Municipal Musical Chairs as Top Jobs Turn Over
In April, the South Hadley Selectboard had to quickly regroup.
As officials prepared to conduct final interviews in the search for the community’s next town administrator, three of the four selected finalists withdrew their candidacy, abruptly derailing a process more than a year in the making. And the town, facing the looming June 30 retirement of its current administrator, had no choice but to relaunch the search.
Though the situation might seem unique, other small Massachusetts communities have also struggled to hire top executives in recent years, whether because of too few qualified applicants or finalists who opt for more attractive positions elsewhere.
It’s a challenge exacerbated by a changing field. Bernard Lynch, principal of consulting firm Community Paradigm Associates LLC and a former Lowell city manager, estimates roughly 60 percent of town and city management positions in the state have turned over within the past four to five years — and he said much of that is a generational shift as veteran managers begin to retire.
“There’s sort of a churning that happens with that too, that a longtime manager retires, and then someone from a smaller town leaves that town to move up,” Lynch said. “Because you know, that’s the reality of these types of positions is that there’s no place for you to move up in your career other than to move out of whatever town you’re in into a larger community.”
That’s part of the reason these searches can often feature the same names and faces, almost like a game of municipal musical chairs. In April, for example, former Winchendon Town Manager Keith Hickey took up a new post as the town administrator in Kingston, and former Conway Town Administrator Thomas Hutcheson, who previously held the top role in Northfield as well, made the jump to town manager of Dalton. Lynch himself was the town manager in Chelmsford for two decades before being hired in Lowell, and also briefly served as an acting town manager following his retirement.
Attracting qualified candidates for small-town positions — especially in more remote areas — can be a significant challenge. And as managers and administrators look to advance, some towns can start to feel like a revolving door with new leaders every three or four years.
“It’s, to put it succinctly, a lot of work for very little pay,” said former Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash, who left that role to become Gov. Charlie Baker’s first economic development secretary in 2015. “Smaller towns with smaller budgets have a reduced ability to pay somebody, and on the other hand you have a more complicated job.”
In contrast, posts in places like Cambridge typically offer a higher salary and much more structural support, creating a much more competitive hiring process. Ash was a finalist for the Cambridge job in 2016, before he withdrew from consideration.
Julie Jacobson, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association, said the organization has increased efforts to recruit the next generation of managers in recent years as the field’s demographics shift. She pointed to Massachusetts Municipal Association subcommittees, including one focused on women in municipal government and another for “future managers,” as well as Suffolk University’s municipal management certificate program.
Ash, Lynch and Jacobson agreed that a limited hiring pool has likely contributed to a lack of diversity among municipal leaders and employees. Though they said the field has made strides in recent years, especially in hiring women for these roles, Ash said the pay for entry level positions in smaller communities can be a barrier for young candidates who are still building their municipal experience.
“There are very few candidates of color for (administration) jobs because there are very few DPW directors who are Black or brown, or there are very few treasurers who are Black or brown,” Ash told the News Service ” …. There’s a real problem getting candidates of color through the pipeline and into a position where they’re ready to apply to be the manager or administrator.”
Though town administrators and managers typically come to their positions from other areas of municipal government, these searches often produce another type of candidate as well: Elected officials looking to make the jump to an appointed position.
There have been some recent high-profile examples, such as former Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s departure to take a position as Provincetown town manager. Though she didn’t have exact figures, Jacobson estimated that between 12 and 15 of the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association’s members are former elected officials, whether former mayors, select board members or finance committee members.
Winchester Town Manager Lisa Wong, who served four terms as Fitchburg’s mayor, is among them. Wong said her shift to town management was mostly for personal reasons, including a move out of Fitchburg, but that there’s a lot of overlap between being a mayor and a town manager.
She said not all elected officials are cut out for these executive positions, but many have previous management experience that, coupled with experience in local government, can sometimes be a perfect fit.
“I think there’s definitely a strong link between being in elected office and working in any level of government, because you are essentially working on the same things,” she said. “There’s a huge policy component.”
Experience in office can help candidates build a knowledge of municipal operations and develop transferable skills, Jacobson and Lynch said — but they don’t exactly view politics as a potential pipeline for management positions, as there are professional aspects of the job that can’t necessarily be learned on the campaign trail. And Jacobson noted that members of the Municipal Management Association are prohibited from participating in political activities after joining the organization.
“We have a real focus on the fact that these are professional positions, not political positions. So that’s always at the forefront of any of our searches,” Lynch said. ” … There have been some great successes out there of people that have transitioned from elected positions to town administrators and town managers, but you always want to weigh that over.”
Lynch said he has started to see more young candidates applying to and being hired for some of these posts, and that the number of openings does seem to be leveling off. Jacobson’s hope is that the recruitment efforts of the MMA and other groups are working.
“I think if a lot of young people realize that certain job opportunities are out there in the future, then they will start focusing on preparation at an undergraduate and graduate level to be able to take those jobs,” Jacobson said. “Because there are openings, and there are gaps, and they as younger students now have the potential to fill those gaps in the future.”