A public communication by retired Town Manager Richard T. Reed that implicitly criticized his successor’s supervisory and hiring practices has been refuted by Select Board members.
Reed, in a letter to The Citizen published on Thursday, called for “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.”
“Within a few weeks of each other in January, four members of the professional staff holding key positions within the Finance Department all resigned,” he wrote. “In my experience, this level of turnover within one department in such a short time span is highly unusual for any municipal government.”
Select Board Chair Margot Fleischman issued a brief statement Friday morning in response. “The Select Board has complete confidence in Town Manager (Sarah) Stanton and her department heads to recruit highly qualified candidates and make hiring decisions in the best interests of the town.”
The statement pointed out that “the Town Charter gives the town manager responsibility for making hiring decisions subject to the Select Board’s approval… I am sure that during his tenure, Mr. Reed would have vigorously defended his exercise of this responsibility, and it is disappointing that he has chosen to criticize his successor for doing the same.”
Select Board member Emily Mitchell said she collaborated with Fleischman on the wording. Other Select Board members, asked to comment, also referred to the statement by the chair.
Reed did not mention Stanton by name or position in his letter to the editor. The former manager, who retired in August 2018 and continues to reside here, was referencing the departures of the finance director, who also was serving as treasurer/collector); town accountant; 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,” he wrote.
Fleischman acknowledged that “in the past year, a long-term administrative assistant retired, and three other staff members, including the finance director/treasurer collector, left for employment opportunities in other communities.”
She provided details of the response, which included “a revenue-neutral restructuring of the department:
- Finance director/town accountant: The position was advertised on Jan. 4, while Toni Mertz, an experienced interim director, filled in “during a crucial period of the budget process.” The town manager hired Marisa Batista, who had 20 years of municipal finance experience, but she only served from Feb. 6 to mid-March, when she resigned for personal reasons. “The position was immediately re-advertised. First-round interviews have begun and will again involve the Finance Committee chair,” Fleischman said.
- Treasurer/collector: That job also was advertised starting Jan. 4, and after “multiple strong candidates were interviewed,” the new appointee, Christopher Schweitzer, began working on March 15.
- Finance Department administrative assistant: interviewing is proceeding. “To support in the transition, two retired employees generously offered to come back and assist the office and train new staff members,” Fleischman said.
Fleischman emphasized that in February, Sherwood Ives, the Town’s long-time IT director, retired after 23 years working for Bedford. “The town was fortunate to have a qualified individual who was hired by the previous Town Manager in 2018 as a shared position with the Town of Concord.” Daniel Leahy was promoted to full-time IT director.
Reed’s letter speculated on possible consequences of the frequent transitions. “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.”
The steps being taken to recruit professional staff also raise questions,” he wrote. “Attracting qualified applicants for municipal finance department positions is one of the most significant challenges faced by municipal governments in the last several years.”
Reed posed several questions: “How extensive was the search process for the positions in the Finance Department, including steps to encourage a wide and diverse applicant pool? 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?”
Fleischman detailed town hiring practices. “When an opening is identified, it is advertised widely, including but not limited to on bedfordma.gov, the Massachusetts Municipal Association website and newsletter, Indeed.com, social media, and relevant professional associations.”
Department heads are closely involved in the process, she said, working with the town manager and the assistant town manager for human resources and administration.
Some positions “are easier to fill than others depending on the candidate pool, requirements of specialized qualifications, and the number of openings in other communities,” she said. There are many examples of internal promotions.
Fleischman also noted that Bedford is one of six communities chosen to take part in a special program“to examine ways to enhance our practices around hiring to ensure a diverse workforce.”
Correction 3 April 2021: The Bedford Citizen’s entire Editorial Board was involved in developing this article, and several members were directly involved in its creation. The managing editor apologizes for inadvertently givng sole credit in the byline to a single member of the team when the article first posted.