The Search for a New Town Manager Begins With Potential for Public Input
Future of Sustainability and Communications Coordinator Positions Discussed
BAR HARBOR—The Bar Harbor Town Council will hold a workshop next Tuesday, February 28, at 5:30 p.m. with David Barrett, Maine Municipal Association (MMA), to discuss priorities in candidates for a town manager that would replace Kevin Sutherland who resigned in January. That meeting will be at the Bar Harbor Municipal Building. Finance Director Sarah Gilbert is currently the interim town manager.
Barrett, director of personnel services and labor relations at MMA, spoke to the council this Tuesday, February 22, during the regular council meeting. He explained that he creates an advertisement for the position. The resumes would come to his office. He notifies the sender of the receipt and gives them a tentative calendar of the process steps.
Barrett then goes through the resumes “with a light touch” to identify the strongest candidates. He said his goal is for councilors to see a wide swath of candidates. However, if they want to see all the applications, he will send them all. Those resumes will be sent in advance of the council’s next meeting with Barrett that is not next week’s workshop. That meeting would be in executive session because they would be discussing candidates. The goal of that meeting would be to select candidates to do first-round interviews. Barrett would also attend the first round interviews, which could be virtual or in person depending on the candidate. The second round of interviews should be in person, he said.
Councilor Gary Friedmann asked how Barrett had previously facilitated public participation in the process of choosing a manager.
Barrett said that he began facilitating manager searches in the late 1980s and it was not common to have public participation then, but it is common now. The trick, he said, is to find a useful and viable way to do so. A passive way to do that is to have a public workshop prior to looking at resumes. People would come in and tell their opinions about what a town manager should do and be like. More active participation would be a group of people participating in the search process without voting or making final decisions. A panel of citizens and senior staff could be a part of a second interview and provide feedback to the council. That could also happen in the first round of interviews.
The expectation would be for public involvement to help the council make better and more informed decisions, he said and stressed that it would be important for those citizens involved to get their comments back to the council.
Friedmann asked about background checks on applicants. Barrett said there was a two-prong background check. Friedmann asked about calling people who had worked with the applicants who weren’t necessarily listed as references. Barrett said that tends to be more difficult. Friedmann then asked that a discussion about the public participation in the search be put on the next council agenda.
Barrett asked for the council to give him its priorities in town manager skill sets, and he asked for a three-to-five-year list of capital projects and any potential senior management turnover or similar sort of issues and needs.
Vice Chair Matthew Hochman asked about the typical number of applications for town manager positions, Barrett is getting. Barrett said he isn’t getting a lot of resumes. He said 15 years ago, his organization would receive 90 applications for a job. However, Maine is an aging state so the workforce size is smaller now. The university program that fed students into municipal management no longer exists. People would start working in rural areas and then go into destination jobs like in Bar Harbor. The name recognition of the town can help entice candidates, he said.
When Councilor Erin Cough asked about the search timeline, Barrett said that if there was a workshop or special meeting next week, advertisements for candidates would run before March 10. Those ads would run for 3-4 weeks. Resumes would go out to the council in early April. In mid-April, they would begin inviting people to interview. May would be when the second round of interviews occurred. At the end of May, councilors could make a decision if that decision was available to them, he said. Then there would be time for the new hire to resign, move, give adequate notice. So the best case scenario is July 1.
Kevin Sutherland’s termination came with a separation agreement and severance pay, which includes a non-disclosure clause for both the town and Sutherland. Both Sutherland’s January 25 letter of resignation and a Town Council statement said he was leaving for personal reasons as did the severance agreement. The agreement had a stipulation that he needed to resign voluntarily by 5 p.m. that same day. There was an executive session held about a personnel matter two nights before on January 23. The actual separation agreement was created January 24.
TOWN MANAGER’S OFFICE AND COORDINATOR POSITIONS
During budget discussions at the same meeting, councilors delved into the sustainability and communications coordinators’ positions. Both women in those positions were let go earlier this month. The new positions had been part of the town manager’s department.
Both coordinators began in early fall of 2022. Maya Caines, the communications coordinator, was a public information officer for the town who relayed and coordinated questions from the media and public to appropriate town staff, updated and/or redesigned the website and other public-facing town messaging and information. Caines also created “Manager’s Minutes” and other outreach programs and ideas including a potential town-wide text alert program. Both she and Laura Berry, the former sustainability coordinator, were present at the beginning of the February 22 meeting for the town manager search discussion.
The sustainability coordinator had wide-ranging responsibilities related to integrating sustainability and environmental considerations into the town's operations and practices, including solar energy, energy efficiency, waste management, and data collection and analysis projects, working with organizations and businesses on community-wide sustainability initiatives, and obtaining grants and funding to support this work. She also wrote grants and organized large projects.
Both Caines and Berry were asked a week before their termination to create updated job descriptions and told that their positions would be moved out of the town manager’s department. They were both in six-month probationary periods, which allowed them to be terminated at will and without cause.
A letter from the Task Force on the Climate Emergency, which is included in the town manager’s packet to council, urges the council to support the position, saying it’s crucial so that Bar Harbor can meet its climate goals.
During the public comment time at the beginning of the meeting, Kenneth Colburn said that there have been a number of personnel and personality changes in the town office, which he believes are under the council’s purview. He said that the council’s wisdom in approving a sustainability coordinator a year ago still prevailed. He stressed that the environment has been Bar Harbor’s stock and trade in the present, in its future. and in its past.
Councilor Gary Friedmann floated the idea of a sustainability coordinator being half-time and part of a planning position for the planning office. Town Planner Michele Gagnon said that his idea had value and discussed how sustainability has three pillars: environmental, economic, and social. Related to all of that, she said is transportation and housing.
Councilor Jill Goldthwait said the idea was appealing, but that there could potentially be one person trying to do two 80-hour jobs in a 40-hour-work week. Peacock and Hochman agreed.
“I think these are two full-time jobs that you’re squishing into one,” she said.
They recently interviewed someone for the planner position with a sustainability background, Gagnon said. And they thought, “Oh my God, this person could do so much for us.” To Goldthwait’s point, she said, “It really depends on who is out there.”
Councilor Erin Cough said that the council is responsible for the budget, but not the work organizational chart that determines where staff is placed. “It’s not the council that makes that decision; it’s the town manager.”
When discussing the communications coordinator position, Goldthwait advocating not rehiring currently, stressing that the position is unique because she believes that it’s “pretty much totally dependent” on direction or instruction from the town manager. She doesn’t believe it makes sense to fill that position prior to hiring a new manager and didn’t see funding it until January 1, 2024 and that even then it might not need to be a full-time position or that it could be contracted out.
Hochman said he wasn’t opposed to looking at decreasing the salary of the position, but he does believe it should be full time.
“We have proven again and again that we are terrible at handing communication,” he said. “We are in a world now where an improper use of social media destroys governments.”
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