Screening Committee’s Work Begins With Accusations, Infighting

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By: Christopher Kazarian
Published: 04/22/11

The committee formed to help Falmouth find a new town manager has gotten off to an inauspicious start, one clouded by allegations of improprieties and suspicions that decisions are being made behind the scenes.

Those issues came to light on Tuesday evening in the cafeteria of the Morse Pond School when the Falmouth Town Manager Screening Committee convened less than a half-hour after seeking input from the public on what qualities it wants to see in a new manager.

Before the committee can even begin to think about recommending its list of recommended candidates to selectmen, it became clear this week the board must first resolve internal disputes among its members.

Matthew J. McNamara raised concerns about actions taken by Chairman Barbara P. Schneider and the board’s consultant Thomas J. Groux following the committee’s last meeting at the end of March. During that meeting, he said, the committee agreed that it would only solicit input from public employees regarding the town manager search during a public session held on Tuesday afternoon or via e-mail to Mr. Groux.

But just two days after that meeting, Mr. McNamara said Dr. Schneider disregarded that decision, notifying the board in an e-mail that Acting Town Manager Heather B. Harper had scheduled meeting times for Mr. Groux to speak individually with public employees to gather their opinions related to a new town manager.

Adding to Mr. McNamara’s frustrations was a meeting held at Falmouth Town Hall two weeks ago, on April 7, involving Dr. Schneider, Ms. Harper, Mr. Groux, Selectman Mary (Pat) Flynn, the liaison to the search committee, and John R. Martis, personnel director.

He said he happened to see the group exiting the meeting, at which time he confronted Dr. Schneider to ask her why it was being held. She responded that there were concerns about committee member Marc P. Finneran leaking information about candidates. At that time, Mr. McNamara said, “I questioned the appropriateness of the meeting. Barbara indicated that something had to be done to change the way we review resumes. It raises concerns that a few individuals are making private decisions about the screening process.”

“The integrity of the screening process is at stake,” he continued. “This committee needs to be transparent and above suspicion.”

Dr. Schneider first addressed the meeting that was held April 7, stressing that it was not about one particular person, but the concern of keeping personnel documents related to town manager candidates in town hall and how the committee would be able to access them on-site.

The answer was not sufficient for Mr. McNamara, who said each member of the committee signed a confidentiality agreement and questioning that was an insult to each member.

As far as Mr. Groux’s interviewing town employees, Dr. Schneider said, that is what he is being paid for and what he intended to do from the beginning. She stressed this is part of the process and Mr. Groux was encouraged to conduct the interviews, because “there is some healing to do in town hall.” By giving town employees a voice, she said, it would encourage that healing to take place.

Mr. Groux, who has handled roughly 25 searches for towns throughout the commonwealth, said it is common practice for him to interview town employees one-on-one. Often, he said, they feel more comfortable sharing their views in such a setting than in front of an entire committee.

That is why he conducted 16 interviews, primarily with department heads, in recent weeks. This information, he said, helps him to understand the issues of the town and to determine whether certain candidates are a good fit for certain communities. And it also allows him to convey to candidates information and issues about the town they may one day be managing.

While Mr. Groux later shared the general results of those discussions with the board, Mr. McNamara said he was still troubled by the process. “I don’t think it’s good for you to have information the committee wouldn’t have,” he said.
Board member Paul D. Brodeur agreed, calling Mr. Groux’s interviews “an affront to this committee.”

Mr. Groux also defended the April 7 meeting, saying he was the one who convened it as he happened to be in town and wanted to discuss concerns about confidentiality with Dr. Schneider. He said those concerns have come up with every town he has worked with in the past.

Several others sided with Mr. McNamara, raising similar concerns about the lack of process being followed by Dr. Schneider and town officials. Board member Mari Jo F. Flanagan said it was “inappropriate” for Dr. Schneider to meet with Mr. Groux without other board members present.

Ms. Flynn tried to downplay any wrongdoing, stressing that “I don’t think anyone is looking to manage anything individually.”

Despite the concerns raised, Ms. Flynn said that the board has not even begun to start its most important tasks: to review resumes, interview candidates and whittle them down to four to six possibilities. “The committee still has to do the heavy lifting,” she said.

And she argued that having Mr. Groux speak with employees was not a big deal. “I wouldn’t get too worked up about it,” she said. “I think having employee input is good.”

Board member Jeffrey W. Oppenheim said he was pleased to see the discussion happening early in the process, giving the committee a chance to work through their differences now rather than later.

He emphasized the need for the board to work together in a cooperative fashion. “Although I thought we had, I’d like to see us not get too bogged down in this,” Mr. Oppenheim said. “We want a full and open process. We’ve got a big job and we don’t want to be fighting about the process.”

He, too, said the major tasks before the committee are yet to come, particularly with the board expected to review close to 70 resumes.

He suggested the board “try to put this behind us while still acknowledging maybe something inappropriate happened at some level.”

Mr. Finneran said Dr. Schneider’s meeting on April 7 raised the most suspicions, alleging that there is a faction in town that has already chosen who it wants for the next town manager.

Although the discussion got heated at times, the conflict eventually subsided as both Mr. Oppenheim and Gary W. Anderson asked the board to move forward, with all agreeing to work together and cooperatively, rather than individually as the process continues.

While the agreement seemed to be universal, not everyone may be pleased with what transpired this week as Mr. Groux’s time with the town is rumored to be short-lived. As to those rumors that he has resigned or been let go, Mr. Groux responded on Wednesday only that, “Id rather not make any statements... I have nothing to say. I can’t add anything to whatever you know.”

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