I am writing this letter first as a Bedford resident and taxpayer for almost 33 years who takes pride in living in a great community with a tradition of a very well-run local government comprised of a team of dedicated citizen volunteers, as well as good professional staff. I am also writing having had a 42-year career serving two local governments. The last 30 were in Bedford as its Town Administrator/Town Manager.
The recent vacancies that have occurred in the Finance Department trouble me and should be a significant concern to all Bedford citizens who value a stable and professionally run Town government.
Within a few weeks of each other in January, four members of the professional staff holding key positions within the Finance Department all resigned. The positions were: Finance Director (who also served as the Town’s Treasurer/Collector), the Town Accountant, the Assistant Treasurer, and the Town’s Information Technology Director. While it is certainly common for a professional to change employers for advancement and better pay associated with higher responsibilities, it is extremely uncommon for an entire professional team to depart together. In addition to these four positions, the Director of Assessing position (now within the Finance Department) has been vacant for two years, with the Town relying upon temporary part-time services. There have also been departures of administrative staff within the Finance Department.
In my experience, this level of turnover within one department in such a short time span is highly unusual for any municipal government. Perhaps it could happen if there had been some kind of impropriety occurring, but I would be surprised if that were the case here. In the past with much of the same financial team in place, Bedford has continually received awards for its financial reporting.
Further, Bedford’s bond rating agency has often commented favorably upon Bedford’s strong and stable finance team. Losing this many professional staff members at once has the potential to seriously impact the continuity of the Town’s financial operations. It represents a significant loss of institutional knowledge all at once. These circumstances could negatively affect the Town’s hard-earned and excellent bond rating, resulting in higher borrowing costs for the Town.
The steps being taken to recruit professional staff also raise questions. A typical and thorough recruitment process for professional/management positions in municipal governments generally takes a minimum of 2 months, more likely 3 months. With the four vacancies that occurred in January, one would expect that the recruitments would be wrapping up just now. Instead, the individual to be appointed as the new Finance Director was presented for the Select Board’s confirmation at their January 28th meeting. Additionally, a Treasurer position and the IT Director positions have been filled quickly. Thus, recruitment was undertaken in not much over a month’s period of time, when one takes into consideration that this occurred over the holidays. This seems like a very short time period.
Attracting qualified applicants for municipal finance department positions is one the most significant challenges faced by municipal governments in the last several years. How extensive was the search process for the positions in the Finance Department, including steps to encourage a wide and diverse applicant pool? A wide and well-advertised recruitment is consistent with an organization that would want to be known as an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer. What steps were taken to ensure that Bedford was selecting the best candidate on the basis of merit, qualifications, and experience for such important Town government positions? How is it that the recently vacated positions within the Finance Department have been filled so quickly but the Director of Assessing has not been filled for 2 years and a permanent replacement for the Conservation Administrator (a different department) in a year? How is it that in 2019 a current School Committee member was hired as the School-Age Childcare (Kids’ Club) Director position in a matter of a week or two?
There needs to be a public explanation given by the Selectmen of the reasons for the mass exodus in the Finance Department as well as the inconsistent recruitment practices presently in place. The Finance Committee should also be very concerned.
Editor’s Note: Richard Reed retired as Bedford’s Town Manager in September 2018.