LENOX -- The town's long-running town manager search reopened formally on Monday with a mostly private meeting of the local screening committee aiming to present three new finalists to the Select Board next month.

The recruitment phase has yielded more than 40 contenders responding to ads placed by the town's professional search firm, Municipal Resources, Inc. that stressed experience in local government operations, labor relations and community-based problem-solving.

Applicants who have worked with the New England Town Meeting form of government were strongly preferred, the ads stated, along with at least seven years of "progressive management and leadership experience."

The salary was listed as $100,000 plus, along with a "standard benefits package to include health insurance, retirement, vacation and relocation expenses."

Assessing the applications, M.R.I. President Donald Jutton called the new field of candidates "at least as strong" as the group of more than 60 that responded to the initial search last summer.

Last month, the recruitment drive resumed after late-August negotiations with the Select Board's original choice -- Steve Bartha, assistant town manager of Avon, Conn. -- foundered because of "miscommunication" over nonsalary details of a proposed contract.

Now, Jutton asserted, "I am confident that the opportunities for miscommunication have been reduced dramatically."

The town's top job has been open since last June 21, when 14-year veteran Gregory Federspiel departed for a $125,000-a-year town administrator position in Manchester by the Sea.

Among the contenders this time are 23 New Englanders, including 11 from Massachusetts. Asked whether there are any Berkshire County applicants, Jutton responded, "probably," citing confidentiality considerations.

Interim co-Town Manager Mary Ellen Deming, who had planned to apply, decided not to, she told The Eagle, citing a "change of heart." A 21-year veteran of Town Hall, she also is director of administrative services.

The town's volunteer search committee headed by Jay Carberry was set to begin sifting through 14 prime contenders, aiming to select six for semi-finalist consideration. That group will be asked to complete five essay questions by the end of the Christmas vacation period, said Jutton.

He predicted that the Select Board would be interviewing three finalists in a public session by the end of January, with a choice "hopefully" to be announced by mid-February.

Voicing optimism over the new search, Carberry said "it should go much smoother this time, assuming we get a candidate we like. The Select Board will be much closer to the negotiation, they now know the way to handle it. We want to be sure everybody's clear about the ground rules."

Unlike last summer's effort, the Select Board will conduct negotiations with their chosen candidate in a closed session, as is customary in personnel matters under the state's open-meeting law.

That did not take place last summer because of a ruling by the town's attorney, Kopelman and Paige, that the formal negotiations needed to be conducted in public. The Boston-based firm, which represents more than half of the state's 351 communities, recently clarified that private sessions are legal.

"I think we asked them the wrong question last summer, or it was misunderstood," said Select Board Chairman David Roche.

The negotiations phase of the renewed search is the only aspect that needs to be "tweaked," Roche added. "Hopefully, the candidates will be top quality and we look to forward to working them."

"Speed is not the priority at this juncture," he declared. "The goal is to get the right person."

According to Jutton, 12 of the 14 candidates being evaluated by local search committee members are from New England; the two others began their careers in this region before moving on.

"It's safe to say that nearly half of the folks they'll be reviewing have Massachusetts public management experience," Jutton explained. Two from the original search have re-applied.

"There are couple more candidates with more in-depth Massachusetts experience," he added, "so the pool is at least as good."

A professional panel of consultants designated by M.R.I. will assist the local committee in narrowing down the choices, Carberry said.

Jutton predicted that there may be a photo finish between two front-runners, based on education and experience. The group being assessed includes several whom Jutton invited to apply, based on his personal knowledge of their experience and abilities.

While the recruitment and selection phases of the search will duplicate the first round, Jutton said, "the big difference will be consummating the deal through face-to-face negotiations between the Selectmen and their chosen candidate."

He would take part in the final negotiations if the Select Board asks him to, Jutton added. His Meredith, N.H. firm has been paid $15,000 for its first search; he's charging just over $4,000 in expenses, such as advertising, for round two. The Selectmen authorized up to $6,000, if needed, to complete the effort.

To contact Clarence Fanto:


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