Editorial: Frugal Norwich?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Help Wanted: Town Manager for Norwich, Vt., population 3,400-plus. Seeking an engaging, collaborative and experienced town manager to oversee busy government operations in an affluent town in the Upper Valley near Dartmouth College. Pay range $84,000 to $88,000 — don’t ask about the narrow range. Must be able to work with a board that takes many 3-2 votes. Some night meetings, may include multiple closed-door sessions about your performance. Town has tradition of intense public participation in local government, may include public critiques of your work. Will oversee building projects, to the extent that Selectboard members do not consider themselves responsible. Could be at-will employee, depending on varying legal opinions. Contract terms may be subject to extended negotiations, but they should be concluded at some point in your tenure.

The Norwich Selectboard certainly won’t use the above language as it seeks a new town manager, but it should be mindful of the particular challenges of serving the community as it starts the search. One such challenge was made clear last week when the Selectboard labored to set a pay range for the position, normally a routine matter. But the board faced wide differences of opinion over the salary, finally settling on advertising a rate of $84,000 to $88,000, a healthy cut from the approximate $100,000 that former town manager Neil Fulton made when he stepped down earlier this year.

The discussion was instructive. Two board members, Christopher Ashley and Steve Flanders, argued for a wider range to attract a good field of candidates. Ashley would have set the top figure at $130,000, Flanders at $93,000. But Linda Cook, Selectboard chairwoman, said she wouldn’t go as high as $93,000, “not even for the most qualified individual.” She proposed the narrow range that was adopted, raising the question of whether the board wishes to send a message of frugality, or, perhaps, signal that it doesn’t want a competent, highly experienced manager who might also be independent.

Cook cited manager salaries in Vermont communities with a population similar to Norwich’s, such as Hartland, which pays $77,000. But town budgets suggest a wide difference in the complexity of municipal operations: Norwich voters approved a $4.7 million budget at Town Meeting this year, while Hartland voters appropriated $2.47 million. Real estate is far pricier in Norwich, something to keep in mind if residents hope that their manager lives among them rather than commutes. In any case, cost of living is a factor in calculating a fair salary.

Also, Hartland has a reputation for more placid politics than Norwich. Fulton’s tenure ended after a long wrangle over contract terms and performance reviews, and the previous town manager’s working relationship with the Selectboard went sour. A job seeker seeking stable employment could be alarmed at Norwich’s recent governance history; we’re not seeing much evidence that the board has achieved unity now.

In setting out to hire a new town manager, the Norwich Selectboard should be wary of what old-timers called being penny wise and pound foolish. While it’s not always true that you get what you pay for, it’s exceedingly rare in government that you get what you don’t.