2016-08-19 / Front Page

Manager search begins in earnest

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — By the time South Portland residents head to the polls Nov. 8 to pick a president, they’ll know who their next city manager will be.

That was the promise made Monday, Aug. 15, as the city council adopted a timeline presented by interim city manager Don Gerrish. What concerned some councilors, however, is that the public might learn the names of top candidates before an offer is made to a final candidate.

“If I was a candidate thinking of applying here, I’d want to be outed only at the last minute, lest I mess up my opportunities where I am at present,” said Councilor Claude Morgan.

Since July 18, Gerrish – a former Brunswick town manager with a history of backfilling during administrator searches in various Maine municipalities, including Auburn, Rockland and Damariscotta – has been leading the South Portland, working three days per week at $650 per day. His regular employer, Augusta consulting firm Eaton Peabody, also was retained for $9,500 on July 18, to organize the city manager search.

Gerrish said Monday that he and Eaton Peabody have already solicited all city employees for opinions on what qualities the new, permanent manager should possess. A similar listening session for members of the public was set for Wednesday, Aug. 17. That meeting took place after the deadline for this week’s Sentry.

A final decision on advertising for the position will be made by Aug. 22, Gerrish said. The wording can be tricky, he added, because just as important as luring top candidates, the ad must also sell South Portland, rocked by controversy and council discord over the past few years, to a national audience.

Once approved, the ad will begin running by Wednesday, Aug. 24 on the city website, as well as sites hosted by the Maine Municipal Association, Maine Job Bank, and the International City Management Association. That ad will run for four weeks, with a deadline to apply set for Wednesday, Sept. 21.

Gerrish said he expects to field about 35 resumes, which Eaton Peabody will winnow down to those “worth looking at.”

A folder on the top prospects will be delivered to city councilors by Friday, Sept. 23, and they will meet on Wednesday, Sept. 28 to select between six and eight candidates for a personal interview.

First round interviews are scheduled to take place between Monday, Oct. 3 and Thursday, Oct. 6, after which the council will choose at most three, and more likely two final candidates.

Gerrish said names of the finalists would be made public and each would come to South Portland for a full day of touring facilities and meeting with department heads and community members, sometime between Monday, Oct. 10 and Thursday, Oct. 13.

Those visits were initially slated for Oct. 17-20. However, Councilor Linda Cohen pointed out that is the week of the annual Maine Municipal Association convention, where she will be in her capacity as the association’s vice president. She also suggested one or more of the finalists might he busy at the convention that week, presuming he or she already is employed as a manager elsewhere in Maine.

Gerrish agreed to reschedule the visits, although he seemed to think few potential hires would prioritize the gathering over a job interview.

“Whenever we schedule it, they’ll be here,” he said.

Once a top candidate is selected and a job offer is made, a contract will be hammered out sometime between Oct. 24 and Nov. 4. The city council will vote on that contract and introduce the new city manager at its meeting on Monday, Nov. 7.

Also at Monday’s workshop session, the council reviewed a job description for the new city manager, expanded to four pages by Eaton Peabody from the single sheet used when former manager Jim Gailey took the job in 2007.

“Today job descriptions tend to be a little longer than they have been in the past,” Gerrish said. “Most applicants want to see a job description. They want to know what’s expected of them and if the job description been updated. This will help candidates know that the community takes this seriously.”

In addition to the updating the duties and responsibilities of the new manager, the new job description also contains expanded sections detailing “other duties” and “qualifications” – a master’s degree in public administration now being the minimum expected education level – as well as requisite “knowledge, skills and abilities” of the new manager, and “physical demands” of the job.

Some found the last section to be odd, giving verbiage that says, “Work involves walking, talking, hearing, using hands to handle, feel or operate objects, tools, computer, cell phone or controls and reaching with hands and arms.”

“Is this meant be to be facetious, or what? That all just sounds a little strange,” Orchard Street resident Patricia Whyte said.

Human Resources Director Don Brewer agreed the wording “could be more savvy.” However, he said Eaton Peabody lifted the passage from similar job descriptions at other Maine municipalities.

Still, councilors agreed the section should only require the new city manager to be “mobile,” even if he or she is unable to walk.

“I can see someone being a great city manager in a wheelchair,” said Mayor Tom Blake.

Blake also suggested the job description include references to county, as well as state and federal government, as entities with which the new manager will need to communicate.

“I think we may be playing a greater interaction with the county in the future,” he said.

Gailey, a South Portland native who had worked for the city in some capacity since 1986, while still in high school, resigned effective July 22 to become assistant to Cumberland County Manager Peter Crichton. In making the move, Gailey took a $17,000 per year cut in pay, to a base salary of $106,000.

On Monday, councilors did not cite a maximum amount they are willing to pay Gailey’s replacement.

In other edits the council added, per the suggestion of Councilor Patti Smith, wording to encourage the new manager to work “collaboratively” with various entities, and to strive for “sustainable” solutions, in keeping with the city’s drive for green technologies.

Councilor Linda Cohen also said the job description should include the need for frequent trips to the Washington, D.C., for talks with Maine’s congressional delegation.

“We’re the fourth largest city in the state,” she said. “There are other communities down there and if there’s a pie to cut up we should be getting a slice.”

Gerrish stressed that the folder of applicants given to councilors is to be treated by them as “privileged information,” not to be shared with any member of the public or press. Only the finalists will be announced, given the impracticality of keeping site visits secret and the need to contact present employers as part of a background check.

“People understand their names will be public at a point, if they’re a finalist,” Gerrish said, adding revelation of finalists has “not been a problem” at 25 city and town manager searches conducted by Eaton Peabody. Still, Morgan said there remains bad blood over the departure last year of Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings, who crossed the river to take the top job in Portland City Hall.

“He’s still sizzling angry that he was outed for no reason at all, and it was not a sure thing that he was getting that job. That could have jeopardized his position here,” Morgan said. “As we know, it was a councilor on our city council who ran to the news media with that. That’s still an unpleasant experience for the current city manager of Portland. He felt it was a betrayal of confidentiality and I rather agree. We have somewhat of a history of breeching confidentiality here already. So, I’m a little concerned with moving ahead with the process.”

Although Morgan took pains not to mention Jennings by name, Councilor Brad Fox acknowledged being the person who had “run to the media.”

“Councilor Morgan loves to criticize me,” he said. “I just want to remind him that I was told about the city manager applicant by a councilor from Portland. Apparently, he told everyone. Everyone in Portland knew about it and we didn’t, which I thought was the wrong thing to be happening here, if we have an assistant city manager applying.”

At that point Mayor Blake broke in to say he, too, had learned of Jennings’ immanent defection from a Portland city councilor, but that, “We won’t be having any of that here.”

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