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January 14, 2014

Council Votes Against Narrow Candidate Pool!

by at 6:28 pm.

I’m watching the City Council Special Meeting to discuss and decide on the process for hiring a new City Manager. One item that popped up was worrisome. Kennedy brought forth the notion to “be up front” in the advertisement for the position and state there would be no contract. He made a motion for this in the meeting.

As you know, a lot hinges on this question, so this test was pivotal.

The usual suspects lined up on either side - Kennedy, Rourke, Belanger, and Elliot (presumably, he didn’t speak on this because he’s the chair) for putting this language in the ad, and Bill Samaras, Bill Martin, and Milinazzo against doing this, as it would “limit the pool of candidates” willing to apply. They brought up the fact that the pool of qualified candidates is already small enough as it is, and they also made the point they think a contract is a good idea.

The arguments on the other side were awful. One that needs addressing is, someone (Rourke? Or Belanger? - ed’s note: it was Rourke, as Dick’s notes show) tried to make the point that since the current Manager was leaving before the end of his contract, it’s obvious that the contract did no good for Lowell. How wrong they are.

I made this point before, but let’s reiterate: without a contract obligating Lynch to give 60 days notice, he could have left yesterday. Now, Lynch is a good professional and probably wouldn’t do this, but if he had no contract, he could have. Or, he could have given less notice; a month, or two weeks - almost as bad. Suffice it to say, with no CFO, with the assistant CM leaving in February, and budget season coming up rapidly, this would have totally hosed the city. So yeah, the contract actually saved our collective asses, even if you just count that one thing.

Also, just about every other city and town has a contract for their top administrator. (Someone made the point that in a strong mayor system, you essentially have a contract in that a mayor serves at least until the next election, unless in the rare case they resign mid-term.) Of course, Rita talked about Dracut and a [former] long term manager there, but let’s face it - Lowell is a whole different animal. Given the publicity around the CM position and Lowell’s history, and the nastiness that has permeated the entire last election and its aftermath (including last week’s meeting), and Elliott’s apparent willingness to violate at least the spirit of Plan E, Lowell is skating on thin ice. We’re already going to have trouble attracting the best and brightest applicants with a good solid resume.

So, it was with baited breath we awaited the two in the middle to speak. First, it was Rita, who quickly made the point that she didn’t want to limit the pool of candidates by using such language in the advertisement. Angels sang and light came down from the heavens. Thank you, Rita Mercier!

Leahy didn’t speak until nearly the end, but he reiterated Rita’s point of view. More angels and light! Thank you, John Leahy!

So the motion went down, 5-4. This doesn’t mean we’re in the clear - we have yet to see how many great applicants apply, and who gets to be in the final five for public interview, after all. It doesn’t mean that a contract will be offered, as it should be for the right candidate. But it does mean that a majority of this Council does not want to signal to the CM job market that they are unwilling to be above board and reasonable.

I would like to thank Rita Mercier and John Leahy again for their vote. It seems minor but it’s not. I think if you feel the same way, you should call them and thank them.

Update: Dick has his notes up about the Special Meeting already. That’s right, the bloggers are on the job!

16 Responses to “Council Votes Against Narrow Candidate Pool!”

  1. Paul@01852 Says:

    Lynne you have to be careful sending such profuse thanks! C Leahy is still recovering from a heart attack and C Mercier is no spring chicken. I wouldn’t want you to feel responsible if something happened.

  2. joe from Lowell Says:

    Hold on there, Rita: you want to give applicants the impression that they’re going to get a contract if hired, but then not give them one?

  3. Eleanor Rigby Says:

    I was just going to write what Joe posted. Not putting any mention of a contract, or lack of one in the ad is not the same as voting to offer a contract.

    What professional manager in his/her right mind would agree to this without a contract?

    I seem to remember one of the candidates last time around when he was asked if he would require a contract and he said yes also pointed out that he is a professional municipal administrator and does not have a law practice or anything else to fall back on.

    So leaving out the language about a contract, or more likely the lack of a contract, might attract more applicants, but the good ones will walk when they find out that a contract is not going to be offered. That leaves us with what? John Cox II? Great.

  4. Joe Says:

    The contract issue last night was bizarre. Are we trying to trick a potential candidate into assuming there will be a contract when in reality there might not be one? I do not think this is a typical contract vs no contract debate. To me it’s about being upfront and forthcoming to the person that will be chosen to lead our city.

  5. Lynne Says:

    Yes Joe, I’m sure that’s the excuse that they want floating out there. But you see, there’s only four sure votes with a definite no on contracts. So, there very well could be one. That was signaled tonight. If the GOB’s wanted no contract, they should have gotten another sure-fire no vote elected in November.

    It would be stupid to put that in the contract, since there very well could be a contract offered for the right candidate. If another highly qualified person dared to wade into this mess (gosh I hope so, please, applicants, apply!) and said, “well, I would only work under a contract” - and Rita and Leahy really like this person - they’d vote yes. I suspect they might have been yes votes on another one for Bernie, actually.

  6. Lynne Says:

    Personally, what I think is happening, is Rita doesn’t want to be painted into a corner by stating it one way or the other. If she says, we’ll offer a contract, maybe she won’t want to and then she’ll have to go back on her statement. If she says probably not, if an amazing candidate comes along and says they won’t accept without one, she’d have to go back on her statement. She’s hedging her bets.

  7. Joe Says:

    Lynne, I agree with everything that you just typed. But I think it was a missed opportunity. The contract issue will be decided by leahy and Rita. Politically you will never get a better opportunity to get them on the record as being pro contract. There is no candidate yet. If someone is truly undecided but was forced to vote they will almost always side with pro contract. How could someone describe themselves as undecided on the contract issue and then vote NO before even meeting the candidates?

  8. Brian Says:

    I laugh more watching the council than I do watching Saturday Night Live. They sounded like buffoons talking about placing an ad for the new manager. There was so much “lets try this” or “lets try that”. They clearly don’t know what they’re doing and I don’t expect them to be experts at this task.
    I would have said “this is one of the biggest decisions we are going to make as a council, let’s hire a consultant or hiring firm to help us with the process of attracting some great candidates”. That would be money well spent, as opposed to a SECOND independent audit. I didn’t hear all of the special meeting but they seemed to only focus on the Globe for an ad which seems so 1996.
    Thank God for Ed “make an amendment to the motion” Kennedy. He tries to play it both ways but is clearly a smart guy.

  9. Christopher Says:

    Dracut’s charter does in fact require a written agreement (not sure how if at all that is legally different from a contract), and that the manager not have served within 5 years as an elected official in town, but that the person does have at least five years of municipal management experience. Sounds reasonable - not sure why Lowell can’t do the same.

  10. Joe Says:

    I know that a lot of the progressives in the city view last night as a victory but was it really? The vagueness of this approach to hiring a city manager could have some negative consequences. At some point along the line the leading candidate will need to know if the city is willing to offer them a contract or not. And how will this work? Will the council be voting on a candidate to candidate basis? At some point the council will have to decide this contract issue. Why not do it next Tuesday ? It might not be the most important issue with the search but its definatly top 3. I’m a contract convert. It makes sense and is fair. So what is the strategy here? Do we just hope and pray that Rita and Leahy agree with us ? The reality is that all nine of the councilors have someone at the top of their list. If Rita is on the fence then common sense says that she would give her top choice a contract. The same goes for Leahy. There is an opening right now for the the pro contract councilors to win this battle. Make a motion and make them vote next Tuesday.

  11. Lynne Says:

    Heck, Brian, they axed the idea of a blue ribbon committee - which is how the School Committee hires their Superintendent. What’s nice about a blue ribbon committee is that you can take less blame for the outcome, since residents and other stakeholders have their say on who the finalists are.

    But of course, if the fix is in, a blue ribbon committee might totally hose that.

    Joe - RE opportunity for getting Leahy and Mercier on the record, that’s exactly my point. Rita will not say yes unless there’s a candidate in front of her. You saw how she overreacted to the very THOUGHT of going into executive session to DISCUSS how Bernie might stay on because he had unknown conditions he wanted to disclose in executive session - her “I don’t know the terms, so I will vote no” even though voting YES would GET her the terms…well. You know, there are the known unknowns and then there are the unknown unknowns…

    RE the audit conversation…it was an OK instinct in some ways, but once the facts were out about how we get one anyway every year, that should have tabled it. I kept hearing the phrase in my head, “Who Audits the Auditors?” (Watchmen reference.) And do you get an audit company to audit the audit company that audits the auditor? ;)

    Christopher - good points, all. Maybe we should start calling it an “agreement” just to shift the mindset here…

  12. JohnW Says:

    Plan E is what it is. The back and forth is the nature of this type of government, it isn’t resigned to Lowell. No doubt there is a set of managers out there that don’t want to work in this kind of arrangement but there are plenty who feel it’s a healthy form of government.

    Obiously it’s a very difficult job and having a contract is important to anyone’s job security, but I disagree with the assumption that we’re going to have trouble attracting the good candidates. The pro’s vastly out weigh the con’s here.

    Besides being one of the biggest cities in one of the country’s best states, our delegation on Beacon Hill has proven decade after decade that they can make almost anything happen for Lowell. Very few places are hard-wired for progress the way present day Lowell is. To the right Manager, who has innovative ideas, this means everything. Especially now that the few negatives we had when the previous manager was hired have been squared up ( much to the efforts of the manager and his administration). We’re healthy financialy and we now have some innovative planning principles already in motion with momentum behind them. All this adds up to Lowell being on the short list of places for a manager who really wants to make a difference in the way the city lives and runs.

    Posting the job in the local papers is falling embarrasing short on this one. The right candidate could be anywhere in the country. The council can only review the applicants they get, which is why I think that the way we advertise the position is ultimatly more imprtant than who we hire. I hope the council may re-evaluate this process adn some seriuos digging to find the right match for us because we’ve really sold ourselves short here.

    I mean, even after we drove Bernie crazy he still couldn’t leave us, and now we get to welcome his as our neighbor. We’re in Demand!

  13. Joe Says:

    Good stuff John. My question to you,Lynne and everyone else in the city is simple. How does this contract issue technically play itself out? Right now the city is posting the job without mention of a contract. Lets say Warren Buffett decides he wants to be our city manager. He applies and blows everyone away. Will there be two votes? One for the hire and then another for the contract? It is very possible that the city council will vote against a contract for an actual candidate and then turn around and congratulate that person for getting the job. This all seems very odd to me

  14. Eleanor Rigby Says:

    “…Posting the job in the local papers is falling embarrasing short on this one. The right candidate could be anywhere in the country…”

    And that is exactly the point of keeping the advertising local. If qualified people outside the area don’t know about it they will not apply and a “political” manager will be easier to appoint.

  15. Lynne Says:

    Joe - I would guess that it would play out the same way it did when Bernie Lynch applied. He made it clear he’d only take the job with a contract, and therefore that became part of his negotiations with that Council.

    Of course, that Council had smart people on it, Broderick and Donoghue and Martin and Ramirez and Milinazzo…the intelligence quotient of this Council is considerably lower.

  16. Joe Says:

    Of course, that Council had smart people on it, Broderick and Donoghue and Martin and Ramirez and Milinazzo…the intelligence quotient of this Council is considerably lower.

    Intelligence aside when I look at your last sentence I see five pro contract votes. This council has four no contract votes and three pro contract votes. Leahy will end up doing whatever Mercier does. All the back and forth between between professional management vs politician and new Lowell vs the good old boys is meaningless. Intentionally or not Rita Mercier has positioned herself as the sole deciding vote in choosing our next city manager. Which way will she go?

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