LEE — With momentum building through strong support from the Baker administration and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, a plan to consider a shared town manager or administrator involving Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge — or two out of three — is taking shape.
At a meeting of the Tri-Town Administrative Review Committee at Lee Town Hall on Tuesday, leaders of the three towns heard an upbeat progress report from officials representing the state Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services.
A seven-member team from the department interviewed Town Hall personnel in the three communities early last month in order to scope out the prospects for a possible shared leadership arrangement.
Stockbridge Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden is retiring in three weeks, and Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason plans to step down next June.
"We're right in the meat of developing the Community Profile portion of the report," said Zach Blake, chief of the Technical Assistance Bureau for the DOR's Division of Local Services, noting that he has consulted with leaders across the state with shared-services experience to determine potential obstacles.
The report, due within six weeks, will include budget and population details as well as an organizational chart depicting how local government works in each of the three towns.
"We're still in the middle stages of trying to figure out what will work best," Blake said, adding that he has not settled on the outlines of a recommendation.
But he suggested formation of an advisory board limited to one or two officials from each community to back up any potential joint town administrator for monthly updates, at least early on.
"It's important we look at this not as an all-or-nothing situation," Blake told Select Board members from Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge as well as Marsden, Nason and Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen.
"There's really a possibility here that if these three communities can't get together," Blake said, "there's still a two-community opportunity here, and that will be a success just as much as the three communities, in looking at efficiencies."
"In either situation," he added, "it was heard loud and clear from the interviews that folks are looking at this as, 'We have a full-time presence in Town Hall today, how can we manage with less?' "
Stockbridge, facing an empty town administrator's desk starting in mid-July, is narrowing down a field of 27 candidates who responded to advertisements for the position. Nason, Dalton Town Manager Kenneth Walto and Peter Fohlin, former manager of Williamstown, will narrow down a local screening committee's list of nine fully qualified applicants to five finalists to be interviewed by the Select Board prior to a vote.
The state team is examining the responsibilities of the leaders in each town to figure out which duties can be delegated or shifted elsewhere by a shared town manager. The challenge is designing a setup that can give employees the same sense of presence, Blake said.
He suggested hiring a deputy with expertise that meets the direct needs of each town, specifically in financial management or in personnel and human resources.
"This person would have a day-to-day presence in Town Hall and communicate to a shared town administrator," Blake said. He also predicted that a shared leader would rotate through the towns rather than be situated continuously in just one Town Hall.
Lenox Selectman Kenneth Fowler questioned how creating another position would save money for the towns.
The goal is "to be more effective, and at minimum be cost-neutral, and ideally save money," Blake said. "That's what we're exploring, how do we make that happen."
"I never thought of this as being a money-saving adventure," said Stockbridge Selectman Stephen Shatz, adding that sharing services could control costs and increase efficiency.
Marsden, noting that she was attending her final monthly meeting of the tri-town group before she retires as Stockbridge administrator, declared that she's an enthusiastic advocate of shared services leadership.
"I've been selling it to the town," she said. "I'm very passionate about it."
Meanwhile, there's a potential legal complication state officials must confront.
"The biggest hurdle to this even getting started is the whole ethics question," Blake said, referring to a State Ethics Commission opinion citing a potential conflict of interest in a shared-administrator arrangement between the towns of Ashby and Ashburnham.
Attorney John Gannon of the state Division of Local Services' legal unit said that a state law provision prevents an employee of one town from advocating for the interests of another town by working together on shared services.
"That was problematic," he said but officials of the Baker administration, working with Pignatelli, are supporting a legislative solution to exempt a shared administrator or manager setup and other potential regionalization efforts from the state law.
"The governor's office is eager to get this passed," Gannon said. He expressed optimism for approval by state lawmakers either by the end of their formal session on July 29 or in their informal session later this year.
"If this isn't successful, shared services is a nonstarter across the state in a lot of ways," Blake said. "We have a very strong partner in Representative Pignatelli; he's invested in this."
Plans are underway to clear the language of the legislative exemption with State Ethics Commission attorneys, Gannon said.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
In their own words ...
"From the Baker administration's perspective, this is a huge priority."
— John Gannon, legal counsel, state Division of Revenue
"In real life, the taxpayers are the ones we have to answer to. We get it in this room about efficiencies and it's not always about saving money, but to the taxpayers it is, and to relay this to them is going to be a tough job and it has to be somehow thought about."
— Lenox Select Board Chairman Edward Lane
"We're already having questions being raised about the nature of the services, who's going to be sitting in a chair, someone who's going to be familiar to us, available to us at any moment. You spoil people over the years with that kind of immediate contact, the town is not necessarily better by having an administrator constantly bothered by people walking in unannounced. But it is the experience, so what it looks like is going to be critically important, both the finance part and the services part."
— Stockbridge Selectman Stephen Shatz
"I'm encouraging this committee to get buy-in, getting a comfort level for folks to know that change, regardless, is happening. You have two senior folks retiring, there's going to be a difference in the level of service and we're going to do our best to map out what those goals and responsibilities are in developing a position that meets the needs of these communities. That's what we're committed to do."
— Zach Blake, technical assistance bureau chief, state Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services