The Dukes County commissioners interviewed the three finalists for the job of county manager on Saturday. An informal rating conducted by the commissioners at the conclusion of the interviews gave a slight edge to Russell Smith of Tisbury, the one Islander among the three.
Interviewed were Troy Clarkson of Falmouth, a former Falmouth selectman; Tom Bernardo of Chatham, a former Barnstable county official; and Mr. Smith, a civil engineer and Vineyard legislative liaison for state Rep. Erik Turkington.
The interviews and meeting, held in the county administration building, began at 9 am and did not conclude until 1:30 pm. A meeting is scheduled on Tuesday, when the commissioners intend to vote to hire a new county manager.
Lenny Jason of Chilmark was the only one of the seven county commissioners who did not attend the interviews. Mr. Jason objected to the commissioners' decision to reject the recommendation of their appointed search committee who urged the county to re-advertise the position, because none of the 12 candidates who applied for the manager's job met the advertised criteria.
The commissioners allotted each candidate approximately one hour. They asked each a series of pre-scripted questions.
Mr. Smith of Tisbury, a private consultant and former Aquinnah selectman, was the candidate most familiar to his inquisitors. He presented the commission with a written list of engineering projects he has managed or participated in, including an Island-wide oil spill response plan, design of local trash transfer stations, and various water and sewer projects.
Mr. Smith promoted his ability to build consensus and his familiarity with Island politics. "When you have two friends of yours walk through the door you've known all your life, and they're on opposite sides of the issue, you know one of them is going to leave unhappy," said Mr. Smith. "You learn not to take it personally, but you have to be able to point out that your decisions were for the betterment of the majority."
Like all of the candidates, Mr. Smith was acutely aware that the county government is at a crossroads. A specially created county charter study commission is conducting a far-ranging examination of county government. They could recommend substantial change in county governance, including the elimination of the county manager's position.
"The goal is the challenge," said Mr. Smith. "The goal is to stabilize the county's political situation. The way to accomplish that is to steady the course. The county does not get enough credit for the things that it does."
Mr. Clarkson, a former assistant to the mayor of Attleboro, generally endorsed the commission's exploration of new sources of revenue, and specifically mentioned several ideas, including leasing county property to telecommunications companies for cell phone antenna towers, and regional animal control services.
"One of the other things you've considered, and I see as a real opportunity, is looking at regionalization of waste disposal," said Mr. Clarkson, who touted his former experience as director of business services for the town of Bourne.
"Waste disposal is, and is going to be, the new utility," he said. "In the town of Bourne we were able to generate a pretty amazing amount of revenue, both through solid waste disposal, and also recycling. We actually took recyclable materials from many communities around the Commonwealth and were able to resell them. I see some real potential opportunities on the Island."
By charter, the county manager is required to be a resident of Dukes County. The previous county manager, Winn Davis, was not a Vineyard resident, but he got a waiver. Both of the off-Island candidates hedged a bit on the residency requirement.
Mr. Clarkson said he was aware of the residency requirement, but indicated he would like to negotiate the terms of the requirement if offered the position. "Regardless of whether I lived here on the first day, or the 60th day, or the 365th day, in any position I've had, I've immersed myself in that community completely," said Mr. Clarkson. "You can't be an effective municipal manager if you're not engaged in the community."
Mr. Bernardo, who began his professional career as a dancer and actor, promoted his experience in Barnstable County government as an elected representative to the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates, and as speaker of that assembly. He has also been a Chatham selectman, including a term as chairman of that board.
Mr. Bernardo is currently the community relations director for state Rep. Demetrius Atsalis of the 2nd Barnstable district.
"Where I've been for the last eleven years, has been at the crossroads of municipal change, and regional challenges in Barnstable County," said Mr. Bernardo. "I've overseen not one, but two, comprehensive charter reviews, two referendums. We have battled the state not to be abolished, and in the process, we've managed to redefine our strength, and who we are as a distinct regional government. Some of those same challenges are before all of you right now."
Mr. Bernardo also said he was aware of the residency requirement, and also said relocation could be a matter of negotiation if offered the county manager's job. "Certainly I would plan on moving," he said. "In what time frame, I actually don't know. I certainly hope by a matter of months, depending the timing of an offer, how that was structured."
"Do you sense the importance of that factor?" asked Paul Strauss, county commission chairman.
"If you're going to be passing things and working on regulations, and collecting taxes and things that affect the overall quality of life in a region," said Mr. Bernardo, "you should be a member of that community. It gives you credibility."
The commissioners informally rated the candidates answers on a scale of one to five. When the interviews were complete, the ratings were tallied.
Mr. Strauss cautioned that the rating system was only a helpful aid to reasoning and analysis. "We're not just going to count up the numbers, and decide that's the person," said Mr. Strauss.
Mr. Smith tallied the most overall points, 298 out of a possible 360 points from 12 main questions. Mr. Bernardo was next with 290 points, while Mr. Clarkson received 266.5 points.
According to the tally, Mr. Bernardo received five points from an extra question. The other two candidates were rated on only 12 questions.
Only a handful of people attended the interviews, after which the public was invited to comment. Two people spoke, both members of the Dukes County charter study commission, charged with making recommendations on the future of county government.
"I was impressed with the level of candidates," said Patricia Moore, vice-chairman of the study commission. "I very much hope you come to an early decision."
"I think it's really important," said Tad Crawford, "when there is so much criticism of this process, to go on record, at least as one person's point of view, that you have qualified people to look at, and that you should be applauded for moving forward amidst the storm."
The storm metaphor proved apt when the commissioners began a discussion of the process for reviewing the candidate's qualifications and references.
A 2003 search for a new county manager ended in disarray and ridicule after the county commissioners hired a candidate, and then spent four months waiting for her to produce a copy of her college degree.
Commissioner John Alley moved, and Carlene Gatting seconded, a motion directing that chairman Strauss and vice-chairman Leslie Leland initially contact the candidates' listed references, and then appoint two-person teams to travel to the candidates' home towns, and where they work, to follow up with additional inquiries.
The discussion became increasingly heated, as the commissioners tried to nail down details of the process, and considerable disagreement emerged about who would make initial contacts and schedule follow up.
"This is not rocket science, folks," said Mr. Alley, obviously frustrated by the discussion.
Ms. Gatting attempted to rescind her second of the original motion. "There's a lack of clarity here, I didn't think that's what we agreed on. I thought each team was going to deal comprehensively with their applicant," said Ms. Gatting. "Obviously there was a lack of clarity because I didn't know what I was voting on."
The only consensus was that the chairman settle the dispute.
Mr. Strauss outlined a procedure where he and Mr. Leland would contact the listed references, question them, and inform them that they would get another call from the individual teams.
Tension and frustration were still apparent moments after Mr. Alley made a motion, approved, to adjourn. Referencing the MVTV camera in the room, used to record the meeting for the Island's public access channel, Mr. Alley asked rhetorically, "How stupid can you look on television?"