Lenox looks ready to share town manager with Lee

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LENOX — The Select Board has voiced approval of sharing Town Manager Christopher Ketchen with Lee in a three-year trial with annual "off ramps" if the new shared leadership agreement hits a snag.

Members agreed that they could approve the arrangement without taking it to Annual Town Meeting voters in May.

"We're talking about a trial period," Selectman Kenneth Fowler stressed at a Select Board budget meeting on Monday. He is the chairman of the four-member Administrative Review Committee, with two representatives from each town, that has been working on a plan to share Ketchen with Lee as Chief Administrative Officer, teamed with an assistant administrator specializing in human resources.

"I understand there are people out there who have concerns," Fowler said. "But their concerns are typically based on how it's going to work, where's Chris going to be, he won't be reachable on the phone as easily. All of those questions, in my opinion, are unfounded."

"A lot of the concern I've heard is that we're only going to have half of him," said Select Board Chairman Warren Archey, "and can we do that? My response is based on his ability to do that, he's expressed that and our board has faith in his ability to do that. Let's give it a try."

Archey, noting that the skeptics he has encountered have "calmed down," added that "I see no problem with making the decision as a board, rather than handing it to the town, because of the trial period. I'm for it."

He emphasized the need for a complete explanation of the setup for residents because "there are a lot of misconceptions about what form it could take, so the more we can explain that thoroughly, the better for the town."

The agreement would be up for annual renewal during the initial three-year period, which would begin on July 1 if town meeting representatives in Lee approve it at their annual gathering in May.

The Lee representatives and Select Board members have expressed support for the effort. Residents of both towns would need to vote on whether to make the arrangement permanent after the trial ends on June 30, 2020.

"If this works the way we want it to, I think it's not going to impact the town in any way that anyone's going to notice, unless they want to come in every day and complain that they couldn't find Chris," Selectman Channing Gibson said. "I personally feel very strongly that this board should make the decision and that we not take it to the town."

Since the town has had input, he noted, "I don't know what the point of opening it up to the vote is, when to me it's just an operational decision."

"I think it's well within our scope to make the decision," said Selectman David Roche. "The input from the town is very valuable, and we've had quite a bit of it." He pointed to an informational town forum in January that yielded mostly positive reactions from the residents who attended it.

Under the proposed agreement, Ketchen would continue to be employed by Lenox, but Lee would pay half his salary, currently $110,000 a year. The assistant administrative officer would be hired by Lee and paid by both towns to manage the town government staffs. For budget purposes, there would be no additional cost since he or she would replace Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason, who's retiring on June 30.

Lenox Selectman Edward Lane emphasized that the role of the assistant administrative officer has to be carefully explained to residents.

"That's the question mark, and once it can be explained clearly, and we talk to people, that's when people will understand it," he said.

Ketchen told the board members he is near completion on a job description for the human resources post, gleaned from HR specialists in other towns across the state.

"If we were a private corporation, we would have at least one, if not two, HR people," Gibson said. "That's how important this job has become in the private sector."

Once a formal inter-municipal agreement is presented at the next meeting of the two-town Administrative Review Committee on Monday morning in Lenox Town Hall, the Lenox Select Board would vote on it at its March 22 meeting. The ARC representatives are Fowler and Lane for Lenox, and Selectwoman Patty Carlino and Finance Committee Chairman Nick Arienti for Lee.

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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