Issue 11: The People Search for a Manager

Rockland’s elected City Council governs via a hired City Manager whose job is to implement the council’s policies and oversee the city administration. There are other forms of municipal government in the U.S., but the “Council-Manager” form is what Rockland (like 40% of U.S. municipalities of over 2500) has adopted.

The manager is a paid professional. Rockland’s last manager, James Chaousis, was paid a starting salary of $92,000 a year, plus $42,000 a year in benefits. The five council members (now four after one resigned) are each paid $800 a year. The member they designate as mayor (a largely ceremonial position) is paid an extra $200. There are no benefits.

In keeping with our belief in democracy, the council, as the popularly elected body, has the ultimate power. City Council makes our city’s laws, sets policy goals, and (theoretically) directs the manager. As a practical matter, however, the manager has great power, thanks to the fact that he is a full-time executive with personal authority to hire, fire, and direct the entire city staff. Council members are part-time and can exercise their power only through majority vote at their monthly evening meeting.

An effective council, and a good working relationship between the council and manager, is essential. To protect our interests as citizens, our council of amateurs must provide leadership and remain in control of its professional executive. History has shown this to be a difficult task.

The selection of a suitable person to be manager is one of the most important jobs of the council. Since the unhappy tenure of James Smith, who resigned in 2012 to go back to his old job after 20 months here, the Council has spent more time searching for a Manager than actually having one. The one we did have, James Chaousis, resigned under pressure a year ago after 18 scandal-ridden months. The council had taken a year to find and hire him. Now a year has gone by since he left, and the council is deep in division, acrimony, and paralysis over the search for his successor.

The search committe which had been created by the council and which has now been dissolved, reviewed 28 candidates in secrecy, and put forward the name of only one. That candidate, once his identity and credentials were open to public review, was found to have substantially misrepresented his experience.

The search committe had hired an advisor from the Maine Municipal Association (MMA), a non-profit organization which set the parameters for the process, including the secrecy and a list of questions which could not be asked. MMA also undertook to advertise the opening, and did so in a way which resulted in applicants from far and wide, and only one from near.

In the aftermath, questions are being raised about the extent to which the MMA served the interests of the citizens of Rockland, and to what extent it served the ambitions of current and would-be city managers, a conflict which is potentially exacerbated by the fact that the same law firm represents both the MMA and the City of Rockland.

Meanwhile, Rockland is left still searching for a city manager, the council is so divided that some members refuse to speak to each other, and we have no process for reconciliation. Should the council now pick someone from the rejected 27? Should a new search proces be initiated? If so, should it again be a secret process, or an open one? Should we prefer an applicant who has a local track record and local ties?

Our search for a city manager, and all of the above questions and more, will be the subject of the Rockland Metro show on WRFR this Wednesday from 5 to 6 pm. Calls will be taken at 593-0013, To join the studio discussion, email robert@thebuzz.me.