2016-11-18 / Community

City back to drawing board on city manager search

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Less than 38 hours after South Portland Mayor Tom Blake announced the city council’s selection for a new manager at the Nov. 7 council meeting, that candidate, Edward Collins of Lehi, Utah, declined the job offer.

“We are disappointed,” Blake said on Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 9. “We thought he was a good fit. However, any candidate has to feel very comfortable and he apparently was not. But that’s OK. It is what it is and we will move forward.”

Two finalists for the job, culled from a list of 23 applicants, traveled to South Portland Nov. 2-3 to sit for second interviews, to meet with department heads and to attend a mixer with residents alongside their respective spouses. The other candidate was James “Ty” Ross of Dalton, Georgia.

In separate telephone interviews conducted shortly before 8:30 a.m. Nov. 9, both Blake and interim City Manager Don Gerrish said Collins had taken the job. However, three hours later the city issued a press release saying he “will not be accepting the position.”

Gerrish said that notice came in the form of an email that arrived in his inbox at 9:34 a.m.

A story in last week’s print edition of the Sentry carried an announcement of Collins’ hiring. That issue went to press about the time Collins’ sent his refusal notice.

“He had accepted the contract and we informed him we were going to announce it,” Gerrish said. “We did not have a signed contract back yet, but the only detail we had left to settle was the exact date when he would start. Other than that he told us he had accepted the contract.”

Collins, 51, would have been paid $115,000 per year, a little less than the $121,000 annual salary allowed to his predecessor Jim Gailey, who left in July after nearly nine years on the job. Gailey is now the assistant manager of Cumberland County.

In his email to Gerrish, Collins was non-specific about exactly what turned him off on the job at the 11th hour.

“After careful consideration of the entirety of my experiences in the selection process . . . it is clear to me that I am not the right person for the job at this time,” he wrote. “I recognize that my decision creates some difficulty for the city council. I apologize for that but I feel strongly that getting the right person on the job is more important than sticking to a strict schedule or process.” On Monday, Nov. 14, the council met in a workshop session to consider what to do next.

“Plain and simple, what has happened is pretty much behind us,” Blake said. “I don’t want to dwell on whys, or whats. Our task now is (to ask), ‘What do we do going forward?’”

First on the table was a suggestion that the council take out a requirement that the new manager live in South Portland. Of the original 23 resumes submitted to replace Gailey, only four came from Maine residents, not counting Collins, a Maine native who has lived in Utah for 23 years and recently inherited a house on Hall Street in South Portland.

“Just because you do not live in the community does not mean you do not respect the community,” Councilor Linda Cohen said.

“We may not get anybody different, but you never now, we might,” she said of reposting the job, adding that some current city employees who live in surrounding towns might have passed on submitting an application because of a residency rule.

Councilor Claude Morgan said the residency requirement exists in order to make the manager “feel the pain” of his or her city budget.

“Why would a city manager have any incentive to keep taxes low if they are living someplace where the mill rate is quite acceptable to them,” he said.

But Morgan said the budget is actually the city council’s responsibility, not the manager’s.

“It’s on us,” he said, agreeing, “there may be somebody who lives 30 miles or so from here who does not want to sell a house in order to buy a house in a tough market.”

“We should not try to force a lifestyle change,” Morgan said. “We are hiring professional services, we are not asking someone to drink the Kool-Aid and be one of us.”

The residency requirement was cut, with the council agreeing to place new advertisements for the job “as soon as possible.”

For the new search, the council will continue to use Portland consulting firm, Eaton Peabody. The $9,500 contract signed with the company in July lasts until South Portland has a new manager in place, Blake said.

A separate contract with Gerrish, who works for Eaton Peabody, also has no specific end date, lasting until a permanent manager takes over. Gerrish will continue to serve until then as interim manager, logging three days per week at a rate of $650 per day.

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