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Editorial: Managing Southampton

Southampton, like any small town in the commonwealth, faces its own challenges to make every tax dollar count and effectively manage growth. No municipality functions with perfection, but setting the bar high should always be the goal, and that includes hiring the most qualified and professional employees to move a town forward.

Southampton town leaders may have been surprised when 18 candidates threw their hats into the ring for the long-open town administrator position. While no details about the candidates are publicly known at this time, 18 applicants suggests a good pool. It shows there is strong interest in what is undoubtedly the most important full-time management position in town.

In December, selectmen changed the level of education required to be town administrator in Southampton, making a four-year degree in public administration or a related field a suggested qualification, instead of a requirement to apply for the job. At the time, one board member described academic degrees as “overrated.” This may have encouraged more people to apply.

Creating a job description to meet the demands of an evolving job is the prerogative of town leaders, though Southampton’s decision to drop its only educational requirement appears to put it in the minority among municipalities. According to a review of some of the more recently posted town administrator positions in smaller towns, including Hubbardston and Hanson, and closer by, Hadley and South Hadley, all require at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to managing town government.

As selectmen move forward with hiring the next town administrator, we hope members find and choose the most qualified person to lead a town that has at times struggled to keep up with increasingly complex fiscal, managerial and statutory demands.

The record shows there is room for improvement and important work to be done. The last financial audit of the town found a number of significant deficiencies in Southampton’s internal financial controls, and suggested a laundry list of other recommendations to improve government operations. Financial accountability is critical, particularly in a town that has experienced marked growth and a 22 percent increase in its tax levy — now $9.5 million — during the past five years, according to figures kept by the state Department of Revenue. The town has 5,900 residents, 78 miles of roads and operates on an approximately $13 million budget.

More recently, the town has faced problems regarding time sheet records and vacation time accruals for some employees, seemingly simple human resource tasks that should not be an issue in 2013. In recent months, town leaders were unable to identify how many employees had keys to the new Town Hall, which police said had been found unlocked 20 times over one six-month span last year. Files in the Board of Health also went missing last year.

Hiring the next town administrator provides an opportunity for selectmen to choose someone who can address such problems. We hope they do, but it’s concerning that though there may be a strong field of applicants, there appears to be a wishy-washy hiring process in place.

A five-member screening committee made up of only town officials has been assembled, but its not yet established what their role will be in nominating or recommending candidates. In addition, the Select Board still hasn’t ironed out the process it plans to use to narrow the field and interview candidates. These matters should have been resolved by now.

In our opinion, whatever hiring process town leaders create and follow, it must be transparent and involve opportunities for residents to have input and learn more about the candidates and their backgrounds.

This was the case recently in South Hadley, which just appointed former Holyoke mayor and Maynard town administrator Michael Sullivan as its administrator. The process in South Hadley was long, public and thorough. It required Town Meeting action and a special election to approve revamping the town administrator position to give it greater authority. Candidates were recruited by the Collins Center at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, which came at a cost of $13,500. The result was that South Hadley appears to have landed an experienced and highly qualified candidate in Sullivan.

Southampton would do well by its residents to be inclusive and methodical in selecting its next management chief. The town’s future depends on it.

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