Manager selection is critical

Published 4:52 pm Tuesday, April 10, 2018

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A Forum Thursday featuring the six candidates for four Smithfield Town Council seats drew a large audience, some thoughtful responses to questions and no fireworks.

The five newcomers on the dais had a few thoughts on what they might want to change if elected, but nothing dramatic. The one incumbent, Mayor Carter Williams, understandably, felt nothing needs to change.

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The newcomers had done their homework and appeared prepared to discuss a variety of issues. At the end of the forum, the impression most people seemed to leave with was that no matter who wins a seat in the at-large election, the town will be OK.

The one area that I thought would have generated more interest among the newcomers than it did was the appointment of a new town manager. Asked if they thought the outgoing council or the incoming one should select a new manager, a couple of the new candidates expressed an interest in seeing a qualified person named, but none appeared to be interested in helping to make that decision. They seemed to agree that it’s up to the present council.

I respectfully demur. Town Manager Peter Stephenson’s decision to retire June 30 presents the Town Council with the biggest decision it will have to make in the next year or two — his replacement.

A town manager form of government is a system very specifically defined by state law. Towns that have adopted a manager form of government, as Smithfield did a half century ago, operate under the day-to-day supervision of that manager. Neither the Town Council nor the council-elected mayor has any personal authority over operations. The Town Council names a manager and sets the policies under which he or she operates, but it is the manager who’s in charge of actually running the town. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

That makes the selection of Stephenson’s successor a matter that should be a top concern to anyone who hopes to hold a seat on the Council after July 1. Three members of the current Town Council are not running for re-election. Assuming Mayor Carter Williams wins re-election (a pretty safe assumption), there will be three new Council members. That’s pretty close to half of the seven-member body.

Those new members need to be involved in the selection process, and the current council members have a responsibility to involve them.

Fortunately, the town’s staff and, presumably, the present council, are taking steps to ensure that new members will be involved. The town’s human resources director, Ashley Rogers, has said there are plans to include the council members-elect in the final interviews, which will bit be held until after Election Day.

If any of the new candidates knew of that plan on Thursday, they didn’t indicate that they did. And it’s a bit puzzling that Mayor Williams didn’t simply announce that plan during the forum.

At any rate, it does appear the town is taking the initiative to involve the new council members, and that bodes well for the transition. The candidates for Town Council may not think their involvement is terribly important, but it is. In fact it’s critical. They will be working closely with the new manager and have a responsibility to be involved in that person’s selection.