Selectmen Deadlocked Over New Administrator; Powers Offered One-Year Interim Contract

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Board of Selectmen News

Harwich news.

HARWICH — Selectmen could not come to a conclusion Monday night on the hiring of a permanent town administrator. After two motions failed, the board agreed to retain Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers for one year.

“No comment,” Powers responded Tuesday morning to an email asking if he had made a decision on continuing in the interim town administrator job.

Discussions on the choosing of a new town administrator began with Board of Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine presenting the results of the evaluation forms filled out by board members after interviews with the four finalists last week.

Ballantine said board members were told to grade the candidates one through five, with five being the highest. He presented the results in alphabetical order. Kenneth Gray, former mayor of Amesbury, received 12 points; Thomas Guerino, former Bourne town administrator, had seven points; Powers had 19 points; and Cathy Ann Viveiros, former Fall River city administrator, garnered 15 points.

The Harwich Home Rule Charter requires a positive vote by four selectmen to hire a town administrator. Selectman Ed McManus quickly nominated Viveiros and was seconded by Selectman Michael MacAskill. McManus and MacAskill voted in the affirmative and Selectmen Stephen Ford, Donald Howell and Ballantine voted against the motion, killing it.

Then Ford put forward a motion to appoint Powers as town administrator, with a second by Howell. The motion was supported by Ford, Howell and Ballantine, but McManus and MacAskill voted against it. The 3-2 vote did not meet the requirement of the charter for appointment.

Reflecting back to the beginning of the pandemic, McManus said it “looked like the world was collapsing on us,” and selectmen made the decision to forego a search firm due to costs. McManus suggested at that point continuing forward for a year with the interim town administrator.

“The reservation I have is it detracts from the process and the individual,” Ford said. “I can imagine people of this town are going to be shocked. We appointed five competent, capable people (on the search committee) and they did a lot of work. We’ve all given our thoughts on the candidates. It would be a shame if we don’t approve a candidate tonight.”

MacAskill said the board did a disservice when it decided not to hire a search firm, but added there was agreement early on that “we’d have a hand in this process and it has come down to what your view is, my view is, Steve’s and Larry’s view.”

McManus said he sat through three town administrator hirings. He was talked into the first one and it did not go well. On the second he asked for more time for review and was denied, so he abstained. This time, he said he did a lot of his own review. He said he didn't want to be “cajoled into voting for somebody I don’t think is qualified.” It would only take three votes for selectmen to appoint the interim town administrator for a year, he said.

Ballantine raised the question of what to then do about an assistant town administrator.

“We’re a little off track here,” Ford said. “The biggest problem we have is the selectmen and not the town administrator.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” MacAskill responded.

Ford said he has hired a lot of people over his career and he is making a decision on his own, not based on what other people are telling him. “Joe has the skill set to do it,” he said.

MacAskill said issues with hiring a town administrator are not unique to Harwich. Wellfleet's recent vote on a new executive wasn't unanimous, and Provincetown hired an interim for a year. Harwich could hire a town administrator for a year and put Powers back in the assistant’s position or keep Powers in the interim post and fill the assistant’s position.

“We have options,” MacAskill said.

To break the impasse, Ford offered the motion to have Powers serve as interim town administrator for one year. Selectmen will also have to look at the compensation level, he added, noting Powers should not serve at the assistant town administrator’s pay scale. Board members agreed. Ford, Howell and Ballantine supported the motion; MacAskill voted against it and McManus abstained.

When Powers returned to the room, Ballantine explained the vote, saying he hoped Powers would accept a contract.

“Is it a question you want me to answer right now?” responded Powers.

Selectmen said they were not looking for a response immediately.