Panel of Berkshire town leaders to vet Stockbridge candidates

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STOCKBRIDGE >> The next stage of the search for a successor to retiring Stockbridge Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden is now in the hands of three veteran municipal leaders from around the county.

The screening committee appointed by the Select Board to sift through the first wave of applications has completed its work by reporting that 27 candidates responded to advertisements for the position last month.

The job will pay up to $110,000 a year, based on a budget line item approved by annual town meeting voters on May 16.

After three weeks of study by its five members, the screening committee met earlier this month to rank the applicants primarily according to their educational backgrounds and work experience, committee member Bronly Boyd told the Select Board members during a recent meeting that became tense at times.

Nine candidates made the cut based on how they match up to the job description, Boyd explained as he presented the confidential list to Marsden.

Three of the semi-finalists are from Berkshire County, one from Maine, and the remaining five from elsewhere in Massachusetts.

The following leaders are tasked with producing a list of finalists to be interviewed by the Select Board prior to a decision:

• Peter Fohlin, retired manager and chief financial officer of Williamstown, who spent 15 years in the post and recently has served as interim administrator in Richmond;

• Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason, who has held the position since March 1998, and is the dean of local town managers and administrators;

• and Kenneth Walto, manager for Dalton for the past 15 years.

"These are three well-qualified, distinguished public servants who fit the qualifications the Select Board laid out in establishing this process," said Selectman Stephen Shatz, noting that they are volunteering their time. "They can ask the right questions and then bring forward candidates to us for the final selection process."

That procedure was unanimously approved by the Select Board last May 9, he explained under intense questioning by newly elected board member Don Chabon.

"The previous board, yes," Chabon said.

"It's still a unanimous vote of the Board of Selectmen," Shatz responded, adding that the three town leaders will recommend "more than one, we hope that two or three survive this vetting process."

Chabon offered a motion requiring that the final applications presented to the Select Board "are not limited to the people or person that these three town administrators recommend but rather, we take their comments as advisory, and we actually look at the nine applications that met the criteria."

After Cardillo seconded the motion, Marsden declared that "we set this way, I'm sure they're going to have more than one applicant and I don't think it's fair to the individual candidates out there to have their applications that may not go forth be out there in the public."

Chabon objected, doubling down on his concern that after the semi-finalists are evaluated, "we are left with one person, and even though these other people are knowledgeable in their field, they may not be knowledgeable in what's of interest to the town of Stockbridge. It does no harm to look at a broader field."

He suggested that the opinions of Fohlin, Nason and Walto would be taken "as a serious and knowledgeable recommendation."

However, Cardillo agreed with Marsden that "we can't be letting these people's names out there."

"There does not need to be names, but I think we need to look at more than one or two or three candidates," Chabon said.

Shatz clarified that under the Open Meeting Law the finalists must be interviewed in public by the Select Board. "There's no way to hide them," he said.

As for Chabon's suggestion that the names be blacked out prior to the interviews, Shatz said that "you can take the name off, but the work experience is there and it's not that difficult to figure out from a resume who a person is."

Chabon then modified his motion, asking that the three town leaders performing the evaluations be asked to provide at least five candidates as finalists.

At that point, with tensions on the board simmering, Boyd, representing the screening committee, declared that nine adequate candidates had been identified, "very highly qualified educationally and experience-wise. I think you have a pretty good group."

Cardillo supported Chabon's amended motion, yielding a 2-1 Select Board vote to require a field of five finalists, with a firm "no" voiced by Shatz.

The job posting in April included a disclosure that discussions are underway with neighboring communities to explore a potential shared town manager/administrator. Stockbridge, Lee and Lenox leaders continue to discuss various forms of shared services, including joint leadership of two or three towns, since Nason, the Lee town administrator, plans to step down next June.

The ad placed by the Stockbridge Select Board called for "a community-oriented administrator with strong leadership, communications and presentation skills. Ideal candidate requirements include at least seven years experience in municipal leadership positions, with emphasis in finance and public administration, familiarity with human resources issues and preferably, a master's degree in business administration, public administration or finance."

It continued, "We seek a candidate who will perform the duties of the position with integrity and transparency, and who will demand the same from his or her staff."

Although the job description included the expanded powers for the town administrator approved by the Select Board late last winter, annual town meeting voters last month adopted a citizens motion by resident Terry Flynn to weaken those powers, reserving key decisions such as procurement contracts as well as hiring and firing actions to the selectmen.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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