SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Town Manager Rob Zarnetske announced plans to resign his post on Tuesday after reportedly falling out of favor with the majority of the town council.
“The last year has been an extremely challenging one for the community,” Zarnetske wrote in a public statement to residents of South Kingstown. “My efforts to serve as a unifying force have not been as successful as I had hoped. The failure of the school facilities bond is emblematic of the challenges the town now faces.”
“I have met with professional differences with a majority of the town council, and in our system when that happens, the council majority’s perspective must prevail,” he added.
Despite these differences coming to a head, Zarnetske thanked all the members of the council for the respect they’ve shown to him, as well as the professionalism “and the dedication they have demonstrated to the community.”
“I stand ready to help the council and the community any way I can,” he added.
Zarnetske will step down from his post on June 14, after which the town council has appointed Director of Leisure Services Terry Murphy to take over as interim town manager. She will be the first woman to ever hold the position.
In order to ensure a smooth transition, Zarnetske said he will be advising Murphy during her first month on the job. Whether he will still be a familiar face in town government during that time period, or if he will be working more behind the scenes is yet to be determined, though Zarnetske said he is ready to take direction from Murphy, and do what best serves the town.
On Tuesday, Zarnetske also broke the news of his upcoming departure to the majority of town employees. First and foremost, he expressed his thanks and gratitude for all of their incredible work.
“As a group, you are amazing. As individuals, you are some of the most incredible people I’ve known,” he wrote. “Thank you. You have been a joy to work with in my years as town manager.”
In his message to town employees, Zarnetske also took a few moments to reflect on his years working in federal, state and local government, and some of the incredible places his career has brought him, and the people it’s brought into his life.
“Of all the things I’ve been lucky enough to do, being a town manager has been the most challenging, because of the framework,” Zarnetske wrote. “Local government systems are not particularly complex, but what makes local management so difficult is the context.”
The pride and protectiveness people feel over their hometowns brings on a slew of strong emotions, and in Zarnetske’s view, “the flash point for local passions is extremely low.”
“When it comes to local government, people are triggered by small things,” his written message to town employees continued. “Too many are exaggeratedly ‘shocked, ‘offended’ and ‘appalled’ when presented with information that challenges their control over a territory they consider wholly their own.”
“They know with absolute certainty what their community needs or should have,” he continued. “And even more, they know what their community doesn’t need — they perceive threats to what they love about their place in the world and they zealously guard against encroachments upon their prerogatives.”
During a phone interview with The Narragansett Times on Wednesday afternoon, Zarnetske said he “fully understands why people zealously guard this corner of the state.” Although his time in town government is coming to a close, he hopes to remain a resident of South Kingstown.
Currently, Zarnetske is looking to continue his work in government and public service, and hopes whatever opportunities cross his path will allow him to stay in southern Rhode Island.
I’m looking for something that will be challenging, and continue to contribute to the improvement of humanity,” he said, while hopefully still allowing him to enjoy the home he and his family have created here.
“If the opportunity arises, I’d like to stick around,” Zarnetske said. “I like the community, I like the area, I like the natural beauty, I like the proximity to urban amenities. It’s a good place to be.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” he added, “and making sure it continues to be beautiful is a worthy endeavor, and one I share with the folks who want to make sure the history and the natural beauty of the place is preserved. I’m not sure we’re leaving at all.”
In an interview with the Independent, Town Council President Abel Collins highlighted the school facilities project as one of the major sticking points as to why the town manager fell out of the majority’s favor, though Zarnetske maintains that there’s no bad blood over the decision to move on.
At least one council member has been expressing concerns about the management of the school facilities project for quite some time, according to Zarnetske — which has long been a contentious issue in South Kingstown.
“There’s been concerns that the school facilities project was complex, community expressions around the flow of information have been complicated in both ways,” Zarnetske said. “On one hand, there’s folks who’ve asserted that there’s been a lack of transparency, and on the other hand, I’ve heard people complain that there’s too much information, that it’s not all consistent, that it doesn’t all line up.”
“That’s the nature of information in complex systems, though,” he added.
His professional instincts, and his personal preference, is to see information flow freely and allow people to have access “to even imperfect information when it’s available to the government.”
“I think that’s frustrating to some people who would rather have the government say ‘This is the fact. This is it. This is the answer,’” Zarnetske said. “I’m very much someone who believes the public has the right to watch the process, with all of its imperfections, and participate in the process with all of the foibles of human decision making.”
“I’m not someone who tries to portray or present information as absolute, or unequivocal truth,” he added. “That’s rarely the case in public policy, that’s rarely the case in life, and I’m not someone who stands there and holds off speaking until I have the answer — because I know I’ll probably never know the exact, perfect, correct and indisputable truth.”
Some of the things he’ll miss most are the way in which the job challenges him to be proactive and progressive, and often innovative — something he hopes to see more of in South Kingstown. During his time here, he quickly realized that his approach as town manager was always the same as his predecessors, and he looked to face some challenges differently.
“I do think we need to be more innovative,” Zarnetske said. “I think we need to be more willing to think about how we can do things differently than they’ve been done in the past, while respecting the priorities and objectives that produced this wonderful community.”
In the months leading up to the school facilities project vote, community tensions seemed to be at an all time high, and at times pitting neighbor against neighbor. And although more than 70 percent of the voters were in favor of rejecting the school building committee’s plans, there was a clear and blinding divide in South Kingstown.
In the span of just a little more than three years, Zarnetske has come to view this divide as a “flare up,” rather than a new development.
“I don’t think this divide is new at all,” Zarnetske said. “I think the divide was there when South County Commons went in 25 years ago. I think the divide is there, in the community, all the time, and what happens is it only flares up when there’s a controversy that people get passionate about.”
“Recognizing, however, that there’s that potential for the flare up is really, really important,” he continued. “The path forward is to build community when there’s no flare ups, when there’s no controversy. To not just let things die down and ignore the fact that we have more potential for a controversy in the future, but rather work on actually undermining that potential, dismantling those nascent, potential conflicts when you’ve got the chance.”
He believes one of the best ways to bring people together is working on actual projects. When people work together to accomplish a shared common goal, whether that means cleaning up a town park or hosting a virtual event, Zarnetske believes “there’s a natural camaraderie that develops.”
“What we’ve got going on right now is people are working together for and against projects,” Zarnetske said. “People are working together in a political arena, but they’re only working with their half of the community. What we need to figure out is how to bring people together to actually work on a thing, a physical project.”
“It doesn’t matter what the thing is,” he quickly added. “But when people work together to accomplish something, and they can all say ‘I helped do that,’ that makes a big difference.”
One thing he’s confident in is that Facebook isn’t the solution to bridging those divides.
“Facebook is not the answer,” Zarnetske stressed. “Facebook and this community is just crazy. Facebook is not the path forward.”
Anonymity and vitriol presented on Facebook are the antithesis of what this community needs to move forward, in his opinion. He believes the residents need face-to-face, genuine engagement and conversations — not debates. Forums and listening sessions are not the answer either, according to Zarnetske, because it only serves people a platform to pontificate their points and then ignores what everyone else is saying.
Unfortunately, the pandemic seems to have only exacerbated divides being played out on social media.
He likens arguments playing out in comments sections to road rage. Similar to how we don’t see the driver behind the wheel, but rather the vehicle itself as the object blocking our path, people don’t seem to see the posts as coming from fellow community members, but rather just another opinion or point of view to attack.
“I just don’t think it’s helpful,” Zarnetske said.
What this community needs most, according to Zarnetske, is to heal. Though news of his impending departure sparked debate and discussion in town Facebook groups, Zarnetske said he’s “very hopeful that this story doesn’t become another flashpoint.”
Though he’s personally not pleased with the ways in which some issues were analyzed by the majority, Zarnetske strongly emphasized that it’s absolutely within the council’s authority, and completely their right. He doesn’t want to see anyone on the council get attacked over the decision, but rather people come together and “just move on.”
“I’m hoping like hell that this doesn’t become a thing, because it just shouldn’t be,” Zarnetske said. “Town managers leave. That happens. That’s okay.”
“This should not be a source of controversy for people,” he added. “We need to heal.”