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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Facing the municipal hiring 'crisis'

Clarksburg Town Hall administrator (copy)

Clarksburg Town Hall was nearly empty of workers a year ago after several resignations. Town Administrator Carl McKinney is still seeking to fill one more position.

As Tip O’Neill noted, all politics is local — and in our town offices and city halls, so is the maintenance of democracy itself. That’s not just a principle but a process and, for some, a profession. Regional leaders are sounding the alarm, though, that those folks who make up the vital infrastructure of municipal public service are getting harder to find.

According to municipal leaders from around the Berkshires and the state, it seems the supply of trained, experienced town professionals is running mighty low. When Clarksburg lost three town employees, it took more than a year to rebuild the ranks, and they’re still lacking one position. Williamstown needed to find a town manager. It took 14 months and two searches to hire another.

In fact, “it’s becoming a crisis,” according to Carl McKinney, town administrator in Clarksburg, where losing three town employees led to a struggle to staff up that has stretched on for more than a year. This small Northern Berkshire town is far from alone in this struggle — just ask Mr. McKinney’s counterparts in Great Barrington, North Adams, Pittsfield and Stockbridge.

It’s bad enough that Mr. McKinney wrote the governor about it, asking for help on behalf of communities like his where providing quality services to residents is only going to get harder as the municipal professional pipeline remains at an insufficient trickle. We echo this worried town administrator’s call for the state to do more to prime the pump for the next generation of municipal employees before this crisis worsens. Also in agreement is the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which runs programs to equip those prospective workers with unique skills and training necessary for those specialized positions.

“We need to be building a stronger bench of people who are able to step in when older workers retire,” MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith told The Eagle. “All sorts of communities are looking for the right people, often competing with each other.”

That competition is an unfortunate inevitability amid the ubiquitous scramble to fill seats in critical town offices. One solution that we have frequently urged on this page is to turn that competition into a chance for cooperation by exploring shared services whenever possible.

The right approach to regionalization is unique to each community, but embracing that Berkshire-grown neighborly instinct opens up many opportunities to continue providing high-quality public services while cushioning the budgetary blow and easing the municipal hiring squeeze all at once. We’re happy to see Adams, North Adams and Williamstown exploring just such an arrangement for sharing a human resources director, and hope other communities see the wisdom in such approaches and follow their lead.

Beyond policy measures, though, we can’t help but notice an acrimonious trend in the public meeting spaces of all too many Berkshire communities. There is spirited debate and disagreement on pressing issues — and then there is naked disrespect, unproductive divisiveness and unnecessarily turning up the temperature on already heated topics.

That is poisonous enough on its own, but it further hobbles small towns struggling to attract, hire and retain municipal employees and officials. Just imagine those considering public service roles, only to see the kind of vitriol that all too many folks are happy to level at their neighbors.

Our Opinion: Local officials should finish their terms — they owe that to the voters who hired them

It’s not surprising that people aren’t lining up in droves for a seat in a municipal office and a target on the back for that treatment. In fact, it seems to be driving many officials away, even to the point of tapping out before their terms of service are up — a move we’ve strongly discouraged on this page that only multiplies these municipal issues.

A raft of ugly factors — sharp polarization at every level of our politics, residual pandemic stress, the toxic tendrils of social media — are converging to make all of this far too difficult. But while we have diminished control over what drips down from D.C. and Beacon Hill, we have a much stronger voice in our town offices and city halls and therefore a more direct responsibility in the maintenance of participatory democracy.

Here in the Berkshires, we are fortunate to draw from a uniquely Rockwellian strain of that proud New England tradition. Our civic behavior ought to better reflect that.

We hope more people see the benefits of public service in these vital municipal roles. Perhaps more importantly, we hope officials and civilians alike remember to approach that civic sphere in such a way that might encourage folks to enter those roles instead of discouraging them.

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