DALTON — Officials quizzed two of three finalists for Dalton’s top municipal job Thursday night and might make a hiring decision Feb. 1, a few days after hearing from the remaining candidate.
Dalton seeks a town manager to replace Kenneth Walto, who held the job for two decades and retired in August.
Candidates Susan Carmel, of Pittsfield, the finance director in Great Barrington, and Thomas Hutcheson, of Greenfield, administrator of the Franklin County town of Conway, made their cases in videoconference interviews, both of them pledging to be open and accessible leaders who seek to build consensus.
Carmel said her heart is in municipal service, a career she has pursued not only in Great Barrington but for 11 years as Pittsfield’s director of finance and administration, a job she held until early 2016.
When asked to reflect on missteps in her professional life, Carmel said she “veered” once into work in the private sector, before realizing that she preferred public service.
“I ended up being incredibly bored, believe it or not,” she said.
After more than seven years in his job in Conway, Hutcheson said he is interested in stepping up to a larger challenge.
“Dalton seemed to me to be a really good opportunity,” he said. “I’m looking for a town to settle into for the rest of my career.”
Like Carmel, he said town managers need to keep residents’ needs in mind.
“Any individual that comes to you … it is their town, and we do work for all of the residents,” he said.
A third candidate, David Flaherty, of Westfield, will be interviewed by videoconference at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday. The proceeding will be shown on local cable television, Channel 1301, and can be viewed online through Zoom, using the link provided on the board’s agenda for the date of the session. That can be found by visiting mytowngovernment.org/01226.
A special Select Board meeting is planned Feb. 1 for debate on the candidates’ merits and a possible decision.
Dalton officials made it clear that a top priority for the next manager is to serve as a budget hawk, as the impact of borrowing for a major school project now hits tax bills. They peppered the candidates with questions about their experience negotiating with labor unions, and handling procurement and capital expense planning.
“Dalton has always been noted for its strong financial team,” board member John Boyle told Carmel. “I think that is what the town is looking for, particularly in these difficult times. … What’s our way out of this, if there is a way?”
Carmel said she has a policy of trying to get back within 24 hours to anyone who comes to her with a question. She said that she has an open-door policy, believes “citizens are our bosses” and encourages public access and accountability.
She said that while working in Pittsfield, she regularly addressed the City Council on financial matters and was involved in union contract negotiations. The smallest union in Pittsfield, one official observed, is the size of the largest in Dalton.
Carmel said communication is essential for municipal leaders.
“I always encourage it. I always take the time to listen and provide the answers I can,” she said.
When asked by board member Daniel Esko to describe her “core” values, Carmel named her sense of personal integrity, willingness to help, family values and perseverance.
‘Time to move’
Hutcheson told board members he felt it was time for him to seek a larger playing field than Conway, a town of about 1,900. Dalton has a population of 6,570.
“It’s time for me to move,” he said. But, not far. “I want to stay out west.”
When asked to describe what skills he brings to municipal work, Hutcheson spoke of his more than two years as an administrator in Northfield, another Franklin County town, and then his work in Conway since 2013.
“I’ve learned to be the go-to person for a lot of the ins and outs of town government,” he said. “I have a lot of patience, and I’m willing to go the extra mile.”
Pressed to provide an example, Hutcheson recalled the times he fixed a town hall toilet and fetched a supply of linseed oil to attend to aging woodwork.
He described Conway as a financially stable town with a modest budget. That, he said, has taught him how to get things done at minimal cost.
Hutcheson said he believes a town leader’s duty is to provide information that allows people to hold reasoned and fact-based debates about use of their shared resources.
“That generates goodwill,” he said. “They may not like it, but at least they’ll understand why you’re doing it. That can generate a more harmonious environment.”
With the hint of a smile, Hutcheson said his goal is to help assure high-quality arguments at Town Meeting.
The more facts, the better, he said.
“Let’s understand what the issues are so we can take that into account in future plans.”
The town manager job’s pay range is $100,000 to $125,000 a year. Walto was making $114,815 a year when he retired.
Sandra J. Albano, Dalton’s town accountant, has filled in since August as interim town manager and led the search committee that interviewed about a dozen candidates and selected the finalists. One finalist dropped out because of a requirement that the person selected move to Dalton within a year.
John Kelly, a member of the search committee, said the panel has been busy sharing minutes from its candidate interviews.
“We’ve given the Select Board, we feel, three very quality candidates. If none of these work out, we’re willing to go back to the drawing board,” he said.