Town managers tough to find; housing prices one reason

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — After vetting who they thought was the right candidate to be the next Southwest Harbor town manager, town officials were unable to seal the deal due to a lack of affordable housing options. 

To be competitive in a search that has gone on for six months, the town decided to increase the salary for the manager position from $100,000 to $115,000.  

“Housing costs have been a challenge for anyone interested in moving here,” said Southwest Harbor’s Interim Town Manager Dana Reed, who is not involved in the search for a new town manager. Earlier this summer, the town hired a new police chief who is still looking for permanent housing.  

“It’s an issue everywhere,” said Don Gerrish, a municipal consultant with the law offices of Eaton and Peabody.  He works with towns to hire town managers and has been hired by Southwest Harbor. “It is difficult in a market like Southwest Harbor and Bar Harbor where housing costs have gone up so much… Twenty years ago there was an expectation the manager would live in the community. Now, they say ‘residency in the community is desired but not mandatory.’” 

But, when it comes to town managers, finding available affordable housing is not the only problem. Gerrish is currently working with six municipalities to find a manager. In this area, in addition to Southwest Harbor needing a town manager, Bar Harbor Town Manager Cornell Knight announced his resignation at the beginning of August and will leave the position at the beginning of 2022. Bar Harbor recently hired Eaton and Peabody to help with their search, which is the same company for which Gerrish works.  

“I think what we’ve seen in the last five years is not as much interest in town manager positions,” he said, adding that there was a time when an opening would attract 25 to 35 applicants. “Now if we get 15, we’re pleased… To be honest with you, it’s a hard job today.” 

Gerrish lists a number of reasons it is tough to find people, including the pandemic, a lack of civility towards leadership and the loss of a feeder program for municipal management from the University of Maine in Orono.  

“That did hurt getting younger people involved in town management,” he said. “People with experience in the position has not been there.” 

There are many different skills a town manager needs to do the job, according to Gerrish. A few of them include being good with budgets, a capacity to work with grants, ability to manage employees, computer/technology skills and experience with negotiating contracts, specifically with unions.  

“Each candidate that applies for a position brings their own unique qualifications,” said Gerrish, who tells hiring boards it is important to find a good fit for their community. “You would hope to find somebody who has some experience being a manager… A lot of police chiefs have retired and become managers in a number of communities.” 
David Barrett is the director of personnel services and labor relations with the Maine Municipal Association and has been helping municipalities find managers for more than 30 years.  

“There have been more searches going on in 2021 than I can remember,” he said. “Maine in general is a really difficult place to employ people and recruit people… It’s not just an issue for town managers but for staff in general.” 

According to Barrett, many of the town managers in Maine are reaching retirement age and there isn’t a new pool of ready candidates to fill those vacancies.  

“Thirty-five years ago, the university had a program that produced town managers,” he explained. “Most are now retirement age… It’s a tough job. There are a lot of demands on that person.” 

In the wake of firing former town manager Justin VanDongen, members of the Southwest Harbor Select Board worked on compiling a list of expectations, required skills and their wishes for the next person to fill the position. 

“Anytime you have a key employee leaving, you want to look at what the job description is,” said Gerrish, who has done a number of interim town manager stints while working with communities. “I try to encourage the elected officials to think about, ‘what are the issues facing your community in the next five years?’” 

For some communities, that may be major construction projects, updating or working with the town’s comprehensive plan, a property revaluation or making changes to the town’s charter, ordinances or policies.  

“It’s a lot of responsibility to run a municipality,” said Barrett. “There’s a lot of night meetings… It’s just a challenging position. It’s rewarding as can be because you’re making a contribution to your community and it’s not the same job every day.” 

When searching for a town manager, many places will advertise nationally for the right fit. Maine has recently seen a major influx of people in response to the pandemic, but not a lot who are contributing to the workforce.  

“You want to make sure people come to Maine for the right reasons,” said Gerrish, pointing out the winters and cold climate can be tough for some. “They need to know what Maine is about.” 

One of the key qualities in a candidate is having an understanding of the governmental process.  

“It’s knowing government; knowing how government works,” said Gerrish. “Government works slowly. Government isn’t a quick process. It has different rules and regulations.” 

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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