Experts advise Fenwick town manager search

Fenwick Island is seriously considering getting a town manager to run the town’s day-to-day operations and take some of the administrative burden off the mayor and council members. And they’re calling in the experts to ensure they know all they need to know about the job, appropriate qualifications and the best candidates to fill it.

Members of the Town Manager Search Committee met again March 20, and their invited guests were Selbyville Town Administrator Gary Taylor and Ocean View Town Manager Kathy Roth, who were eager to provide their own perspectives on the profession.

The first issue the committee members wanted to tackle was the difference between a town manager and a town administrator. As it turned out, the differences aren’t that significant, at least as far as small-town coastal Delaware is concerned.

Both Taylor and Roth handle their town’s core administrative functions. Both are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year — even keeping in touch by phone while on vacation — to ensure someone is there to handle problems and make decisions. Both work to develop the town’s budgets and present them to the town councils. And both handle personnel and human resources issues.

Taylor said he draws the line between the two job titles in that he has more interaction with the mayor and council members. There are some things, he said, that a town administrator is simply not empowered to do on his own, whereas a town manager may – depending on the town — be making larger decisions. Instead, he said, administrators tend to take their direction from the governing council or mayor — such as is the case with Sussex County Administrator Robert Stickels, he offered.

It will be up to Fenwick Island officials to determine what kind of title and duties they feel are needed in their new administrative position, and just how much leeway they want to give that person to make decisions on their own. The research part of the search process is designed to help committee members make recommendations on that front.

Those decisions may or may not include supervising the town’s police department. Even with a more-powerful town manager in charge, often towns exempt their police from oversight by that person. Instead, police chiefs often report directly to police commissioners (a council member in most cases) or to mayors.

Taylor and Roth said they think that is generally a good thing, since police officers are subject to a whole slew of rules, regulations and policies that are out of the expertise of the average town manager or administrator. But in some cases, they allowed, town managers are supervisors to the police force — most commonly when that town manager has experience in the field.

That is the case, they pointed out, in Bethany Beach, where Town Manager Cliff Graviet is not only a former police officer and state trooper but served as the town’s police chief for many years. They said his knowledge of policing would make him qualified to supervise officers where most other town managers would be at loose ends to deal with the specialized knowledge needed.

Instead, they emphasized, town managers and administrators are often experts in other areas — particularly, these days, in finance.

Both Roth and Taylor emphasized the need for extensive financial experience in a town manager candidate. Taylor himself came from a background as a then-retired chief financial officer and chief operating officer of Fortune 500 companies. Roth, for her part, is both a certified public accountant and former finance director in Bethany Beach.

That experience comes in more than handy with a job that calls for management of multi-million-dollar budgets, payroll issues and day-to-day expenses that affect thousands of people. Taylor also pointed to the need to be able to deal with annual audits and to handle grant funding for town projects, which itself often requires audits of town finances. He said the bulk of day-to-day work in small towns can involve finance, and anyone trying to do the job has to be experienced in the field from the get-go.

Taylor further pointed to a need for experience in management — overseeing departments, managing people and delegating tasks. Both Roth and Taylor oversee their towns’ code enforcement, public works and other departments — all except their respective police departments.

Even there, human resources experience (some 30 to 40 percent of the job, Taylor estimated) and insurance knowledge is vital, since Taylor said police officers will come to him with questions about their health insurance, for instance. Police Chief W. Scott Collins is their supervisor, particularly on police matters, but Taylor is still the town’s key administrative official.

Roth, for her part, said she serves as more of an equal to Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin, able to consult with him on personnel matters and other issues where he asks for her input. But, again, she oversees the bulk of personnel issues in the town.

Committee members were curious as to how much power the two had for hiring and firing — in both cases, the ability to hire according to council instruction for lower-level employees, and to make recommendations for their town councils in the hiring of upper-level employees, such as department heads. But Roth emphasized that while she may have a little more leeway regarding employees as a town manager, that’s still an area where she keeps the mayor and council fully in the loop. Taylor said the personnel manual he developed when he took the job eight years ago has proven vital for him in that department.

Taylor’s list of important qualifications also included experience with computers and software, upon which much of his job is reliant. The knowledge of not just employees’ health insurance but also of workman’s compensation and general town insurance was also important, he said.

Right alongside the financial experience, both Roth and Taylor placed chief importance in Fenwick Island’s hiring of a town manager-type person on a single quality: even temperament. Taylor emphasized that the job requires both following town council instructions and supervising other employees. It can be a perilous position.

It could be all the more difficult if the council members micro-manage the position, as committee members have admitted they fear could happen in Fenwick Island. Roth said that would be a recipe for short-term employment for the new hire, if it were to happen, while Taylor said he’d personally be quick to leave any position where he was micro-managed. Town employees were too well qualified for their jobs to put up with that for any length of time, he said, be their supervisor a mayor, council or the town manager himself.

Relating to the key characteristic of even temperament, they advised the committee to hold multiple interviews for all candidates that reach that phase of the search, to root out any potential issues and get a good feel for temperament. On that front, they also cautioned the committee members to review proper interview questions and techniques with anyone participating in the interviews, lest a council member slip up with an inappropriate question about marital status, for instance.

Both Taylor and Roth recommended the Fenwick Island position include a requirement to relocate to within 30 miles of the town within six months of taking the position. They said there were enough after-hours meetings and outside commitments to the job that living farther away would prove a burden. That could impact the kind of salary the town will need to offer, as well as relocation expenses, with real estate and rental prices as high as they are in the town and its environs.

Taylor further noted that candidates coming from the Washington, D.C., or Baltimore areas could be expecting a higher salary than the town might be prepared to offer — he had taken the Selbyville job less for the pay than the desire to keep working after his putative retirement, he said. Roth, meanwhile, admitted that her ongoing life in the area had made the salary range offered by Ocean View a perfect fit.

Both said the town can reassure their final candidate that they’ll have a lot of help and support. Between the town managers’ association that both belong to and a longstanding practice of calling their peers in neighboring towns whenever they have a question about the job or current happenings, Roth and Taylor said they knew the new Fenwick Island town manager would have a built-in support network.

That was reassuring to the committee members, who have a significant task ahead of them even in the first stage of the search. They’ll continue their research in the coming weeks with an invitation to Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Walsh to provide input, as well as plans to interview Fenwick Island Town Council members individually — two per week — before bringing the council together as a group for final input on a draft job description.

Some of those meetings may be closed to the public, they cautioned, saying the content could tread on the ground of executive session-requiring personnel matters.