There are few decisions in Maine towns and cities more intensely debated than whether to hire a professional manager. Whether initiated by a board of selectmen or by citizen petition, discussion can continue for months and even years.
Maine has long been in the forefront nationally in its use of the manager plan. Auburn became the first city to hire a manager in 1917, and 187 municipalities had adopted the system by 1989, according to “The Manager Plan in Maine,” a joint production of the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Center and the Maine Town and City Management Association. Four more communities hired managers in the 1920s, and 17 more in the 1930s. It was in the 1940s that the manager system became fully institutionalized, with 81 communities choosing professional administration – some 10 years ahead of the national trend, which peaked in the 1950s. Since then, the number of additional communities has slowed, but has still numbered at least 15 per decade.
The numbers have not been updated since 1989, and it would take a new statewide survey to do so, according to Prof. Thomas Taylor at UM, one of the authors of the manager plan study. A new edition of the report is in the works, which may include a new survey. Nevertheless, interest in manager plans continues to be strong. In just the last year, Windsor hired its first town manager, and Manchester and Wiscasset adopted plans that take effect next year. In Steuben, citizens used a notary public to schedule a special town meeting in November to vote in a manager – a vote that the selectmen say is invalid.
When one adds to the total the number of towns using administrative assistants – some of whom perform duties similar to managers, it appears nearly half of the state’s 492 municipalities have opted for professional administration.
The impetus for adopting plans varies from town to town, according to Cornell Knight, president of the Maine Town & City Management Association, and usually centers on the need to provide day-to-day administration during office hours – times when selectmen who work full-time are generally not available. Knight, who has been a manager in Baileyville, Hallowell, Jay and now Winthrop, said that the continued growth in municipal budgets has been a major factor in adding managers. “If you include school budgets, there’s often a few million dollars that needs to be accounted for every year,” he said.
Another factor is whether selectmen have a lot of time to spend on town affairs. In towns where a first selectman is available constantly or at least frequently, an elected board still works – and communities as large as Buxton (pop. 7,033) still operate without a manager.
There are other advantages to professional management, Knight said. Managers have taken courses in administration and often have degrees in public management. They have particular expertise in handling personnel issues, preparing budgets, supervising department heads and providing public access that most communities find useful, he said. In addition to employing managers early and often, Maine continues to be a training ground for them, both because it has many small communities suitable for a first posting, and because of the strong undergraduate program at UM, with graduate degrees available through the University of Southern Maine and UM.
Knight said that the administrative assistant route has become popular as well, and sometimes more acceptable to selectmen, who retain more decision-making authority.
Although there are currently half a dozen manager openings around the state, Knight said that supply and demand has remained fairly balanced – unlike school superintendents, who have been retiring in large numbers recently. He points out that, unlike superintendents, town managers do not have to be state-certified, and that most towns hire Maine residents. Once adopted, manager systems usually prove durable. There have been only a handful of instances where manager plans have been voted out; and in most of those communities the plan was reinstated at a later date.
One notable difference in adoption of the manager plan is that years ago most plans were submitted by selectmen for voter approval. More recently, the move toward managers has often been initiated by a citizen petition.
Manchester has had one of the longest debates over a manager of any town in Maine. In 1976, a town meeting narrowly approved the hiring of a town manager, but the result was successfully challenged by opponents on the grounds that notice requirements were not met. In the re-vote, the question narrowly failed, but the issue has never quite gone away.
Manchester, like many towns considering managers, has grown rapidly – from 2,099 to 2,465 from 1990-2000, a 17 percent increase. It has become a bedroom community adjacent to Augusta, with large new homes and one of the higher per capita incomes in the state. The changes have often pitted newcomers against the “old names” who tend to prefer the town the way it is, or perhaps used to be.
Of course, the concept of “newcomer” is flexible. Rep. Elaine Fuller, who’s represented Manchester in the Legislature for three terms, said “We’ve lived in town for 44 years, but that’s not the same as being born here.”
A town office scandal undoubtedly increased the intensity of debate over the town manager plan. According to District Attorney David Crook, a total of $212,000 is missing from town accounts. Former Tax Collector Patsy Rollins twice had her bond cancelled and later resigned, though no one has yet been charged in the case, which Crook said requires more investigation. The town has since shifted to an appointed tax collector, and expanded the board of selectmen from three to five members – moves initiated by citizen petition.
Two years ago, a town manager study committee was appointed at the suggestion of First Selectman Rance Knowles. For some time, the committee was not taken seriously – even by some of its members, according to Terri Watson, who chaired the committee.
“Most people were convinced the committee wasn’t going to do anything” – which was probably why the citizen petition to expand the board of selectmen and appoint the tax collector was launched, she said. Over the course of debate, however, sentiment shifted in favor of the manager, somewhat to her surprise. “It became clear to me that our biggest problem was the presence of very strong personalities who disagreed about almost everything. Depending on the last election result, the tenor of the board [of selectmen] shifted dramatically from year to year.” The committee began to see a town manager as a stabilizing force against such swings, and ultimately voted 5-2 to recommend a manager. The question was approved on November 6 by a better than 3-1 margin amid heavy voter turnout.
Watson said the missing money did not affect the committee’s deliberations, but few would dispute that it ultimately increased the margin of voter approval. Mike Byron, the second selectman who strongly supported the town manager system but, ironically, lost his seat at the same election that expanded the board, said he perhaps expended too much political capital in pushing for change. And he still questions whether selectmen will fully support a town manager, given that two of the five selectmen on the expanded board have questioned whether one is necessary.
Rance Knowles’ role has come in for particular scrutiny, with some opponents insisting that he initially worked against the town manager plan, and only came around when the political winds shifted. Knowles insists he was an advocate ever since he proposed the study committee. “You need someone professional at the helm. None of us [selectmen] are qualified to manage a budget of this size,” he said. Manchester spends about $4 million a year, $2.2 million of it on the municipal side. He expects a manager to be on board by next July, the start of Manchester’s fiscal year.
And Knowles said flatly that the missing money scandal “would not have occurred” had a town manager been on the job. Rep. Fuller said that the incident worked to increase both turnout and support for the manager: “People were tired about reading about their town on the front page, in a highly unflattering light.”
If the manager question has been settled, the turmoil in town government continues. The office manager hired by selectmen as an interim step recently resigned, as did the town’s long-time code enforcement officer. Knowles is unfazed. “We have enough help to make it through to July,” he said. “This town will be in good hands.”
In Wiscasset, the basic outline is similar: population growth (8 percent for the decade, to 3,603); a precipitating issue (the closing of Maine Yankee, which had paid 90 percent of the town’s property taxes); a vote for a five-member board of selectmen; and a citizen petition for a town manager. But the details were quite different.
Unlike Manchester, Wiscasset has long had a full-time first selectman who was paid as a professional ($35,000 a year) and administered day-to-day affairs. But the precipitous closing of Maine Yankee in 1997, even though it was licensed through 2008, was a profound shock that created significant discontent throughout the town.
“I don’t know how many officials, elected and appointed, this community has lost,” said First Selectman Ben Rines.
School Superintendent John O’Connell recently announced his resignation, making him the third superintendent to leave in as many years. In a letter to the school committee, he said he had “expended a great deal of personal energy and effort, much less successfully, attempting to adapt my expectations … to better fit the realities here.”
The formation of a charter study commission was widely seen as a failure. The tone was set early on when the commission chairman, Paul Stover, announced at the first meeting that he opposed a town manager form of government, and adjourned the session 20 minutes later.
Karl Tarbox, who led a citizen petition effort to adopt a town manager plan by statute after running unsuccessfully for second selectman earlier, said “We knew we weren’t going to get a town manager” after that meeting, even though the town vote establishing the charter committee included it as an explicit aim. As a result, supporters of the town manager had to vote against the proposed charter, which provided for a five-member board of selectmen but no town manager, On November 6, by a 2-1 margin townspeople voted against the charter. This defeat of the charter allowed the earlier town meeting vote for a statutory town manager plan to stand. After the November vote, a group of residents claimed people were still confused about the question, and launched a petition for a third vote. By early December, however, the petition had been withdrawn. The manager plan will take effect, along with the expansion of the board of selectmen, at the March town meeting.
Rines opposed a town manager from the outset, and hasn’t changed his mind. “I’ve always felt that the selectmen did a fine job. There wasn’t any mismanagement people could point to.”
Still, he conceded that the Maine Yankee closing was hard for people to deal with. Wiscasset went from having the lowest property taxes in Lincoln County to among the highest – even though, as Rines’ pointed out, the tax rate is still below the state average.
Ironically, both Rines and Tarbox agree that the town manager plan Wiscasset will get may not be the best solution. “We weren’t sold on the manager plan at the beginning,” Tarbox said. The administrative assistant format could have worked, he said, but was never formally proposed. And the citizen group he headed would have preferred to customize the town manager position, rather than accept the state statutory description. But after the charter commission refused to consider a manager, it was forced to petition for the state-defined manager plan, he said.
Rines agreed with this assessment, saying that an administrative assistant would have been more in keeping with the existing town system. And he agreed that the charter commission failed: “It just fell flat on its face.”
Selectmen are preparing a job description for the town manager, and intend to hire a part-time assessor. The selectmen’s salaries will be accordingly reduced.
Rines is undecided about whether to run for another term in March, and he wonders about how the town manager will do. “In the middle of all this turmoil, no one in their right mind would want the job,” he said, adding that if someone were looking for a challenge, “This would be the right place.”
Still, Wiscasset has assets many towns would envy. It had no indebtedness, and a $15 million reserve fund. “For all the town has been through, we’ve still landed on our feet,” said Rines.
Though Bristol selectmen were also confronted by a citizens petition for a town manager, signed by 160 voters, the issue was resolved more amicably than in Manchester or Wiscasset. A committee to study a change in the Bristol town meeting-selectmen form of government was organized.
The three selectmen, who all work full-time, fairly quickly agreed they could use more help in the town office, and supported the idea of adding an administrative assistant. Jule Hanley, who headed the government study committee appointed last April, said the committee found that “none of the other elected officials had anyone to report to” and that the demands of different positions varied widely. “Townspeople wanted to have someone at the town office, and the selectmen can’t be there when the public is,” she said. Bristol also grew 14 percent in the 1990s, from 2,326 to 2,644.
In studying the town manager and administrative assistant models, the committee concluded that a town manager would have “a lot more authority and power than we needed for our town,” Hanley said.
First Selectman Craig Elliott said he came to agree with concerns about town office staffing. “People called, and there was no one to answer their questions.” As to the impetus for change, he said, “My feeling is that people moving in were behind it. They had mayors and town managers where they came from, and they wanted it here.” Yet he ultimately agreed with the petitioners. “It’s gotten so you have to call a lawyer up for everything. And by the time you get through, he’s gone for the day.”
The government study committee concluded its work this fall and is recommending that the town hire an administrative assistant to the board of selectmen. The articles to implement the committee’s recommendation, which also calls for making some elected positions appointive, will go before the townspeople at the March 2002 town meeting.
AA or Manager
While manager systems have largely stood the test of time, a common expectation is that administrative assistants may become managers once townspeople and selectmen get used to them. But not always.
Scott Seaver has been administrative assistant in North Yarmouth (pop. 3,210) since the AA system was adopted in 1981. He carries out many of the duties of a town manager, preparing the budget, writing grant proposals and supervising department heads day-to-day, although selectmen retain hiring authority. In that time the municipal budget has grown from $100,000 to nearly $2 million.
Seaver doesn’t see a need to change to manager status, though he said it might be attractive for “someone who wanted to move on to bigger places.” He’s content, however, where he is. “It’s a good fit. My kids have gone through the school system here. It’s my home.”
Jonathan Thomas has served nearly as long as administrative assistant in Surry (pop. 1,361) – since 1983. His authority over personnel is less comprehensive than Seaver’s; the CEO and road commissioner report to selectmen. But the town’s rapid growth – 35 percent since 1990 – and its extensive seasonal population are having an impact during discussion of a new comprehensive plan. Among the questions he expects the plan committee to consider are whether to expand the board of selectmen to five members – and if converting to a town manager system would be a good idea.
Beyond the adoption of town manager and administrative assistant plans, municipalities continue to tinker with the structure and the scope of local government. As Prof. Taylor at the University of Maine points out, while expanding boards of selectmen and hiring managers are popular reforms, they are by no means the only ones.
A few towns have replaced the open town meeting with a referendum format, in which townspeople vote on warrant items by Australian ballot without the opportunity to discuss or amend them – a format similar to one authorized by the Legislature for budget adoption in regional school districts. If town meeting participation continues to decline, communities will probably look to more such methods for effective governance, Taylor said.
The right mix between professional management and elected citizen leadership may be elusive – but it seems certain that towns and cities will continue to search for it.