Administrative Asst. vs. Town Manager

(from Maine Townsman, October 1987)
by Michael Starn

Though the following article may be somewhat dated, it is still believed to include information that may be useful to the reader.

Depending on who you ask, the Administrative Assistant in Maine local governments either works well and is just what the community needs, or is confusing, antiquated and doesn't work well at all.

In Maine, some 25 to 30 communities operate under what they call a Town Meeting/Selectman/Administrative-Assistant form of government. In MMA's publication, Local Government in Maine, this was not listed as one of the five basic forms of Maine local governments. The reason was that the Administrative Assistant, while in many cases performing the same duties and having the same responsibilities as a city or Town Manager, by definition it is not the same and in actuality the final administrative authority rests with the Board of Selectmen under State law unless superseded by local charter. Unlike a city or Town Manager, there is no statutory reference to the Administrative Assistant position. The Administrative Assistant position is the creation of the town and works at the direction, and some say whim, of the Board of Selectmen. There are also a couple of situations in Maine where the Administrative Assistant works for a town or city council or, in Westbrook's case, for the mayor. These communities are, however, charter communities and they have defined the roles and relationships between the AA and the elected body and have outlined duties and responsibilities in their local charters under their home rule powers.

The focus of this article is on the Administrative Assistant/Board of Selectmen relationship, although the issues that are often raised in a small town debating the idea of going from a Town Meeting/Selectmen form of government to Town Meeting/Selectmen/Administrative Assistant are similar to what many mid-size and larger communities face when confronted with the desire to change from a town meeting to a representative (council) form of government.

Growth pressures, the increasing complexities of government and the time commitment required of Selectmen have all contributed to the decision in a number of small communities to explore the alternative forms of government available to them. For those communities deciding to create an Administrative Assistant position, the underlying reason has been a reluctance to make the jump from a Selectmen/town meeting to a Selectmen/Manager/town-meeting form of government. The term "loss of control" came up frequently in conversations held with various municipal officials around the state.

Citizen attitudes toward the idea of a Town Manager vary from one community to the next. Generally, however, those communities opting for the Selectmen/Administrative Assistant have felt that this arrangement gives Selectmen, and townspeople, more control over the affairs of town government. In many cases, because the town wanted to retain a number of elected positions, (e.g., tax collector, treasurer, road commissioner), the Administrative Assistant position was more politically and financially attractive. Generally a person hired as an Administrative Assistant would not have to be paid as much as a municipal Manager and often the town could get away with keeping its elected positions and still hiring an Administrative Assistant to take some of the load off the Selectmen and other town personnel without creating an undue financial burden on the town.

In talking to some current municipal Managers who have held the position of Administrative Assistant in a town, it seems evident that from a professional municipal Manager's perspective, the position of Administrative Assistant has some inherent problems.

According to Jody Harris, former Administrative Assistant in East Millinocket and now Town Manager in South Berwick, there are some "very undefined" relationships that exist under the Administrative Assistant title. "In theory you were supervising employees but in actuality you were not." Decisions on personnel and in the area of labor relations are ultimately made by the Board of Selectmen in East Millinocket, according to Harris.

"I think the Administrative Assistant is a good form of government for small towns in transition," said Harris, implying that the Town Manager/Selectmen was the next step in the evolution.

"I think the Town Manager form (of government) is much more efficient," she said.

An Administrative Assistant "leaves the door open for a lot of political influence," she added.

In comparing the hiring of an Administrative Assistant as opposed to a Town Manager, Harris sees two offsetting factors:

1) A community would probably not receive the same caliber of applicants for an Administrative Assistant as opposed to a Manager position; however, the community would probably get away with paying less for an Administrative Assistant than a Manager.

2) There are a number of communities in Maine which had an Administrative Assistant and switched to a Manager, or which had a Manager and switched to an Administrative Assistant.

The Town of Newport is an example of a community that has flip-flopped from Manager to Administrative Assistant and back to Manager. Paul Weston, Town Manager of Camden, was the Town Manager of Newport from 1975-1978. Not too long after he left, the town decided to change the position to an Administrative Assistant, and it operated that way until just recently when the town voted to go back to having a professional Manager.

"A proper match is what's important," said Weston, who is a past president of the Maine Town & City Management Association. "Some very small towns can work well under a Town Manager Plan with a Manager who's a good match with the community."

"There is the misperception that you can get rid of an Administrative Assistant more easily than a Town Manager," said Weston. "But, even with an Administrative Assistant you still have to have just cause and use due process. Under the (statutory) Town Manager Plan, it is just more specific."

The Town of Dixfield is a good example of a Town ready for a Town Manager. The Board of Selectmen supported it, the part-time elected officials of the town supported it, and most importantly the townspeople supported the idea.

According to Don Willard, Dixfield's first Town Manager and now Town Manager in Rockport, the Board of Selectmen and townspeople felt a need to modernize what was felt to be an antiquated form of government. For many years, the town had been operating with an Administrative Assistant while many of the neighboring towns had a Manager.

In one fell swoop, the Town of Dixfield changed from an Administrative Assistant /three-member Board of Selectmen to a Town Manager/five-member Board of Selectmen.

"I feel that I really made a success of my assignment there," said Willard, who was taking on his first municipal management position. "The Board of Selectmen wanted me to assume the authority and responsibilities and we had a very good working relationship."

Even though the vote had already been taken to move to a Town Manager, Willard started out as an Administrative Assistant. During the nine months he served as Administrative Assistant, Willard says, "I kind of defined the role of Town Manager."

"Two elected positions were eliminated when the change was made, the tax collector and road commissioner, and the Selectmen had appointed the town clerk, which was assumed by the Manager. The transition went fairly well according to Willard because those holding the elected and appointed part-time positions were supportive of the change. "It was cumbersome to work with part-time elected officials," he said. Efficiency and service were greatly improved with the new form of government because someone was always manning the town office, and things which needed to get done but fell in between the cracks of the regular municipal positions were attended to.

Marshall Holman, who has spent the last seven years on the Dixfield Board of Selectmen, agrees with Willard's assessment. "Things have worked out pretty good," he says.

According to Holman, the town attempted three times, before finally approving the Town Manager Plan, to change its form of government. However, the first three times it was attempted through the charter adoption process, and Holman believes, that is what caused it to fail, particularly since some other more controversial items were attached to the charter being voted on (i.e., zoning).

"To run a town cost-effectively, a Town Manager with some expertise in financial management is needed," said Holman. In Dixfield, the Town Manager has the responsibility for investing town funds and, according to Holman, last year the current Manager's salary could have been paid from the interest earned.

Another benefit of the Manager, Selectmen met every week for about three to three-and-a-half hours. Now, Selectmen meet every other week for an hour to an hour-and-a-half.

Addressing the "loss of control" issue, Holman says it never was an issue in Dixfield. "By law, they (Managers) have certain things they have authority over, but the Board of Selectmen hires and can fire, if need be, so we have controls," said Holman.

Jeannine Theriault is the Administrative Assistant in Enfield. She holds the position of tax collector, treasurer, clerk and road commissioner, although she has no job description defining her duties and responsibilities or authority.

As was implied by several of the other Administrative Assistants interviewed, the responsibilities of the job are "a little vague at best," according to Theriault. "While an Administrative Assistant may have the responsibility," says Theriault, "Selectmen are not willing to give someone else the authority."

Prior to Theriault's appointment in 1984, the Town of Enfield had been operating under the statutory Town Manager Plan. Whether or not Enfield will continue with an Administrative Assistant has not been settled yet, because a special town meeting has been called to vote on reinstating the Town Manager position.

A small town like Cambridge in Somerset County, may be ideally suited for an Administrative Assistant. With a population under 500, Cambridge employs a part-time Administrative Assistant to serve as tax collector and treasurer. Having held the position for two years, Cindy White says when the job became available she applied because she wanted to work out of her home and because "it was the only job in town" that was available at the time and allowed her to do that.

In North Yarmouth, they've had an Administrative Assistant since 1982 and they seem pretty happy with it. Scott Seaver was the first, and is the current Administrative Assistant.

"Basically, it's working fine for us right now," says Seaver, who had been on the Board of Selectmen for five years prior to accepting the Administrative Assistant position. Seaver holds the position of clerk, tax collector, treasurer, registrar of voters, code enforcement officer and welfare director.

Two primary reasons contributed to the timing of the change to Administrative Assistant. First, a long-time employee of the town who had held the positions of tax collector, treasurer and clerk was nearing retirement age. Second, the town was celebrating its bicentennial and making an addition to its town hall, and so it seemed a good time politically to make a change. Also, the town was in the beginning stages of a growth period and public awareness of the increased workload of the part-time municipal officials was visible.

North Yarmouth's Administrative Assistant operates under a municipal charter. The responsibilities and duties of the Administrative Assistant and roles and relationships between the Administrative Assistant and the Board of Selectmen are delineated in the local charter. Two things affected the townspeople's decision to go with an Administrative Assistant rather than a Town Manager. One reason, which is generally the case in most communities going to an Administrative Assistant, was that the Selectmen did not want to relinquish certain powers and authority to a Manager. The second reason was that at the time the decision was being made, relations with a neighboring town which had a Manager/council form of government were strained and many of the townspeople held a certain antipathy toward this form of government, affecting their decision to have an Administrative Assistant.

Mostly, towns that employ an Administrative Assistant are small. However, there are a few Maine municipalities near or over 10,000 population that have Administrative Assistants. The Town of York, the City of Westbrook and Town of Topsham all have Administrative Assistants (Topsham's title is Town Administrator). York and Westbrook have a local charter, and the Administrative Assistant position is defined by it. Topsham's Bob Farrar has only a job description to outline his basic duties, responsibilities and authority.

"Basically, the Town Administrator has the same duties and responsibilities of a Manager," says Farrar.

In 1982, a local government review committee was formed in Topsham and a town meeting/Selectmen/Town Administrator form of government was proposed by it. By about 100 votes, the proposal was passed and took effect in June, 1983. Since that time, a referendum vote took place to establish a charter commission and failed by 35 votes.

For a growing community of 9,000 population, Topsham has to struggle to make its present form of government work. "I'm adamant about making it work," says Farrar. "We've put a lot of work and effort into making it this far."

The present form of government, however, does have its problems:

1) The town meeting place cannot accommodate more than one-quarter of the town's 4,500 registered voters, and according to Farrar, if 200-300 people attend town meeting, "we feel lucky."

2) The door is open for special interests to push their pet projects through a town meeting, if they can gain the support of 100 or so people and get to the town meeting place first.

3) With four elected department heads the road commissioner, clerk, tax collector and treasurer, the Town Administrator and Board of Selectmen have difficulty planning for more than a year at a time.

4) Despite what Farrar calls a good working relationship with the elected department heads, he doesn't have any authority to supervise them. "They are answerable only to the ballot box," he says.

Farrar is disappointed that the townspeople rejected the proposal to form a charter commission. "Had they (the commission) proposed a change and the residents voted it down, at least alternatives would have been explored. This way, it wasn't even given a chance."

Conclusion

Rapid growth has pressured many Maine municipalities to evaluate their present form of government. In just a couple years, a community can grow from a small to a mid-size or from a mid-size to a large municipality.

One form of government is not necessarily better than another. As Don Willard said, "It's efficiency and service" that counts. Whatever form of government it takes to be efficient and provide a high level of service should be used.

As everyone interviewed for this article either said or implied, "It's not the form of government that matters nearly as much as the people running the government, and a proper match between the administrator, be it Administrative Assistant or Manager, and the community will work the best."