State recommends Deerfield gov’t changes

DEERFIELD — The town should strengthen the role of its town administrator, increase the position’s salary, improve the Board of Selectmen practices and consider expanding the board size, according to a state audit received last week.

The town administrator, appointed by the selectmen, would take on a greater role managing the day-to-day functions of the town, while the selectmen would be the chief policy makers, the state recommends.

The recommendations, if accepted, could change how the town works, where now there is no clear way to communicate with staff, no formal bylaw establishing the town administrator position and a confusing job description, the state observed.

The audit also suggested the Board of Selectmen also expand from three to five members, where the chairmanship should rotate yearly.

The audit, the state advised, would provide the means to build structure and to develop a positive working relationship between the selectmen and town administrator, which the state observed has been strained in the past.

In all, the state recommends the selectmen rewrite the town administrator job description, establish a town administrator screening committee, formalize the position, communicate with staff through the town administrator, increase the position’s salary, conduct performance reviews and expand the size of the board from three to five members.

To discuss what level of authority the town administrator should have, the Board of Selectmen and Personnel Board are having a meeting on Nov. 20 at 5:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

The state recommendations are opposite of what some selectmen have envisioned for the future town government. In the past, Selectmen’s Chairman Mark Gilmore has expressed a wish for stronger department heads and a lesser role for the town administrator.

“Despite good intentions, diminishing the role of the town administrator would be a step backward for the town of Deerfield,” wrote Robert Nunes of the state Division of Local Services.

“We understand the basis for the selectmen’s concerns,” Nunes wrote. “However, we believe that prospects for success of any action they take impacting government operations lies not with diminishing the authority of the town administrator, but in managing their relationship with the town administrator.”

At this week’s board meeting, Gilmore and Selectman Carolyn Shores Ness said they disagreed with the recommendations excluding the suggestion to revise the position’s job description. Selectman David Wolfram was absent.

Over the past few months, at the request of the selectmen, the state Division of Local Services has assessed the administrator position. The process involved interviews with current selectmen, a former selectman, the interim town administrator, two former town administrators and current department heads.

The audit came after former Town Administrator Bernie Kubiak retired in June after eight years and interim Town Administrator Wendy Foxmyn took over temporarily. Part of Foxmyn’s task is to analyze the town office functions and advise how the town should better operate.

First, the state recommends the selectmen adopt an updated job description before advertising the permanent position. The description should clearly state the duties and powers of the town administrator, which it doesn’t now.

The town administrator should also have a salary above the level of the employees he or she supervises. The state found that currently the town administrator’s position is in the same grade level as the police chief and the highway superintendent, but the annual salary is less.

When it comes time to hire a permanent town administrator, the town should also adopt and commit to a formal town administrator screening committee to hire its full-time employee. The process should be credible, objective and thorough to screen candidates for the job. It should involve a three- to five-member screening committee with experience in hiring and knowledge of local government.

The powers, duties and responsibilities of the position should also be formalized in a bylaw, or in a special act. The role of the selectmen should also be defined, indicating that the selectmen are the chief policy makers and have no involvement in the day-to-day management or administration of municipal government.

The selectmen should also alter past practices in their interactions with a town administrator to free up time and help decision-making, the state said. Recommended steps include delegating residents’ concerns to the town administrator, refraining from membership on ad hoc committees and relinquishing its role as board of health to improve the selectmen’s efficiency.

The selectmen’s chair should also be rotated each year. The chairmanship has not rotated in several years. Rotating the seat, the state advises, puts all the selectmen on equal standing and allows the town to experience different leadership styles.

Finally, the state recommends the selectmen increase to five members to create a greater resident representation on the board, enhance balance and bring more perspectives to issues. The lack of competition for selectmen’s seats in the past should not be a deterrent because often the incumbents are viewed as unbeatable. Rather, when seats are opened, more candidates come forward, Nunes contends.

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at:
or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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