2016-07-01 / Front Page

Council picks interim city manager

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — After fielding a host of process options for replacing outgoing City Manager Jim Gailey, the city council agreed Monday to offer the reins of city hall to former Brunswick Town Manager Don Gerrish on an interim basis, and to hire his current employer, the consulting arm of Portland law firm Eaton Peabody, to lead the search for a permanent chief executive.

“It’s no secret the hiring of a new city manager is not your normal everyday search process,” city Human Resources Director Don Brewer told councilors during a workshop presentation.

Brewer said Gailey’s last day on the job will be July 22, although he may use accrued vacation days to leave earlier.

“I’m understanding that may be a possibility,” Brewer said.

Gailey has taken a $17,000 per year cut in pay to a base salary of $106,000 to accept the No. 2 job in Cumberland County, where he will serve as assistant to County Manager Peter Crichton. He reportedly beat out 38 other applicants for the job.

Gailey is leaving after nine years as city manager and 30 years working for the city of South Portland, starting as a youth league coach while still in high school. At the most recent regular city council meeting on June 20, former Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis took the podium to claim Gailey is calling it quits out of frustration with “a couple of (city) councilors who are occupying 20 to 25 percent of the city manager’s time.”

“Councilors are not the ones who should be micromanaging this community,” she said. “Badgering (the city manager) with emails and showing up at the door demanding answers, occupying his time and keeping him from doing his daily agenda, that’s not OK, and the public needs to know that.”

Gailey did not publicly refute De Angelis’ claims. However, as recently as last summer, when assistant city manager Jon Jennings jumped the river to take the top job in Portland, Gailey said in interviews with the Sentry he did not apply for that job and had no interest leaving his native city. The only rationale given for the about-face came in his resignation letter, in which Gailey wrote, “I now find it’s time for a change as I want to explore other opportunities and career goals.”

Among the options laid out by Brewer for replacing Gailey, he said his preference was to promote Assistant City Manager Josh Reny to the captain’s chair on an interim basis and to hire city resident John Bubier as a temporary assistant manager.

A former municipal manager in Lisbon, Bath, Boothbay and, most recently, Biddeford, as well as a former director of the Great Portland Council of Governments, Bubier emailed Gailey to offer himself up at a rate of $65 to $75 per hour for 22.5 hours per week, for as long as eight months. Bubier also offered to serve for a full year at an annual salary of $75,000, Brewer said.

Brewer said if the council gave a green light, Bubier would backstop Reny until a new permanent manager was hired. Once that happened, Reny would either move back down to the assistant position, with Bubier thanked for his time, or else would remain in the big chair, having won the job, necessitating a second search, this time for a new assistant manager.

However, while most councilors went out of their way to praise Reny’s job performance during his nine months in South Portland, few on the council endorsed boosting the former Fairfield town manager to the top job, even on an interim basis.

For many, the concern seemed to be that Brewer offered the option up as a late-game audible.

“This makes tonight’s conversation very awkward for me and makes this a fine howdy-do, because this doesn’t reflect at all what we’ve been discussing in executive session,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “I’m a bit disappointed. I feel quite blindsided by this suggestion. I feel like you are springing this on us from out of nowhere.”

Brewer said the Bubier option did not present itself until after the council’s last closed-door meeting on the topic, June 20. It was, he stressed, just another possibility for the council to juggle.

“My only intent was to search all the rocks and see what was under them and to come up with the most number of options for you to consider,” he said.

It was under a different rock that Brewer found Gerrish, who, like Bubier, made an unsolicited overture to the city following Gailey’s June 8 resignation.

Gerrish was willing to step in as interim city manager for as long as three to four months, asking $650 for a three-day workweek, Brewer said. In addition to being more costly than Bubier’s offer, Gerrish’s bid also came with a caveat.

“Contingent on that is that his firm would be hired to conduct the city manager search, at $10,500 plus expenses,” Brewer said. ““If you use him as an interim, you’re really committing yourself to using his firm for the search.”

Brewer said Eaton Peabody is well-experienced in the field, having conducted 25 executive searches in the last five years, including in Auburn, where Gerrish similarly held the wheel until a new city manger was hired.

Other options presented by Brewer included hiring Municipal Resources Inc. of Meredith, New Hampshire, which had offered to lead South Portland’s city manager search for $15,000. The firm reportedly collected $17,000 from Portland last year for its work that led to landing Jennings. Depending on the scope of services required by the South Portland City Council, MRI might be willing to go as low as $5,000 on its offer, Brewer said.

Also on the table was an informal bid from Portland human resources consulting firm Drake Inglesi Milardo, which said its bill would be equal to 25 percent of whatever South Portland paid any new city manager it found. That, Brewer said, was a discount on Drake’s usual 33 percent finder’s fee.

Finally, South Portland could rely on the Maine Municipal Association to beat the bush for a new city manager, at a charge of $4,900. However, that was the one option Brewer cautioned against.

“I don’t feel there is anything they really could do that we couldn’t do ourselves, in house,” he said.

As one additional recourse, Brewer said the council could adopt a hybrid plan, relying on city staff and a search committee to do the bulk of the work with guidance from a consulting service. At any rate, Brewer said, some outside help should be accepted from a company with broad networking prowess in the field of executive officers.

“There are just not as many people applying for these manager openings as there used to be. So, I think it’s imperative that we conduct a thorough search,” he said.

Councilor Linda Cohen was the first to select an option, saying she was all-in for Gerrish. She was working in Auburn when he was there, she said, and found him to be “a calming influence,” during what could have been a turbulent time. Taking him on, she said, would also make the possibility of eventually hiring Reny, or any other current city employee, seem a more purposeful selection, rather than appearing to just hand the job off to an interim.

“I really would like to have someone totally outside come in and run the city for a few months,” she said.

Others said they wanted a more experienced CEO at the helm during the transition process.

“I’m looking to hire a very firm, strong interim manger with a lot of experience under his belt. I’m not looking to hire an assistant city manager,” Morgan said.

Others said that although Reny had been town manager of Fairfield, and has been South Portland’s assistant city manager since last fall, they still viewed him as something of a cypher, hired by Gailey without their input.

“I have no idea where Josh (Reny) came from or what kind of a job he did, because no one ever put that forward,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher.

Although uncomfortable with elevating Reny to the top job on an interim basis, Beecher said she still hoped he would apply for the permanent post.

Councilor Fox, meanwhile, said Reny has “more than proven himself.” But he could go either way on an interim manager, easily voting for either Reny or Gerrish, he said. Fox quoted Councilor Eben Rose, absent from the meeting, who, he said, had reported high praise for Gerrish after attending a recent municipal training seminar he led.

“(Gerrish) has an exceptional ability to communicate how a city should be run,” Fox said.

In the end, only Mayor Blake was a strong proponent of the Reny/Bubier option, noting that nine months was plenty of on-the-job training. After all, he said, Gailey had only been South Portland’s assistant city manager for four months in 2007, when he was tapped as an interim replacement for outgoing manager Ted Jankowski, and eventually granted ongoing rights to the gig.

“I’m high on the chain of command, and we often talk about how we have well-qualified people from top to bottom and people ready to step into leadership positions,” Blake said, claiming Reny came to South Portland ready to lead and had since been battle-tested.

However, in the end, Blake was alone in his support of Reny. Because Monday’s meeting was a workshop session, the council did not conduct a formal show of hands. Still, with Councilors Beecher, Cohen, Morgan and Patti Smith solidly behind hiring Gerrish and Eaton Peabody, and Fox willing to go either way, Blake said the group had reached “a clear consensus.”

He then turned to Reny, who had been sitting in the audience, offering what almost sounded like an invitation to pursue other opportunities.

“Please don’t take this as an insult in any way,” Blake said. “I personally think the world of you and think wherever your future takes you, you are going to excel.”

The council agreed it will meet with Gerrish, likely in executive session, either at 6 p.m., prior to its next regular meeting on Wednesday, July 6, or at 5:30 p.m., for its workshop session on Monday, July 11.

Those talks, Brewer said, could result in South Portland paying less than the quoted price for the Gerrish/Eaton Peabody package deal.

“In my conversations with Mr. Gerrish, he indicated their offer was negotiable,” he said.

There was no suggestion of initiating a formal bid process for consulting services to lead the city manager search. However, South Portland’s purchasing ordinance requires a competitive bid for any service estimated to cost more than $10,000. The only listed exemptions are for emergency purchases, when a part of a purchase is reimbursable by state or federal sources, or when either no bids are received or all bids are rejected as “unreasonable.”

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