Pownal may create administrator post

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POWNAL — The oft-discussed vision of a town administrator serving Pownal could soon move beyond the talking stage.

Select Board member Suzanne Caraman said the quest for administrative assistance for the part-time board has been a major goal since she was elected in 2016. At various times over many years, Pownal select boards have voiced a need for administrative help in the town of just under 3,500, but no position was created.

"It's just too much," Caraman said of trying to oversee town government without an administrator. "We all work."

Caraman said a recent breakthrough cleared the way for the board to advertise for and hire a town administrator. Board members had assumed that such a change had to go to a specific town meeting vote for approval, she said, but a Vermont League of Cities and Towns attorney informed Caraman that the decision would be up to the board.

In addition, in a referendum in January 2016, voters approved allowing the board to hire an administrator or a town manager. The vote was 404 to 356 in favor.

The board next plans to discuss details of the position, with the aim of advertising for applicants. On Oct. 12, the board voted unanimously to begin the process of hammering out a job description, the hours to be worked, salary and other details.

It was not clear prior to the vote whether the board will ultimately come to a consensus on those points. Board member Ron Bisson voted to continue the process but also voiced several concerns.

"I've got problems with how much this is going to cost and problems with who this is going to displace, if people are going to be displaced," he said at the Oct. 12 meeting. "This should be decided long before we hire somebody."

Chairman Nelson Brownell said the vote, which Bisson later supported, merely allows the board to move ahead with the process.

Brownell said he wants to see the completed job description and then hear what applicants for an administrator's job have to say about "what they are going to do for us."

The Select Board had begun discussing whether a town manager or an administrator would be best for Pownal, and discussing the options with officials from other communities and others. But members soon learned that a manager position would require adoption of a town manager/select board form of governmental charter, which would necessitate a lengthy process and require approval by the Legislature.

Unlike a manager, an administrator can be hired to provide assistance to the select board, whereas a manager would have a designated level of authority over hiring and managing employees and over administration of the budget.

Other town administrators

Caraman said the VLCT Municipal Assistance Center has agreed to help with the job description.

The organization also suggested that Pownal review details of administrative positions in other communities, she said, adding that Vernon, with a population of about 2,200, hired an administrator in 2016.

According to information on the Vernon town website, the position was advertised with a $50,000 salary plus benefits. Like Pownal, Vernon has a five-member select board.

Among qualifications sought were have "a minimum of a bachelor's degree in public administration, political science, or business management or at least three years' experience in an administrative or managerial capacity in either municipal government or business, or a combination of equivalent experience."

Concerning duties for the post, the Vernon ad specified that "the administrator assists the five-member select board in the general administration of the town. Day-to-day responsibilities include supporting all departments as needed, monitoring budgets, attending and participating in all selectboard meetings, public relations, and coordination with the town's elected and appointed officials."

In addition, the administrator is expected to act as a liaison between the board and other parties, advise on policy and decision making and present the board's decision as necessary.

And the Vernon administrator is expected to ensure effective communications among departments, and residents and work with elected and appointed officials and town employees, and with regional, state and federal officials.

The administrator is expected to "identify problems and opportunities, analyzing options and offering recommendations to the select board."

Other duties listed were to "provide public information to the media upon request. Be responsive to complaints, criticisms, and suggestions of citizens, taxpayers, and businesses."

Caraman said the Pownal board often has suffered from a lack of coordination on issues because members are all part-time officials and need someone with the authority to make telephone calls, keep track of grant or other funding options; research issues and legal requirements, and present the best options to the board for approval.

A recent effort to update the town personnel policies is an example of an effort that has been more time-consuming and confusing than it would be with an administrator checking legal issues and keeping track of day-to-day operations, she said.

According to the VLCT assistance center, there are approximately 30 town administrators in Vermont and 54 town or city managers.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.

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