Lowell Week in Review: February 18, 2018

Selecting a City Manager

Hiring a new city manager for Lowell is a big deal. Consequently, today’s post will deal exclusively with how that process was conducted the last time a city manager was hired, with some Lowell political history tossed in for context.

City Manager Kevin Murphy’s announcement this week that he would retire on April 1, 2018 was quite a surprise. When he was selected, Manager Murphy promised that the three pillars of his administration would be public safety, economic development and education. History will show that he delivered on all three. In the coming weeks, I’ll write more about the accomplishments of the Murphy administration but today, let’s cover the process of selecting a successor City Manager.

At this past Tuesday’s council meeting, less than 24 hours after the Murphy retirement announcement, councilors indicated an intent to follow the same process that was used when Murphy was selected back in 2014. Before discussing the particulars of that process, it might be helpful to review the history leading up to the vacancy that Murphy filled because, as Harry Truman once said, “the only thing new in the world is the history you’ve not yet read.”

Murphy’s predecessor, Bernie Lynch, served as city manager for more than seven years. He was hired on June 30, 2006 with the votes of Mayor Bill Martin and Councilors Eileen Donoghue, Bud Caulfield, Rodney Elliott, Kevin Broderick, Jim Milinazzo, and George Ramirez. Councilors Armand Mercier and Rita Mercier both voted for Frank Keefe.

In the November 2007 city council election, incumbents Rita Mercier, Bud Caulfield, Bill Martin, Armand Mercier, Kevin Broderick, Rodney Elliott and Jim Milinazzo were all re-elected. Eileen Donoghue, who had run in that fall’s special Congressional Election to replace Marty Meehan (which election was won by Niki Tsongas) did not run for re-election to the council, and Joe Mendonca, who had replaced George Ramirez when he resigned from the council, lost his reelection effort. Replacing Donoghue and Mendonca were Alan Kazanjian and Mike Lenzi. Bud Caulfield was unanimously elected mayor. During this council term, Manager Lynch would typically get five votes on important issues, but he also had a rockier relationship with this council than with the council that had elected him.

In the November 2009 election, perhaps due in part to council antagonism towards Lynch, the voters made some changes. Rita Mercier, Bud Caulfield, Kevin Broderick, Jim Milinazzo, Bill Martin and Rodney Elliott were all reelected. Armand Mercier and Alan Kazanjian both lost, and Mike Lenzi did not run. Replacing them were former councilor Mendonca and newcomers Frankie Descoteaux and Patrick Murphy. Milinazzo was unanimously elected mayor. In general, this council had a better relationship with Lynch than did its predecessor.

The November 2011 election also brought three new councilors. Incumbents Rita Mercier, Rodney Elliott, Kevin Broderick, Patrick Murphy, Bill Martin and Joe Mendonca were all reelected. Incumbents Bud Caulfield and Franky Descoteaux did not run, and incumbent Jim Milinazzo, the mayor, finished twelfth. The three new councilors were newcomers Vesna Nuon and Marty Lorrey and former councilor Ed Kennedy. Patrick Murphy was elected mayor by a five to four vote with Murphy, Broderick, Lorrey, Martin and Nuon voting for Murphy and Elliott, Kennedy, Mendonca and Mercier voting for Elliott.

While the election of three new councilors did not signal voter dissatisfaction with Manager Lynch, this council faced some divisive issues and council opposition to Lynch became more pronounced, especially from Elliott, Mercier and Kennedy. Lynch’s support was further weakened in August 2012 when one of his strongest council supporters, Kevin Broderick, resigned from the council. He was replaced by eleventh-place finisher John Leahy (tenth place finisher Armand Mercier had passed away at the start of 2012). While Leahy was not a Lynch opponent, neither was he the strong supporter of the manager that Broderick had been.

The election of November 2013, in retrospect, can be seen as a negative response by voters to either Lynch or to the divisiveness that had engulfed the council during the previous term. Three of Lynch’s reliable supporters, Lorrey, Nuon and Mendonca, all lost, and Mayor Murphy did not run. Replacing them were former councilor Jim Milinazzo and newcomers Bill Samaras, Dan Rourke and Corey Belanger. While neither Rourke nor Belanger expressly campaigned against Lynch, they were more aligned with Lynch critics than Lynch supporters. Additionally, the three incumbent councilors most hostile to Lynch – Mercier, Elliott and Kennedy – finished one-two-three in the council election, and on inauguration day in January 2014, Rodney Elliott was unanimously elected mayor.

That council’s first regular meeting (January 7, 2014) began with a motion about the Christmas crèche (or Nativity Scene) that had historically been located on City Hall Plaza but which that Christmas season had been placed down the street on the grounds of St. Anne’s Church out of concern by the city manager and city solicitor (and others) that the city erecting a religious display on city property created Constitutional problems. A number of councilors were greatly angered by this move and directed their ire at Lynch. (Please read my transcript of that portion of the meeting).

With that as a prelude, the council proceeded through the rest of that night’s agenda to the final item which was a request by the city manager that the council go into executive session to discuss the status of his contract. Lynch’s contract was expiring, and everyone expected him to seek a renewal of it. Councilors opposed the executive session request and said that if the city manager’s contract was to be discussed, it would have to be in open session.

Mayor Elliott then recognized Manager Lynch who began by congratulating the newly elected councilors and then read a letter which began “Please accept this letter as my resignation effective March 10, 2014 . . .”

Although most expected a very hostile relationship between the new council and Lynch, I don’t think anyone expected him to resign, so his announcement came as quite a surprise.

On January 14, 2014, the council held a special meeting to discuss the process of hiring a new manager. The first issue was salary. The council unanimously agreed that any advertisement would state that the outgoing manager’s salary was $180,000 and that the new manager’s salary would be negotiable. The council also agreed to update the job description from that used to hire Lynch seven years earlier. Next, Councilor Kennedy moved that the advertisement state that the council would not offer the new manager a contract, but that failed with Councilors John Leahy, Rita Mercier, Bill Martin, Jim Milinazzo and Bill Samaras voting not to exclude the possibility of the contract, and with Councilors Ed Kennedy, Dan Rourke, Corey Belanger and Ed Kennedy all opposed to offering a contract in any case. Next, the council voted to advertise the position in the Lowell Sun, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and on the websites of the city of Lowell and the Mass Municipal Association. The council then set February 28, 2014 as the deadline for applications.

A few days after that application deadline, the council met again (on March 3, 2014) to discuss the next phase of the process. Councilors agreed that they would review all applicant resumes and that each councilor would submit to the city clerk their top five candidates no later than Friday, March 7. The clerk would then compile the nine sets of “top fives” and whichever five were selected most often would be the finalists and would advance to the interview stage. During this initial screening process, the names of the applicants would be kept confidential.

The next issue was public input. Councilor Samaras favored the establishment of a committee of community members that would meet with the finalists, but most councilors preferred a public hearing at which any citizen could speak publicly to the council about the qualities they hoped to see in the new city manager. This public hearing was set for March 12, 2014. Because public input would not be received until after councilors had already made their “top five” selections, there was some community dissatisfaction that the councilors would be making that initial selection before they heard community input. Nevertheless, that was the process adopted.

Finally, councilors discussed the finalist interview process. Previously, each applicant had opening and closing statements of three minutes each, and a question from each councilor with five minutes to respond. The council delayed making a decision on this until a future meeting.

The next night, March 4, 2014, would be Bernie Lynch’s last meeting as city manager. He submitted the FY2015 budget and made some farewell remarks. Although Lynch had hinted he would be willing to stay on as manager until his successor was in place, councilors rejected that possibility by immediately appointing City Clerk Michael Geary to be interim city manager.

Prior to the March 12, 2014 public hearing, someone leaked to the media the names of the 29 applicants, the names of the six finalists (there was a tie for fifth place) and the number of votes each of the finalists received. The initial applicant names were never to have become public, nor was the vote totals for the finalists, and the finalist names were only to be revealed after that night’s public hearing. (Lowell has a long tradition of these kinds of leaks to the media, so don’t be surprised if it happens again this time).

Eleven citizens spoke at that evening’s public hearing on the traits and characteristics they desired in the next city manager.

At the close of the public hearing portion, the council decided on the particulars of the interview process. Each finalist would have a ten minute opening statement and a five minute closing statement. In between, each councilor would have ten minutes to question each applicant. Given the length of each interview, councilors decided to do just two per night. The evenings selected for interviews were March 25, 26 and 27.

The six finalists for the city manager’s job were:

Greg Balukonis who had been the administrator of North Reading, Massachusetts since 2005. Mr. Balukonis was also a finalist for the position of Dracut Town Manager.

Robert Bruner who was the former city manager of Birmingham, Michigan. He held that job for three years.

Peter Graczykowski who was the former City Manager of East Providence, Rhode Island. He held that job for two years.

Daniel Keyes who had been the administrator of Blackstone, Massachusetts since 2011.

Kevin Murphy who had represented the Highlands and Acre neighborhoods of Lowell as a State Representative since 1997. He also worked for Lowell as an Assistant City Solicitor for 13 years.

George Ramirez who was the Administrator of Devens, the former U.S. Army base in Ayer, Massachusetts, that had been developed as a residential and business zone. He was also an attorney who served on the Lowell City Council in 2006 and 2007.

(On the floor of the council, Rita Mercier stated that Councilor John Leahy should recuse himself from participating in the election of the manager since Ramirez was his brother-in-law and that any participation would be a conflict of interest, however, Leahy replied that state ethics laws only required him to publicly disclose this relationship, which he had done, so it was legal for him to fully participate in the process).

After watching all five interviews (one of the finalists had withdrawn), here’s what I wrote in my Sunday Week in Review of March 30, 2014 which was before the council took its vote on who would be manager:

The City Council interviews of the five finalists for the position of Lowell City Manager dominated politics in the city this week. I watched all five interviews and thought the interview process went pretty well. The council was fortunate to schedule only two interviews per day because sitting through nearly four hours of this stuff on Wednesday and Thursday nights was pretty fatiguing for the viewer which I assume was also true for councilors. The ten minute time blocks for openings, closings and per councilor questioning also seemed good. The ten minute per councilor rule benefited applicants who were concise and direct in their answers since that enabled each councilor to get through his or her own series of questions and not seem rushed near the end. Some questions were pointed; others were not. I don’t remember any instances of high drama or tension. Everyone stayed pretty relaxed through the process. Nor was there any apparent confusion. Candidates, councilors and support staff were there when they were supposed to be. Acting City Manager Geary was the official time keeper and no one seemed to abuse the time rules. I assume there’s been plenty of lobbying and pleading going on this weekend – why should this decision be any different than all the other times that city managers have been selected in Lowell? – but I’ll skip the prognostications and trust the councilors to do the best they can. In many respects the big decision was made last November with the outcome of the city election. Had other candidates been elected, most likely Bernie Lynch would still be there and the only debate would be over the length of his contract extension. Elections have consequences, however, and because of that we’ll have a new city manager tomorrow night. I’ll be watching tomorrow night and will record who says what and post it here right afterwards.

At a special meeting on Monday, March 31, 2014, the council elected Kevin Murphy to be city manager by an eight to one vote with Mayor Elliott and Councilors Kennedy, Martin, Mercier, Milinazzo, Rourke, Samaras and Belanger voting for Murphy. Councilor Leahy voted for George Ramirez.

From January 7, 2014, the date that Bernie Lynch announced his resignation, to March 31, 2014, the date Kevin Murphy was hired to replace him, exactly twelve weeks had passed. If we apply that same standard to this year’s process, with Kevin Murphy having announced on February 12, 2018 his plans to depart, a new city manager should be hired by May 7, 2018.