The sluggish search for Kingston’s next town administrator has heated up, with several former officials throwing their support behind a longtime town employee and a group of residents pushing for a formal search.
On Tuesday, selectmen tried to satisfy both camps, voting to hire a professional recruiter to conduct a candidate search, while allowing Nancy Howlett, assistant to three past town administrators and currently the interim town administrator, to be in the running.
A major sticking point for Howlett is her lack of a college degree. The town hasn’t yet formally advertised for the opening, but when it did so in 2011, a bachelor’s degree in business administration or public administration was one of the requirements.
Howlett, who hasn’t decided whether to apply for the job, said she has already proven she can handle the responsibilities, noting she “served in that role without the title” during the hiatus between town administrators in 2011.
“I certainly can picture myself as the town administrator since I’m already doing the job,” said Howlett, who added that she has strong support from department heads.
Kingston has been without a top administrator since early July, when Jim Thomas, after tangling with town employees and their unions, resigned by mutual agreement with selectmen, after just eight months on the job.
Two weeks later, Howlett was unanimously appointed by selectmen to the interim position, with a $400-a-week boost to her annual salary of $67,000.
In the ensuing months, there was little activity toward finding a long-term replacement for Thomas. But that changed when the selectmen’s office received several letters in early October urging Howlett’s permanent appointment.
Penned by five former selectmen, two current water commissioners, the chairwoman of the library trustees, and a former longtime town administrator, the letters argued that Howlett’s knowledge of the job and the town outweighed the prerequisite of a college diploma.
“I’m in favor of education, but Jim Thomas had all the bells and whistles, and he didn’t work out,” Vanessa Verkade, chairwoman of the library trustees, said.
Former Selectman Richard Kenney wrote a letter signed by five past board members.
“Why go out to a search and not know what you’re getting, when you have someone here who can do the job well?” Kenney said of his decision to advocate for Howland’s long-term appointment.
Former Selectman Mark Beaton, who signed Kenney’s letter, said Howlett was “more than capable” of handling the job, despite her lack of a college degree.
“Look what the last search got us for finalists,” he said.
Kevin Donovan, Kingston’s town administrator for eight years, also submitted a letter on Howlett’s behalf. In an interview, he said that experience can offset education, but stressed that his letter was a “recommendation” and the decision on a search was “entirely up to the Board of Selectmen.”
Water Commission chairman Robert Kostka said he heard there was interest in town in appointing Howlett long-term, and he raised the subject at a commission meeting. He and Commissioner Richard Loring then wrote a letter of support, which included the fact that Howlett recently helped them meet requirements for a state loan to construct a $4.7 million treatment plant.
“Nancy’s expertise in contract negotiation and procurement procedures proved to be invaluable,” they wrote.
In an interview Kostka said: “She knows how the system works. I know she doesn’t have a college degree, but I was a teacher for 40 years and I found that degrees, while helpful, should not be the deciding factor.”
A local newspaper story on the movement to make Howlett the long-term town administrator prompted a contrary petition drive, hastily organized a week and a half ago by resident Mary MacKinnon and a few others.
The petition, presented to selectmen Tuesday with 225 signatures, asked the board to “formally advertise the position, collect resumes, evaluate skills/credentials of the candidate pools against a predefined set of qualifications, and select the best candidate to meet the long-term needs.”
MacKinnon, a member of several town committees, said the selectmen’s lack of action since Thomas’s departure, coupled with the reported push to appoint Howlett without a search, prompted her to launch the petition drive.
MacKinnon said she doesn’t oppose considering Howlett, but added, “I don’t believe she has the qualifications in terms of certifications, skills, and degrees that are needed for this job.”
The selectmen’s meeting was packed with residents who had signed the petition. Shortly after MacKinnon presented the document, the board voted to initiate a town administrator search.
“I believe the presentation of the petitions and the participation by the residents motivated the selectmen to finally take action,” MacKinnon said following the meeting.
Kenney said he was “very, very disappointed,” despite the decision to allow Howlett to be in the running.
“All of us who signed the letter feel Nancy would be the quintessential town administrator,” Kenney said. “It doesn’t make sense to pay for a search by a professional agency. I think the town made a huge mistake and is going to be the loser.”
During Tuesday’s vote, Selectmen Joseph Casna, Richard Arruda, and Ron Gleason supported hiring a recruiter, while Sandra MacFarlane lobbied for a search committee of community members.
Selectwoman Susan Munford, who is a Kingston police sergeant, cannot participate in the selection, according to the town’s labor attorney, because the town administrator negotiates contracts with the employee unions.