COVENTRY — Before voting earlier this week to extend Ed Warzycha’s contract as Coventry’s interim town manager, the town council discussed the so-far unsuccessful search for a qualified candidate to fill the position permanently.
“We’ve been actively searching for a town manager,” Town Council President Kerry McGee said, kicking off Tuesday’s special meeting. “Unfortunately, we have not had qualified people applying.”
In a letter sent last week to the town by Bernard Lynch, principal of the Massachusetts-based search firm Community Paradigm Associates, Lynch said there are several issues “that need to be taken into consideration in restarting” the search for a new town manager.
“There are multiple challenges that have impacted the Coventry search for a new town manager,” wrote Lynch, who’s been working with the town to recruit applicants. “Some are unique to Coventry and/ or Rhode Island, while others are broader.”
The search process began a year ago, shortly after the resignation of Town Manager Graham Waters, and has included a couple of rounds of recruitment efforts and drawn applications from a number of candidates. Only a couple of those applicants have met the standards set forth in Coventry’s town charter, however.
Among the factors affecting the search process, according to Lynch, is the position’s listed salary.
When the position was first advertised last summer, a starting salary of $120,000 had been proposed. Hoping to reel in more qualified applicants, the town council eventually voted to increase that to $135,000.
Lynch argued, however, that that increase wasn’t enough “to incentivize potential qualified candidates to make a move from current positions,” adding that it’s still “substantially less” than salaries for the same position in many smaller towns.
“If you look at Rhode Island, yeah, we’re below some,” Warzycha added Tuesday, noting that the town manager who was recently hired in Westerly, for example, was offered a starting salary of $165,000.
“If you look at what the other communities are offering and the town size, the amount of workload, I think Mr. Lynch is quite accurate on what’s going on, as far as why we’re having difficulty with this,” Warzycha continued.
Lynch recommended that the town increase the starting salary to $150,000, which he said might attract other managers in the state “to look more closely at Coventry as an option.”
But according to Lynch, the proposed salary is just a piece of why Coventry’s search has failed to yield qualified applicants.
Lynch also recommended that the council consider amending the town’s charter to adjust the position qualifications, adding that “extremely restrictive” language has exacerbated search efforts.
The Coventry Town Charter currently dictates that a successful candidate for the position must have five years of work experience as a town manager or assistant town manager and hold a master’s degree in public administration, business administration or a similar field.
While he called it “laudable” to have such high standards, Lynch added that the language is the most restrictive in the entire state. He said there have been applicants who could do well as manager, yet don’t qualify based on the charter’s position requirements.
“If you look at this, there are a lot of communities that don’t set specific requirements,” Warzycha added. “They leave it up to the council.”
Councilor Debra Bacon disagreed with some of Lynch’s recommendations.
“We all heard the taxpayers. They are tired of their taxes being raised,” Bacon said Tuesday. “Now we’re talking about raising the salary for the town manager, but then — and I’m going to be real blunt — trying to dumb down the requirements.”
Cote shared a similar concern. He said that while he understands the impetus behind the recommendation, he worries about the possible financial implications of the town council “haphazardly” increasing the salary to $150,000.
“And $150,000 for a town manager is short money,” Cote said. “But we’re talking about taxpayer-funded positions, and I think we have to take that into consideration.”
Cote added that although he’s “not adverse” to a charter change, he thinks a charter review commission should be established to make its own recommendations and explore those made by Lynch.
“We’ve had some highly qualified applicants that didn’t meet the master’s degree [requirement],” Cote continued. “We’ve also had master’s degree candidates that didn’t make the five-plus years experience as a town manager or assistant town manager, but were just department heads.”
Councilor Ann Dickson, meanwhile, proposed that instead of bumping the salary to $150,000, a range could be set so that a salary could later be determined based on the selected candidate’s experience.
Dickson also suggested a detailed list of benefits be listed under the job description.
Another deterrent that Lynch wrote about was the impact of being surrounded by Massachusetts and Connecticut, which he noted both have “relatively generous defined benefit pension systems for municipal managers.”
“The potential candidates have often invested themselves in a system where leaving would be financially detrimental,” Lynch said.
Dickson said there are a number of things the council needs to consider moving forward. Among them, she questioned whether the town should continue working with Community Paradigm Associates.
Warzycha said the search firm has a high success rate filling town manager positions, and McGee added that he’s “perfectly comfortable” with the firm.
Bacon, on the other hand, said she’s frustrated by how long it’s been since Lynch has come before the council. She said she’d like the council to be more involved in the search process, and suggested he attend an upcoming meeting to explain exactly what he’s been doing to advertise the position.
The council decided Tuesday it would invite Lynch to an upcoming meeting, just before voting unanimously to extend Warzycha’s contract as the interim town manager by 180 days.
Warzycha, who’s the head of the town’s Information Technology (IT) department, has been acting since last year as the interim town manager, appointed to the position following the departure of acting manager Stephen Delaney.
McGee on Tuesday lauded Warzycha for “doing a great job” in his temporary role at the town’s helm.
“I want to thank Mr. Warzycha for taking on this responsibility over the last several months,” McGee said, looking toward Warzycha. “Through the difficult budget season, you worked hard. I’ve been on this council for almost nine years, and... you have been probably one of the best town managers, if not the best, that we’ve had.”