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Deerfield split on state’s recommendations

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Town employees and leaders are split in their reaction to a state audit recommending a stronger town administrator.

While many town employees supported the state’s recommendations to strengthen the role of the town administrator as the top manager of the town’s daily functions, some selectmen and committee members disagreed.

On Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in the Town Hall, the Board of Selectmen and Personnel Board will discuss the state audit.

The state Division of Local Services recently completed a review of the town administrator position, which involved interviews with current selectmen, a former selectman, the interim town administrator, two former town administrators and current department heads.

The review was intended to help the town structure its government as it looks to hire a permanent town administrator after Interim Town Administrator Wendy Foxmyn leaves this winter.

The report’s main recommendations were for the selectmen to rewrite the town administrator job description, establish a town administrator screening committee, formalize the position, increase the position’s salary and expand the size of the board from three to five members.

The effect of the recommendations would be to create a stronger town administrator who would take on a greater role managing the day-to-day functions of the town, while the selectmen would continue to make the policy decisions.

Pro

Foxmyn, who has spent more than 30 years working in local governments in western Massachusetts, said the state made good suggestions.

“We need to think big picture,” Foxmyn said. “I want to move forward so we can replace me. We need a consensus on town government.”

One of the issues is people have to separate past experiences and move forward, Foxmyn said. The state also noted a history of friction between the selectmen and former town administrators in its report.

“I thought the report was right on,” said Priscilla Phelps, administrative assistant. “They made a lot of good suggestions. Having been an assistant town administrator myself, I recognize some of the issues.”

Highway Superintendent Shawn Patterson also agreed that the town should have a strong town administrator.

“The selectboard should have the powers it has, but someone should be here day to day to make sure everything runs smoothly,” Patterson said. “I think the board does a fine job, but as far as day to day, someone needs to be in charge.”

Tom Clark of the Finance Committee and Capital Planning Committee said he agreed with the state.

“I was around 25 years ago when we got our first town administrator and said we need a strong town administrator. We need a professional to do it,” Clark said.

Con

Some selectmen, board and committee members believe the town government should stay the same for the most part.

“It has some good points,” Selectman Chairman Mark Gilmore said of the report. “But for the most part I don’t agree with it. What it is describing sounds like it’ll be a lot of money.”

Gilmore believed the recommended town administrator is more fit for a town with a bigger population, and the state didn’t consider the quality of department heads and employees working in the town now.

“If we have a really strong town administrator, why don’t we go into a mayoral form of government?” Selectman Carolyn Shores Ness said. “It wasn’t really helpful. It was generic. It was disappointing. We waited around for this report. We should work on the job description and move forward.”

With a strong town administrator, Ness worried, the administrator would make all the decisions and leave the selectmen to deal with the outcomes.

Selectman David Wolfram could not be reached for comment this week.

“Part of it makes sense, part of it doesn’t,” said John Paciorek Sr. a member of the Finance Committee, Personnel Board and former longtime selectmen.

“This town is not ready for a strong town administrator,” Paciorek said. “Just because the state writes something, doesn’t mean it is possible.”

Most town administrators, Paciorek said, want to grow the town by leaps and bounds and have different ideas from a resident born and raised in the town.

Albert “Skip” Olmstead, chairman of the Finance Committee and member of the Personnel Board, was disappointed that the state didn’t interview more longtime volunteers and relied more on newer selectmen and staff.

“I wasn’t happy with the recommendations,” Olmstead said. “It didn’t make sense. If the purpose is to make the government more efficient, hire a dictator. Democracy is messy. I’ve never been in favor of a strong administrator.”

Olmstead said he prefers the town to “elect its government rather than hire a town administrator who does what he or she thinks is best for the town even though he or she doesn’t even live here.”

He also believes the report was a boiler plate.

Many of those against the state suggestions also disagreed with expanding the size of the Board of Selectmen.

“I think it would be worthwhile, but we already don’t have anyone to run for a three-member board. I don’t know where you’d find people,” Gilmore said.

Gilmore worried that by expanding the board, more members would succumb to special interests and not feel as obligated to serve in the best interests of the town.

“I can’t imagine trying to find five people to run. We already have a hard time filling any of our boards,” Ness said.

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at: kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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