By Beth David, Editor
After a meeting that lasted more than three hours on 2/16/21, the Fairhaven Selectboard voted 2–1 not to choose any of the three candidates they had just interviewed for Town Administrator. Instead, at the urging of board member Keith Silvia, the board decided to hold another meeting on Tuesday, 2/23, to interview Finance Director/Treasurer Wendy Graves, who as been acting as Interim TA during the search.
Ms. Graves did not make it onto the list after the screening committee narrowed the field from 39 applications to three finalists.
Selectboard chairperson Daniel Freitas had revealed at the 12/21/20 Selectboard meeting that Ms. Graves was a candidate for Town Administrator. It was during the same meeting that she was chosen to be Interim TA. Mr. Freitas had already nominated himself to the screening committee at the 11/10/20 meeting, and was appointed on a 2-3 vote, with Mr. Silvia joining Mr. Freitas to appoint him, and board member Bob Espindola voting “no.”
At the meeting this week, three finalists were interviewed for about one hour each: Jennifer Callahan, currently the Town Manager of Oxford, Mass.; Thomas Hutka, of Palm Beach, FL, who is now consulting, and previously served as City Manager of Port Huron, Mich.; Ari Sky of New Bedford, currently the Chief Financial Officer for the City of New Bedford.
During the interviews consultant Bernie Lynch of Community Paradigm Associates, asked each candidate the same questions. Selectboard members also asked questions.
Questions included how the candidates would increase employee morale; what their management style is; their approach/ philosophy to creating a town budget, especially noting that this year, due to COVID-19, the town had to use free cash to balance the budget; how they would keep a good relationship with the school department, which is about half the town’s $52 million budget; handle the upcoming infrastructure projects totalling in the millions; if they had experience with additional revenue sources, such as grants; and their ability to advance the Master Plan initiatives; how they would communicate issues and routine activities to the board. Mr. Silvia asked each candidate when they could start.
Ms. Callahan told the board that Fairhaven was “truly a unique community” that piqued her interest in a variety of ways. She noted the history, architecture and the “majesty of the ocean at your doorstep,” that make the town a special place.
She also said she has a brother-in-law who is from Fairhaven and fished commercially for years.
The town is on the cusp of a transitional phase, she said, and noted that she has a diverse background and has used all of it to work for municipalities.
“I truly love working for municipal government,” said Ms. Callahan, who has earned a Doctorate of Education, Master of Public Health, is a Registered Nurse; and served as a state representative for eight years. She was also the TA of Millville, and served on the Selectboard and other committees in Sutton, Mass.
Ms. Callahan said she believes in an open door policy and is “very actively engaged in the community.”
She said she would work with her department heads to “make them shine,” and will make sure employees are recognized for their good work.
As for the budget, Ms. Callahan said she has been very successful getting grant money, and cautioned against using one time money for ongoing expenses.
If capital improvements require debt exclusions or overrides, she said she makes sure the community knows what it means to the average household.
Ms. Callahan also said she is experienced in economic development and getting businesses into a town. She was a chamber of commerce director.
“This pandemic has turned everything on its head,” she said, but noted that she was very quick to act when the governor allowed outdoor dining to make sure the restaurants could start right away.
Ms. Callahan also had a caution about tax programs for businesses, saying the companies have to deliver on their end to “make sure the community does get its benefit.”
Ms. Callahan said she would like to get a residence in Fairhaven, but also noted she is not “afraid of commuting,” and realizes she will probably have to commute at first.
“But obviously you want to be as close as possible to the community,” she said, adding that she wants to be part of the “fabric” of Fairhaven.
Mr. Hutka told the board that he had dedicated his whole life to public service in local communities. He said he came from a blue collar family, but he was able to go to college.
His “wild idea” to bring technical skills to local government led him to a degree in civil engineering, a Master in Public Administration; and a certified Public Manager program. He has held a number of public leadership positions in economic development, housing, and civic organizations. He has also served as a Director of Public Works; director of Municipal Program Management; Deputy County Manager; and associate county administrator. He also had a career in finance.
Mr. Hutka told the board his strength is leading other people and managing staff.
“The whole mission of a town administrator is to harness the troops,” said Mr. Hutka, which means having the right people in the right places and giving them the resources to do the job.
He said he is proud to get people to “rekindle their careers,” and get them excited about their jobs and the projects they are working on.
The key is treating people with respect and kindness.
“I’m not a desk jockey,” said Mr. Hutka.
He said he has an open door policy, but he does not stop there, he asks employees what they need to make their jobs better.
Mr. Hutka said he has “built some of the very best teams you’ll find in the country.”
As for the budget, Mr. Hutka said the town might have to look at layoffs; and maintenance programs can usually skip a year.
Grant money is more available in hard times he said, and municipalities can expect money from Washington this year.
Mr. Hutka stressed his blue collar background, and said collective bargaining is good for the town and employees when handled properly.
“Motivation is based…on respect,” said Mr. Hutka. “Professional respect for their chosen profession.”
He also outlined practical ways he would work with people and departments to build trust, including that he would return calls and emails; eat at local establishments to meet people; and ask what people need.
“And take it very seriously,” said Mr. Hutka. “Don’t ask a question if you can’t respond and follow up.”
Mr. Sky told the board that he has been in local government his whole career of 20+ years. He has worked in several budget positions in Virginia, as a Borough Manager in Pennsylvania, and a legislative assistant in the US House of Representatives in Washington DC.
Mr. Sky said he likes to “lead by example.”
He has used a number of techniques to build morale and build teams.
“I’m a detail oriented guy,” said Mr. Sky. “I get data, I get numbers.”
He said to lead, it is important to make expectations clear and define goals.
He said he helped improve communications in New Bedford to improve employee morale. He said employees felt that policy makers and employees did not understand where each was coming from and they turned that around.
They did it with follow-through, no surprises, he said.
“You should never ask a question if you don’t really want to hear the answer,” said Mr. Sky.
He explained how New Bedford builds its budget from the ground up, and said he would look at joint services, calling Fairhaven’s IT arrangement between the school department and other town departments “ingenious.”
He also said he had a public works background and had been at the helm of projects, including one where the city saved nearly $20 million.
He said the upgrades to the treatment plant are a “similarly daunting task.”
“The key is figuring out which bits of the apple you need to take,” said Mr. Sky..
For economic development, Mr. Sky said Fairhaven does not have lot of space for new development, but it does have a lot of opportunity for redevelopment.
He said he was familiar with grant and loan programs, and noted that projects in New Bedford also affect Fairhaven.
Mr. Sky said he would start with team building, and find ways to include everybody in informal gatherings and fun events.
The worst thing a manager can do is see a situation and try to avoid it,” saying you have to “lance the boil before it becomes too big.”
“I’m pretty well known for being approachable and accessible,” said Mr. Sky, adding that if he’s the kind of person who can’t deal with a citizen who has a problem then, “I’m in the wrong job.”
All three candidates stressed the importance of the human resources director position, which has been vacant for several months, and is not funded in the next budget.
After the interviews, the board discussed the next steps. Mr. Freitas said it was a late night, pointing to agenda item B1, which called for the board to make a decision. Mr. Lynch said it was a “placeholder” and the board was not bound to decide that night. Mr. Espindola stated he was “ready.”
But Mr. Silvia said that Ms. Graves had a “resume in,” and wanted to know why she was not a finalist.
“How much can I speak to this,” Mr. Freitas asked the consultant, but Mr. Lynch said he would not speak to it.
Mr. Freitas confirmed that Ms. Graves had submitted her resume.
Mr. Silva said she was “running it” now, and “she’s doing a great job, ” and that she deserved an interview and he wondered why she did not get on the finalist list.
Mr. Freitas said he was not sure if he could “get into why” she was not on the list.
Mr Espindola said there was a process in place and they all agreed to the process, and he pointed out that Mr. Freitas was on the screening committee.
“I definitely want to interview her,” said Mr. Silvia. “I think she deserves one.”
Mr. Freitas said he had no problem with that and “there’s a little more to this,” adding, “I don’t know if that’s something we can put in writing….the whole story that happened.”
Mr. Silvia made the motion to interview Ms. Graves and Mr. Freitas seconded the motion, which passed 2–1, with Mr. Espindola voting “no.”
Mr. Freitas said that the meeting, therefore, could not be broadcast, so she could not see the questions. During the meeting, the candidates not being interviewed were put in a Zoom waiting room where they could not hear the proceedings. Mr. Freitas said Mr. Lynch would have to set up different questions. The meeting, however, did start running on Channel 18 on Tuesday night and was available on www.FairhavenTV.com early Wednesday morning.
“There is a bit of a back story to this,” said Mr. Freitas. “Not that it will change my mind.”
Mr. Espindola made the motion to choose Ms. Callahan for TA anyway, but it was not seconded. Still Mr. Freitas called for a vote, which was, again, 2–1.
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