When Wellfleet Town Administrator Dan Hoort, 65, submitted his resignation this month he explained, “There are times when this position can be very demanding and negative. At this time in my life I need to reduce the stress in my daily life.” Hoort added, “I believe it is time for me to step down and let another individual assume the position.” We get it.
There’s nothing wrong with needing to reduce stress, but maybe it is time for us to ask whether there is something wrong with the way town management jobs are defined.
Both Hoort and Truro Town Manager Rae Ann Palmer, 68, are stepping down in June, and Provincetown Town Manager David Panagore took a new post with the Mass. Bay Transportation Authority last April. None of them lasted longer than five years in the job.
The pay and benefits that come with these roles are excellent. Panagore’s replacement, Robin Craver, will earn $190,000 with five weeks of paid vacation and a $9,000 housing bonus. But her contract also states, “The town manager’s duties require that she be on duty and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The high turnover is in large part the result of the “silver tsunami,” says Bernie Lynch, a former town administrator and owner of Community Paradigm Associates, which does head-hunting for town leaders. In the last four years, more than 130 Mass. towns got new town administrators, largely because of retirements, Lynch says.
Lynch also notes that the younger generation is not pursuing public sector jobs in high enough numbers to satisfy the demand for town administrators.
Charles Sumner, recently retired after 29 years as Brewster’s town administrator, speaks of the many rewards of the job. But it also makes you a lightning rod. “When people don’t like the decisions you’ve made, they get angry at you,” says Sumner.
That’s true of any management position, but in a small town you’re also under a spotlight made hotter by social media. As David Panagore puts it, “The impact of social media means you’re managing the entire town every 10 minutes.” Plans you’ve made for the day go out the window as you do damage control against half-truths posted online that spiral out of control.
“There is a certain burnout that goes along with that,” Lynch says.
A clearer delineation between the roles of the town manager and the select board could help avoid some power struggles, Panagore suggests.
Having new administrators starting in our three outermost towns this year offers a rare opportunity for mutual aid as they each learn the ropes. Perhaps a joint Outer Cape leadership council would provide a way for the newcomers to share ideas, problems, and creative solutions — and lessen some of the stress that is burning out our most important public servants.