Selectmen Discuss Hiring Assistant Town Manager
Town Manager Paul Cohen said he disagreed with the measure at this time.
Selectmen last night gave Town Manager Paul Cohen high marks on his performance evaluation, and after much discussion, decided to set a goal for him to hire an assistant town manager this year.
Cohen disagreed with the goal, saying now is not the time to hire an assistant manager, saying he'd rather spend $80,000 to put more police officers on the street.
But Board of Selectmen Chairman Jon Kurland argued an assistant town manager will free up more of Cohen's time so he can do more strategic planning, while the assistant could do more tactical problem solving and grant writing to save the town money.
"It struck us, in the event something unforeseen happens or if he is absent for any serious length of time, we are not really prepared to have someone who can step in to make sure the administration of the town (is taken care of)," he said. "Whether it's a month or three months or whatever, it is prudent planning to have someone in that position."
Kurland said Cohen would be in charge of creating the position and hiring the administrator.
"The reality is that we are a $107 million dollar corporation and for an entity this size with that many employees, (we need to) have an individual to step in on an as-needed basis to help run the town in Paul's absence or to provide him with the support to enable him to pursue other issues," he said.
"This is not the right economic time ... A year ago we were concerned about re-opening the South Chelmsford fire station. We were able to do that last year but what concerns me is I don’t think we have sufficient police officers," he said.
"We are below where we were before the economic recession of 2008 and if I were to spend $80,000 for an assistant town manager, I think it'd be in the best interest of the town to hire two police officers for traffic safety. You've heard concerns repeatedly at this podium about the speed of traffic, trucks violating truck exclusions," he said. "I'm not comfortable (with an assistant town manager)."
Selectman Pat Wojtas was the only selectman to vote against Cohen's goals, which included hiring the assistant town manager. Wojtas said considering Cohen's resistance and the way the town currently operates, she wasn't sure an assistant town manager would be needed.
Selectman Jim Lane said this year the town has an opportunity to use the retirements of Jim Pearson as Department of Public Works director, having promoted Gary Persechetti from within, and Steve Jahnle's promotion as the town engineer and the retirement of Highway Superintendent John Long in the fall. These retirements create an opportunity for restructuring Cohen's administration, Lane said.
Wojtas said given those retirements, she might prefer a reorganization of Cohen's department, but not necessarily an assistant town manager.
Cohen said barring any extreme situations he isn't going to leave the town.
"I do have a five year track record in this town, and I also have a cell phone. I can be reached if I'm on vacation," he said. "I think the board is crossing the line from policy and goal-setting to administrative functions...I think it’s a bit afoul of how things are intended in the town charter and have operated in the past."
Cohen said ultimately the decision is in the hands of Town Meeting reps, who would have to approve the measure. Cohen said when it comes time to amend a budget at fall Town Meeting, he will put it together as normal and amend it on Town Meeting floor for an amount for extra police officers. Cohen said a selectman or other Town Meeting rep would need to make an amendment in the budget for an assistant town manager.
Overall, selectmen agreed that Cohen continuously exceeded their expectations in his job performance.
"I know how hard he works and he is passionate about the town," said Kurland. "We are lucky and fortunate. There are things people don’t realize that go on and we (as selectmen) happen to be in a position to know a lot more of the things he's involved in," said Kurland.
Selectman George Dixon agreed.
"There are things we don’t or can't always agree on ... but in the end we all want what's right for everybody in the town. There are things we have to work on but I think he's done outstanding job," he said.