Residents want board to pursue town administrator government

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

HARRISON — Brad Plante is gone, but his legacy lives on, in the form of spirited debate over control and power as the board prepares to name a new town manager (See related article).

Plante liked to be in control, and often clashed with selectmen and residents in his two years on the job. Now, some residents are calling for the town to drop the town manager form of government in favor of a

selectmen-town administrator form of government, as a way to give selectmen more power.

Most of the 17 Harrison residents attending an Oct. 19 public forum on the issue favored having the board further investigate the change, but not all; Interim Town Clerk Judy Colburn said Harrison has only had two town managers in the last 25 years, “as different as night and day,” and ought to give the system another try. Selectman Chairman Bill Winslow agreed, and pointed out that all of the candidates the board is interviewing understand that selectmen are the ones that set policy and the manager carries it out.

Any change in how town government is organized would have to be approved by voters at town meeting, and voters would have to hold a special town meeting 60 days prior to town meeting to put the question on the warrant. There would also need to be a formal public hearing.

John Evinger, one of the prime backers of the change, said the problem with the town manager system is that it is defined by the state Legislature, not the town. Anytime there was a conflict between Plante and the board, the Maine Municipal Association had to be consulted to see if the town was following the rules. By switching to a town administrator-selectmen form of government, the board could define their own job description, and give the administrator as much or as little authority as they saw fit.

Winslow countered that the town could adopt a charter to define the duties of a town manager, thereby still keeping the system while also exerting some measure of control.

“I’d like to see Harrison give someone an opportunity to do the job and do it well,” added Colburn. She said that in her opinion, the town was not prepared “financially or people-wise” to make the change.

Evinger said hiring an administrator “is not designed to save money, it’s designed to give better representative government.” He said, “You’d still have a chief executive for the town, but that executive would get its power from the selectmen and town meeting, not the Legislature.”

Resident Brian Spaulding said selectmen might have to put in more time, but could take on areas of responsibility based on their background and expertise, working with the administrator. Town employees could be promoted to positions of responsibility formerly borne by the town manager, such as road commissioner, thereby offering them opportunity for advancement.

“We’re being governed by a system which we don’t have as much control over,” Evinger said. Numerous towns in Maine use administrative assistants, and have defined the duties of their executive officers. He acknowledged Winslow’s point that a charter could be adopted with a town manager system, but he said it would require a charter commission and a long time to establish. In talking to people around town, he said, “There’s been some fear that we’re not going to have an executive,” but that wouldn’t be the case, he said.

Spaulding said the board would have time to adapt to the change because it is currently without a town manager. There’s a good chance the town would save money if it hired an administrative assistant, but he agreed the town should “not make its decision on the basis of money alone.” Throughout the tenure of Plante’s predecessor, Mike Thorne, the board was gradually “weaned of power” and became accustomed to taking recommendations from the chief executive, he said. But under Plante, the situation became untenable, because he tried to restrict board members from becoming directly involved in operational decisions.

Spaulding acknowledged that if the board had more power it could lead to “kingmaking,” and that a newly elected selectman wouldn’t have the benefit of experience under the three-year staggered term system.

But Jamie Dayton wondered whether the assistant would be “running around like a mad person, answering to everybody.” And Matthew Frank said he was “horrified with the idea of five people making major decisions.”

Tuesday’s forum was attended by only two selectmen, Winslow and Eddie Rolfe, and resident Mike Morrissettee wondered why. Winslow said there were legitimate reasons why the other three selectmen were not able to attend.

Ray Laplante, the town’s Emergency Management director, said he was against eliminating the town manager position. “You’re not going to get rid of Augusta” no matter what you do, he said, because of the complexities involved in local government operations today. “This is not Harrison of 40 years ago. You’re not going to have time to manage” the town, he said.

Laplante said he understood the frustrations caused by Plante’s management style, but added, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Code Enforcement Officer John Wentworth agreed. “If it ain’t broke, why fool with it,” he said. He also took issue with what he said were “potshots” being taken against Plante, who he said did a good job for the town. “He did what you asked him to.”

Rolfe said he appreciated all the opinions being made, and observed that since Plante left and Colburn took over, “the town office is a happy place.”

He said the town of Waldoboro, which uses an administrator, is much bigger than Harrison and doesn’t suffer from “the George Washington king effect” as some may fear.

“Give it some thought, all you citizens of Harrison,” Rolfe said. The town administrator system is very common in New Hampshire, he noted, and is working well there. “It’s worth looking into in more depth.” He asked for a show of hands on looking into the issue further, and almost everyone in the room raised their hands.

Winslow said the board would put the matter on their agenda for more discussion.

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