With Hinesburg’s town administrator Renae Marshall leaving her post after three years, the community is faced with a decision — to keep its current format or make the switch to a town manager-run government.
Selectboard members heard from former Colchester town manager Dawn Francis on Nov. 4, to learn more about what a town manager might do for their community. The group will likely hold another discussion, seeking public input.
Marshall will begin as deputy town manager in Colchester later this month.
This isn’t the first time Hinesburg voters have been asked this question. In 2012 a similar measure failed by a narrow margin, 673-635 votes.
As Marshall steps down, now felt like the right time to consider a possible change to town management, selectboard chair Phil Pouech said.
“Renae leaves the town in great shape, but I think she would be the first one to admit that we could perhaps improve our town governance structure,” Francis said at the meeting. The average tenure for a town administrator in Hinesburg has been three years.
“That’s a lot of turnover, and I think Renae would also say that she was pretty overworked. She was definitely a Jill of all trades,” Francis said. “I think Renae actually had a harder job than I had as town manager of Colchester with three times the budget and five times the employees.”
What’s the difference?
A town administrator serves at the will of the selectboard, Francis explained. There is no state outline of a town administrator’s responsibilities.
“They only do what the board permits them to do,” Francis said.
A town manager’s responsibilities are outlined in by the state. They act like the chief executive officer of a municipal government, with the selectboard serving like a board of directors, Francis said.
Town Managers have the power to hire and fire employees, while administrators have to be given those powers by their board.
Having a manager frees the selectboard from managing day-to-day activities and allows it to focus on the big picture — and keeps the board out of direct staff communication, Francis said.
“That helps avoid inconsistent messages, making sure the staff understands issues behind what’s being brought up by a selectboard member,” Francis said. “If you have a manager position, you would be hiring more for experience, maybe a degree behind them, and they could hit the ground running.”
People may be concerned about loss of control with a town manager, but Francis argued that at present there was no real control over some of the town’s departments.
A town manager comes at a potentially higher cost, Francis said.
The hiring market for town managers is competitive with about eight town manager or deputy town manager positions open in Vermont right now, offering $75,000-$150,000 salaries, Francis said.
To adopt a town manager-run government, Francis said the board would propose it to voters on Town Meeting Day and be mindful of the potential change when budgeting for next year.
The selectboard will now spread the word out about the idea and seek public input at a future meeting. A job ad will be created, with Francis’ help.
Other Vermont towns have adopted a town manager format over the past 10-20 years, said Maura Carroll, Executive Director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns including Proctor, Richmond, St. Albans Town and Thetford.
Carroll wasn’t yet around when the first three adopted the measure but got to watch as Thetford put the proposal before voters.
“It passed by a pretty good margin; the people were excited about it. I do think, however, there is an adjustment period,” she said.
If a town has always had a selectboard making the decisions, it can be a big change to hire a manager, she said. Of the towns who made the switch to a town manager format Carroll said she hadn’t heard any rumblings that they wanted to change back.
“Given how complicated local government become over the years it’s really helpful, because the requirement is when you hire a manager that you hire that person for education and skill,” she said.