Editorial: Hartford’s hiring challenge

Published: 05-01-2023 9:08 AM

Members of the Hartford Town Manager Search Committee held five community listening sessions during the past week to identify what skills, characteristics and experience the public wants in a new manager. (We vote for quiet competence, a thick hide and at least a nodding acquaintance with New England norms.) What the Search Committee heard presumably will help inform its recruitment and vetting of candidates for the Selectboard’s consideration.

Valuable as that exercise may have been, there is another lens through which to view the process. Every job offer involves a negotiation between two parties. So what should a promising manager candidate expect of the town, short of a formal peace accord signed by the Selectboard’s warring factions?

One is a clear, mutual understanding of the respective powers of the manager and the Selectboard. The town charter seems to us to contain at least one potential area for conflict. While the manager is assigned exclusive power to hire and fire employees, the charter grants both manager and Selectboard power to investigate the affairs of any department and the conduct of any officer or employee. This presents a danger of micromanagement or political meddling that could undermine the manager’s authority. If the board is dissatisfied with the performance of a department or an employee, it should rely on the manager to address it. If he or she fails, then its proper recourse is to change town managers.

Given recent history, a second provision any sensible candidate should demand is some protection against arbitrary discharge, perhaps in the contractual form of binding arbitration of settlement claims. The Selectboard has never explained its parting of ways with the former manager, Tracy Yarlott-Davis, only 19 months into her tenure. In the absence of any explanation, one is left to infer that the turnover of five of the seven seats on the Selectboard between when she was hired in February 2021 and abruptly placed on administrative leave in October 2022 had something to do with it. The eventual separation with Yarlott-Davis has been characterized by the board as “amicable,” but we would certainly advise any candidate seriously considering the job to follow Ronald Reagan’s advice: trust, but verify.

Third is a detailed list of the Selectboard’s policy priorities, with benchmarks for achieving the objectives. That is to say, if infrastructure is a top priority of the board, what projects does it want addressed, in what order and in what time frame? Similarly if recruitment and retention of staff is a concern, what is the timeline, for example, for the manager to produce a wage and benefit study, assess morale of current employees and make recommendations to the Selectboard? If addressing homelessness is a critical concern, what concrete steps does the Selectboard want to see taken? This is the only way to ensure that the performance evaluation the Selectboard is required to provide to the manager each year is an objective rather than a subjective exercise.

Potential managers should also assure themselves that Selectboard members are willing to drill down into the nitty-gritty of budgetary and policy decisions put before them and forgo shooting from the lip. This is essential if a manager is to succeed.

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Hartford must realize at this point that despite its many attractions, its recent track record of political discord and community divisiveness puts it at a disadvantage in attracting experienced candidates, especially at a time when they are in such great demand throughout the Twin States. It is important, of course, to identify the characteristics of candidates most desired by town residents, as the search committee is doing. But it is at least equally important for the Selectboard, which has apparently been content to get along with interim management for months now, to convey a sense of urgency about getting new leadership on board. It can start by articulating specifically and publicly how it intends to work with a new manager and what it wants to get done. That is the only way the public can hold Selectboard members accountable at the ballot box for their own performance.