HARWICH — Selectmen have agreed to hire Robert Lawton as acting assistant town administrator. Lawton has previously served as interim town administrator and as interim assistant town administrator in the past.
Lawton served as town administrator in Yarmouth for 32 years and he has often been referred to as the dean of town administrators on the Cape. Lawton served as interim town administrator in Harwich from July 2013 to January 2014, when town administrator James Merriam retired and the town conducted the search that brought town administrator Christopher Clark to Harwich.
Lawton also served as interim assistant town administrator in the winter and spring of 2018, during a period of transition as assistant town administrator Charleen Greenhalgh moved into the position of town planner.
Selectmen last week agreed to bring Lawton back to serve as interim assistant town administrator to help with personnel and procurement. He will also assist interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers with budget and warrant development as town meeting deadlines approach.
Powers, who has served as assistant town administrator for about six months, was named interim town administrator with the departure of Clark in November. Clark and some members of the board of selectmen were at odds for the major part of the past year. Citing the difficult atmosphere, Clark worked out a long-term leave of absence with selectmen, agreeing that he would not seek a new contract with the town.
Selectmen hesitated for a couple of weeks over how to move forward with administrative staffing. Selectman Michael MacAskill was not supportive of hiring Lawton and instead suggested reaching out to town administrator in other towns to see if their staff might be able to handle personnel and procurement issues on an as-needed basis.
“I don’t see a retired town administrator is going to help us,” MacAskill said.
He suggested the board should do a little more planning and look at other options. He pointed out former Brewster town administrator Charlie Sumner may also be available and questioned whether the board should interview him to determine who is best for the job. MacAskill also questioned where the town is going to get the money to pay for interim staffing.
Powers said that the finance committee is expecting an emergency transfer of funds to cover the expenses.
But selectmen stressed the urgency of putting personnel in place given the absence of staff in the administrative office. Powers pointed out there are 2.5 full-time people when four staff members traditionally work there.
“I don’t disagree with MacAskill, but we’re caught in a time bind and should do it quickly,” Selectman Stephen Ford said.
Selectman Ed McManus said it should be the interim town administrator’s job to make a decision how to proceed. He said it would require developing a contract to use staff from another town and he’s never seen that process move quickly.
“We’re looking for something that gives us immediate help,” Boards of Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine said.
“It’s not going to end well for the town if we don’t get out of the hole we’re in. It’s about better preparation for town meeting,” Powers said.
On Dec. 23 Powers provided a memo to the board explaining that he has talked with Lawton who is available two days a week. Selectmen confirmed Powers’ choice, and Lawton will begin work on Jan. 6.
The board will also address the creation of a town administrator search committee in the Jan. 6 meeting and discuss how to proceed with a search committee for filling the town administrator’s position in the Jan. 13 meeting.