Harwich will suffer a major loss when Town Administrator Christopher Clark walks out the door on Friday. Clark has been a responsible administrator of the community for nearly six years. He came to the community at a time when the town was struggling financially, at a time when there was negative free cash, and he has turned those conditions around and built sound reserves. This past year that success was recognized by Standard and Poor when the town obtained a long-sought-after AAA bond rating, an upgrade that will reduce borrowing costs for debt exclusion projects into the future.
During his tenure Clark has overseen many large projects. He managed the two-town Muddy Creek Bridge project to reduce nitrogen impacts in Pleasant Bay, securing several grants to reduce local costs and the need for extensive sewering infrastructure in sections of East Harwich. He fought hard for completion of the Saquatucket Harbor renovations, even against the will of a couple of selectmen, and the town now has a primary harborside attraction serving boaters and the general public. He has also been a constant voice in the effort to have Massachusetts Department of Transportation construct a much-needed sidewalk from the harbor to Harwich Port.
Clark played a key role in the recovery effort after the July 23 tornado tore through town. His oversight led to the commonwealth assisting with recovery costs. He works well with other communities and has a good relationship with staff and department heads. The agreement with the town of Chatham for shared use of its wastewater treatment plant is a prime example. The willingness to look into regionalized wastewater initiatives with Dennis and Yarmouth to reduce wastewater management costs is another example. The list goes on and on.
With such high stakes and in such a dynamic atmosphere, there are going to be disagreements, and conflicts between Clark and two members of the board of selectmen are obvious, made crystal clear when Clark received his annual evaluation in May. Selectmen Donald Howell and Michael MacAskill provided failing grades, while other board members provided generally high marks. Much of the acrimony between Clark and the two board members has centered around budget increases and debt exclusions driving up the tax rate. Debt exclusion articles and ballot questions rest with the selectmen. Wastewater infrastructure costs approved by town meeting are a prime example, especially when consulting estimates are $8 million below projected costs. MacAskill now questions the numbers presented by the town’s consultants for the DHY regional treatment option. Rightfully so, but MacAskill has repeatedly made clear his “no confidence” in the town administrator, especially relating to wastewater costs, even though the consulting firm used throughout the wastewater initiative was well entrenched before Clark was hired. He inherited the firm appointed by selectmen. In recent months this conflict has led to an effort to remove Clark from his position. Perhaps that can now be seen as successful, but Clark made clear this week that there are family issues in need of addressing and he has chosen family first. That is a sign of a man with good judgment.
What we’ve seen here is eerily similar to the scenario that led to the departure of the town’s first town administrator Wayne Melville in 2006. Melville was pressured by Howell and another member of the board. Melville said he knew he had three votes, but based on the stress remaining would entail he did not want to exit with a heart attack. Instead, he resigned. The town lost a good administrator and proceeded to struggle. It is losing another now.
There is an appropriate saying: “Any jackass can kick down the stable.” When it happens twice, it’s time to throw the donkeys out.