The smallest town on Cape Cod, Truro, with 2,000 residents, will be paying its new town manager $172,000 a year, about the same as the Barnstable County district attorney’s $175,000 salary.
It still took more than a year and two national searches for Truro to find a match.
In Provincetown, $200,000 a year wasn’t enough to keep the last town manager, Robin Craver, on the job beyond six months. And Wellfleet just hired a new town administrator, Maria Broadbent. Her predecessor, Dan Hoort, resigned after four years, writing in his exit letter: “There are times when this position can be very demanding and negative.”
Nationally, the average tenure of a town manager is six to seven years, said Richard Reed, a senior adviser for the Mass. Municipal Management Association.
Town administrators and managers are spinning through a revolving door even in small, desirable oceanfront towns. Why?
Interviews with former town leaders point to two main reasons why managers don’t last long: first, the nastiness and relentlessness of the personal attacks they have to endure, and, second, the nature of their own taskmasters — select boards composed of rotating casts of characters, with frequently shifting priorities and personalities.
David Panagore served as Provincetown’s town manager for four years, from 2015 to 2019, before resigning to become chief administrator of the Mass. Bay Transportation Authority. He said that the unpleasantness of the Provincetown job was too much for any one human to take.
“You have to endure constant abuse and critique,” said Panagore. “I’ve been accused of more things in Provincetown than I’ve been accused of at any other job. No one should be exposed to harassment as part of their job.”
Panagore said that, while he was at the helm, several major projects were accomplished: installation of wave attenuators at MacMillan Pier, the market-rate rental project at Harbor Hill, and the redevelopment of a derelict community center into the shared work and art space now known as the Provincetown Commons.
But the barrage of Facebook harangues from the public and even from some select board members was constant, he said.
“When people use their position to begin every meeting by belittling the town manager, it’s really difficult,” Panagore said. Some criticisms, he added, such as “You didn’t paginate my package,” were hard to take because they were so petty.
The “fragile egos and perceived slights” of select board members, Panagore said, made it hard for an administrator to focus on the main goals and priorities.
“Where’s the leadership support to really help get the agenda done?” Panagore asked.
25 Managers in 35 Years
One could argue that Provincetown has an extreme culture of contentiousness.
In the 35-year span between 1955 and 1990, there were 25 town managers in Provincetown. Then Keith Bergman stepped up and held the job for 17 years. Bergman attributed his longevity to a select board that recognized and was humbled by its failure over so many years to keep managers in place. It was ready to work in a supportive way, Bergman said, to get vital projects done — selling the cash-bleeding town-owned nursing home, Cape End Manor, and sewering the downtown chief among them.
It’s not just Provincetown’s problem. Truro and Wellfleet have also had high turnover.
Hoort would not comment about his recent experience in Wellfleet. Rae Ann Palmer took the Truro town manager job six years ago and retired in September at age 69.
“I liked my job and I think I did a good job,” said Palmer. “But it is hard to be in this fishbowl and have everyone not agree with you and second-guess you.”
The elected select board sets goals and makes policy in each of the Outer Cape towns. The town administrator (in Eastham and Wellfleet) or manager (in Truro and Provincetown) executes those policies with town staff.
Theoretically, the town manager’s job is apolitical. She is hired to do the nuts and bolts work of carrying out the policies, said Truro Select Board Chair Robert Weinstein.
But, in truth, it’s “a very politically fraught job,” Weinstein said.
“Implementing policies does ruffle feathers,” said Bernie Lynch, owner of the municipal executive search company Community Paradigm Associates. “People don’t necessarily like that, so you need to build consensus around it.”
The select board may have an agenda, said Weinstein, “but it’s often the town manager who gets the personal attack.”
Palmer said the policies she was hired to execute never really changed, but she had to work to keep up momentum. And when there was controversy, as with the Cloverleaf affordable housing project, it appeared to the public that it was her project, she said.
Community Paradigm Associates, Lynch’s headhunting firm, claims to match manager candidates with communities. That’s been really hard during the “silver tsunami” of retiring baby boomers, Lynch said, because every town, even small ones, wants experienced leaders. Meanwhile, there could be younger candidates, including capable town department heads, who would jump at the chance of getting the job.
Jack Yunits, the Barnstable County administrator, said the executive search firms themselves contribute to the problem. Part of being a good leader is creating a succession plan, said Yunits, a former trial lawyer and mayor of Brockton. The relationships that are built up between department heads and an in-house management candidate creates valuable continuity, he said.
When Bergman arrived in Provincetown in 1990, continuity barely existed.
“I noticed that fiefdoms had built up, largely because of the high turnover of the town manager,” he said. “People were accustomed to running things in their own departments. But maybe the biggest realization was that there were a lot of problems that had not been addressed and which required longer attention than 18 months to solve.”
As the select boards that Bergman worked with changed, he managed to keep their eyes on the prize.
“We spent a lot of time on what their goals were,” Bergman said. “We annually went through the goals and we monitored them, and that’s how we stayed focused. In all my 17 years, the selectmen always had strong personalities, and all was aired and expressed. But when it came to big issues, we were able to chart a course until it was completed.”