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Zero In: Signing a New Town Manager, Can Winchester Do a Better Job?

The search is on for a new Town Manager in Winchester.

Since the former Town Manager's departure on June 30, 2010, the Winchester Board of Selectmen have been planning the process of determining a replacement. The first step has been interviewing consultants to help with the overall process. Having interviewed four, the Selectmen are poised to begin the public input process.

"As a Board, we have been discussing the type of characteristics we would like to see in a new Town Manager," said Selectman Roger Berman. "We are trying to determine what would constitute 'success' at different milestones, say at one year, three year and five years after initial employment. We need to answer the question, 'How do you know that you have hired the right individual?'"

The Board of Selectmen is considering forming a Citizens Search Committee to help with the selection process.

 A comparison of town administrator 2008 contracts indicates that taxpayers should be concerned about this hiring process. Town Manager/Administrator contracts for the towns of Belmont, Lexington, Wellesley and Winchester were compared with some interesting differences.

Annual salaries range from a high of $153K in Lexington to a low of $139K in Belmont. Deferred compensation or extra benefits were provided in the form of:

Type                                                                              Amount                              Town

 Long-term disability insurance premiums   $1600 per year maximum   Belmont

Life & disability policy                                       $2000 per year maximum   Lexington

Supplemental life                                       $250K benefit/cost not specified Winchester

Disability income benefits policy                    Cost not specified                   Winchester

Cell phone                                                            $480                                           Lexington

Annual automobile allowance                        $3,500                                       Lexington

                                                                              $6,000                                        Winchester

COLA                                                                   2.5% annual salary                  Winchester

Deferred compensation plan                          5% of annual salary                Winchester

 The towns also vary in the way vacation or sick leave may or may not be "cashed-out" by their top employee.

Town              Vacation Days                                                Sick Days

Belmont      8 week accumulation allowed                     No cash out permitted

Lexington   Eligible for vacation buy-back program   Standard town employee policy

Wellesley     10 days per year permitted                         May accumulate up to 150 days

Winchester  6 weeks, more allowed from                                                                                                               written permission from Board                                     Sick leave buy back program

Unique to all four town's contracts, was a paragraph entitled "Non-Renewal of Agreement" in the Winchester contract that said  "On or before June 30, 2010, the Town and the Town Manager will enter into a New Employment Agreement or the Town will give written notice of its intent not to renew the Town Manager's employment on or before March 31, 2010.

"Non- renewal under this section shall be subject to all benefits previously set forth in this agreement including Section III F. Severance." 

The bottom line is, because of this paragraph, the Town of Winchester was obligated to pay $110,000 for not renewing—simply ending— the former Town Manager's employment contract (an additional $14,560 was also paid for vacation accrual).

Was Town Meeting Informed?

Town Meeting members voted on the town's budget in May, well after the Board of Selectmen indicated that the Town Manager's contract would not be renewed on March 31, 2010. It is unclear why this financial obligation was not specifically included in the Town's FY2010-11 Operating Budget for approval by Town Meeting. 

In a memorandum to Town Meeting members dated May 7, 2010, the Board of Selectmen did indicate "a need for additional funding to supplement the Town Manager's Office budget for FY11. It is anticipated the additional sum required will be approximately $100,000 and this additional funding will be requested at Fall Town Meeting." 

Unfortunately clarification of this "need" was not publicly sought during Spring Town Meeting debate on the budget, perhaps because this amount did not appear as a budget line item. The financial obligation of ending the Town Manager's contract was not clearly defined for Town Meeting members.

Given that Winchester has already paid for nine months of a Town Manager, and has agreed to pay the Acting Town Manager a $750 per-week stipend, a Town Manager department budget shortfall is anticipated. 

In a letter dated July 14, 2010 from the Board of Selectmen to John Sullivan, the Town Moderator, the Board states that it "informed Spring Town Meeting we anticipate additional funding will be required for the Town Manager's budget to cover additional expenses related to the departure of the prior Town Manager (emphasis added to contrast to the language noted in the paragraph above). 

Whether Spring Town Meeting was specifically informed is a matter of debate. In an informal poll of Town Meeting members, knowledge of this financial obligation was not apparent. A "$70k-$80k (shortfall) is the current projection, based on the working assumption that a new Town Manager will be seated by January 1, 2011," concluded the Board to the Moderator.

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