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Deerfield officials debate administrator role

SOUTH DEERFIELD — For five hours Saturday morning, the members of the Board of Selectmen and Personnel Board debated the future role of the town administrator — an issue that has roiled the town as it gets closer to hiring its next permanent municipal leader.

Personnel Board Chairman Jay Wallace and members Joanne Carney and Albert “Skip” Olmstead and Selectman David Wolfram agreed on having a town administrator to lead and coordinate daily town functions and were satisfied with the job description recommended by the Personnel Board. Longtime Selectmen’s Chairman Mark Gilmore and Selectman Carolyn Shores Ness, on the other hand, were reluctant to move forward with the proposed job description, arguing for a weaker administrator.

The split stretched the Saturday morning meeting to five hours as the selectmen and Personnel Board members debated whether the job description was sufficient.

“I have major heartburn after reading the Northfield charter change and seeing what that office does now,” Gilmore said. “I don’t know how we could hire someone without going up to God level. It’s ludicrous. I’m at a loss. I don’t know how to make what I’m looking for happen. I don’t know how to proceed from here.”

Though Gilmore and Ness were hesitant with the job description, the Personnel Board members contended that it is essentially a more concise version of the same description the town has always used and gives the job no more power than it already has. Some argued that the job description could change even after a person is hired, if the selectmen wish.

“I think this is a strong enough job description so we can start advertising the position,” Wolfram said. “We have to move on this right now. Back in 1776, they wrote a hell of a document, but it’s been changing ever since.”

In the end, the selectmen made some small word changes to the job description. The task is now in the hands of the seven-member Town Administrator Screening Committee chaired by Carney.

Whether the town administrator should have a stronger or weaker role or stay the same has been a controversial issue in the town as the deadline for Interim Town Administrator Wendy Foxmyn to leave creeps closer. A state audit in November recommended the town strengthen the town administrator position, leaving the selectmen as the chief policy makers.

The town has been without a permanent town administrator since June, when Bernard Kubiak retired. Foxmyn has been filling in as a temporary employee. She plans to leave in February.

The major road block for Gilmore and Ness, both of whom have served several terms, is their past experience with town administrators who they feel pushed them out of the governing process.

“We were marginalized in the end in recent years,” Ness said. “We fought it. We were participating.”

However, in her eight months on the job, Foxmyn said she has noticed a lack of participation on the board’s part, excluding Wolfram. She said perhaps the board has grown accustomed to not participating in the town’s daily functions because of its past experience.

“In other towns, I have worked with other selectboards to put an agenda together,” Foxmyn said. “I asked you to help. Town administrators and selectboards work together.”

Ness said she does participate, attending several meetings each week and volunteering up to 30 hours.

The solution, Foxmyn said, is for the selectmen to find a town administrator they feel comfortable with.

“You need to find a person you feel comfortable working with and be clear with what information you want and don’t want,” Foxmyn said. “The board has to reach a consensus on the expectations you have for whoever is in this seat.”

Wolfram said if the town administrator isn’t doing the job the board asked the person to do, the board could find a replacement.

Another concern of Gilmore’s is the organization of all town offices. In the past, Gilmore said the board requested the town administrator to evaluate the town hall and come up with ways to make it more efficient — a task he said never got done.

Gilmore was wary of finalizing a job description without an overall look at all town functions, believing it could impact the job of the town administrator.

Foxmyn suggested the board make a town office evaluation the first task of the new town administrator.

As part of that, Gilmore was also looking for ways to lighten the work load of the administrative office and distribute it elsewhere in the town hall.

“Everything is stuffed in that (administrative) office,” Gilmore said. “I have another person (town accountant) that has the talents to do bits and pieces of stuff we can take out of that office. I’ve watched that office fail not because they’re not trying, but because there is too much in that office.

“My question is to see how I could redistribute the responsibilities of the town hall and to make the job more palatable,” Gilmore added.

Olmstead countered that unless the county returns to county government rather than municipal, the ideal town government would be hard to achieve for small towns and they have to work with what they have.

“We’ve always said that sometimes the harder job is in smaller towns because we don’t have the resources,” said Foxmyn, referring to her town administrator colleagues. “It’s also the joy of it. It’s so different and varied. It’s not impossible. It’s manageable.”

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