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Getting fired an occupational hazard for town managers

William Phelan now works in Holbrook.

Google the words “town manager fired’’ and you’ll get about 80,000 results, ranging from the bizarre - the Florida manager let go in 2009 for marrying a porn star - to the more mundane stories of disagreements over tactics or personality clashes.

The sheer volume of news points to what officials say is a truism about the top administrative job in any municipality: Getting fired is an occupational hazard. It’s a scenario that just played out in Cohasset, where selectmen tossed out town manager Michael Coughlin last month after only six months on the job.

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“It’s not like other industries, where being fired or feeling pressure to resign carries a stigma,’’ said Michele Frisby, spokeswoman for the International City/County Management Association. “It’s viewed as part of the job, something every manager faces.’’

That may be because town managers and administrators are “the visible side of everything government does locally, and people care deeply at the local level,’’ said David Luberoff, executive director of Harvard University’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. And managers traditionally are not protected by union rules that make it difficult to get rid of other municipal employees, he said.

“It’s a really hard job,’’ he added. “Town managers can get fired for all kinds of reasons, and I think it sort of comes with the turf.’’

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Frisby said the most common reason that managers say they lose their jobs is a change in the makeup of the elected body that appointed them. Other frequent reasons cited in her association’s most recent member survey include political pressure, personality conflicts, and blame for poor fiscal conditions. Lower down on the list, the managers say, are “performance issues,’’ she added.

In Cohasset, selectmen cited poor communication and inability to work with volunteer boards as their reasons for firing Coughlin after his very public dispute with elected water commissioners. Stoughton’s town manager, Francis Crimmins, resigned effective March 31 after two years, in part because of what he called “philosophical’’ disagreements with selectmen.

That said, there are managers who last decades with one community.

Hanover’s Stephen Rollins, for example, is retiring after 25 years on the job. Westwood’s Michael A. Jaillet is still working as town administrator after 24 years. Andrew Gala was Foxborough’s top executive for more than 30 years until he retired in 2010; Norwood’s John Carroll is still in the job he started in 1978.

And Robert W. Healy, the city manager of Cambridge - “the working definition of fractious politics - has been there since 1981,’’ Luberoff noted. Healy, whose more than $330,000 salary is double what most of his peers take home, recently announced that he’ll retire in January.

Nationally, the average tenure for a town manager or administrator is seven years, according to Frisby. Her association lists about 30 to 40 job openings weekly, she said.

Massachusetts doesn’t keep statistics on how long town managers stay in their jobs, according to Patricia Mikes, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association. But she estimated that the average tenure is between six and 10 years.

Frisby said that within the profession, Massachusetts is considered “a very difficult place to be a manager because it has a reputation of being a very political state.’’ Town meetings also add an “extra dimension’’ and oversight to the job, she said.

Hull Town Manager Philip Lemnios threatened to quit his job last year after a particularly rancorous Town Meeting, but decided to stay.

Some in Cohasset say politics and a power struggle with the local water commissioners over control of the water department led to Coughlin’s abrupt departure. In Wareham, Town Manager Mark Andrews sparred with some selectmen before deciding to take an interim town administrator job in Wenham later this month.

“Some communities tend to go through managers quicker than others,’’ said Buzz Stapczynski, Andover’s town manager for the past 22 years and chairman of a committee looking at the future of the profession in the state. “They don’t do a good job of developing a profile of the kind of manager they want or need.

“Oftentimes what I’ve seen is they’ll ping-pong back and forth between a very outspoken manager who is very aggressive, and then one they can control more,’’ he said.

Cohasset, for example, has had three full-time town managers, and two out of the three have been forced out.

One of them - Mark Haddad - resigned under pressure in 2004 after allegations of sexual harassment. He denied the charges; the town settled out of court and paid two female municipal employees $70,000 each. He is now town manager in Groton, where earlier this year selectmen reprimanded him for inappropriate behavior involving text messages and cellphone calls to a woman he described as “eye candy.’’

Often, towns run into problems when there’s a change in the form of government that gives managers more authority, said Thomas Groux, a former manager who’s now a consultant for communities looking for top administrators. That’s especially true when a town maintains a large number of elected boards.

“Unless [a manager] finds a way to work with [existing] power centers and boards to build support for any new way of doing things, he or she will run into a buzz saw of personalities and challenges,’’ Groux said.

Bridgewater’s Troy Clarkson experienced just that after the town switched to a strong town manager and town council form of government in 2010. The situation ended up in court, and a Brockton Superior Court judge clarified the roles last year. But Clarkson has decided to move on - he’s starting April 23 as town manager in Hanover.

Marshfield Town Administrator Rocco Longo started his career as the first manager of a town in West Virginia in 1981, and worked in Northborough, Duxbury, and Billerica before coming to Marshfield in 2008. He called Duxbury a “dream job’’ and Billerica “a challenge.’’

“In some towns, the town manager has a defined role by charter and the community clearly understands the role, and you will see less problems,’’ Longo said. “The reality is you are as strong as the community and selectmen allow you to be.’’

Former longtime Brookline town administrator Richard Kelliher, who teaches municipal management at Suffolk University, said he’s noticed more former selectmen and mayors stepping into the profession. One example: former Quincy mayor William J. Phelan, who is now Holbrook’s town administrator.

Luberoff said town managers “range from incredibly low-key to sometimes almost imperious.’’ Stronger personalities often find themselves in controversial situations. Foxborough’s Kevin Paicos, for example, is out front on the opposition to a casino in town.

All town managers have to work with “the theory [that] selectmen and Town Meeting set policy, and the town manager administers,’’ Luberoff said. But “the line between policy and politics is not always as clean as it looks in the textbooks,’’ he added.

Westwood’s Jaillet chairs the strategic planning committee of the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association, which has recommended that the group get more actively involved in local disputes. One suggestion is providing mediators to help “set the relationship back on course and avoid a problem that might end in termination,’’ he said.

Another recommendation is to work for “tighter contracts and/or legislation or practices that help protect good professional managers and administrators from being terminated indiscriminately or for political reasons,’’ he said.

“It’s a tough profession, and I really admire the men and women who take this position on,’’ said Frisby. “It’s not for everybody, but they love it. They are truly dedicated to helping communities improve.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.
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