What are the most important attributes to look for in a potential town manager or administrator? Judging from the comments (and reluctance to comment) of recent occupants of those positions on the Outer Cape in this week’s front-page story by K.C. Myers, an unusually thick skin is one of them.
David Panagore, who managed Provincetown from 2015 to 2019, talks about the “harassment” and “constant abuse” he suffered in the job. It’s easy to blame social media for the vitriolic tone of some criticism of town government in the past few years, but Provincetown tore through 25 town managers in the years between 1955 and 1990. That was before Facebook existed.
There’s no getting away from the fact that town administrators are, as Truro’s Rae Ann Palmer puts it, “in a fishbowl.” They are the most visible of our local government leaders, and when citizens are unhappy, theirs are the desks where the buck stops.
At the same time, town managers have little actual authority. The setting of goals and the making of town policy resides with select boards and, ultimately, town meeting. And so, the success or failure of a town manager comes down mostly to her skills at getting other people to work together productively — especially elected and appointed town board members and professional town staff. And those people can have their own time-hardened ideas about how to do things.
When a town manager or administrator job opens up here, the current course is to hire a headhunter to conduct a national search for the best candidates. The headhunters then tap into a network of municipal management veterans, looking for a good “match.” But that search process itself may be self-defeating.
Part of the reason for the national search routine may be the intensity of feeling about our towns among both year-round and part-time residents. People here have long memories and tangled family connections. How could anyone local be able to manage in such an environment?
Jack Yunits, the administrator of Barnstable County, thinks it can be done. He calls for developing leadership from within, not looking for it at a distance. In spite of what you might read on Facebook about town government, we have a lot of talented and hard-working people helping to run municipal departments in all of the Outer Cape towns. If we committed ourselves to changing this habit of looking beyond the canal and, instead, developing the skills of the people we already have working for us, the revolving town hall doors might not spin so fast.
Part of effective leadership, says Jack Yunits, is creating a succession plan. Just ask Billy Souza, the Truro lobsterman, and his son, Jeff, who has a fine new boat.