist in the town manager search, about possible next steps to extend the interim town manager post. The current interim, Charles Blanchard, is set to leave in December.
That may be closer to a full-time interim going out six to nine months. Blanchard is currently working 20 hours a week.
Szymborski said they would want to collapse the timeline as much as possible so as to not lose candidates.
"It's just in this competitive labor market people are fielding multiple job offers," he said. "And if you're not able to say yes, fast enough they're willing to say yes to somebody else."
Hogeland noted they had to separate out search processes, one for the permanent town manager and one for the interim.
For speed and necessity, the board should come up with its own interim candidates in consultation with Szymborski and interview them directly, he said. "I'd like to get concurrent so we could probably do that with a small group with Lee's advice and just bring them directly to you. That's worth repeating — if we can find them."
Szymborski advised waiting until after the first of the year to resume the permanent search so as not to draw from the same pool and to catch when people are considering their next steps. He anticipated being where they are today by February or March but told the board not to be discouraged.
"What tends to happen in seeking a new town manager is that the action becomes a unifying action," he said. "This may sound odd, but you have reached that unified action, and you're helping further define what you want.
So I'd go away from this saying, it didn't work out. But we know better what we want more."
Member Jane Patton said they had to have the courage, resolution and her favorite descriptor of tenacity, to take a hard look at what they want.
"I think we thought we knew what we're after and now, it is really kind of more of the same," she said.
There was too much finance, finance, finance, diversity, diversity, diversity, Patton continued. "And the reality is we've got to solve for both. And maybe that unicorn town manager isn't out there. So it's up to us to say, we may need to Etch-A-Sketch the current structure leading up to the town manager and make our own unicorn."
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