Looking for a stability in the town’s highest executive office that hasn’t been there for more than four years, Kingston’s Board of Selectmen sought an administrator with qualities that favored a long-term match.
The board chose Robert Fennessy, a Plainville lawyer with municipal experience, after turning to a professional screening agency to recommend three finalists and involving town department heads in the final rounds of interviews.
They made the selection, selectmen said, with eyes on a prize that has evaded the town in recent years: longevity.
The board’s previous hire, Jim Thomas, was forced to resign after only nine months on the job following allegations of threatening behavior toward female employees. The administrator before Thomas stayed for only a year and a half.
“We wanted someone who wasn’t looking at Kingston as a short-term position, someone who would plan Kingston’s future with us,” Board of Selectmen chairwoman Elaine Fiore said last week.
Board member Dennis Randall agreed that Fennessy’s long-term history is a plus in view of the town’s recent experience. “We chewed through two town administrators in relatively short periods of time,” he said.
Even if Fennessy takes over the job soon — contract negotiations continued last week — it will be a year since Thomas left under a cloud. Randall, who was not on the board then, characterized the town’s reaction to Thomas’s brief, troubled tenure as “acute embarrassment.”
Selectmen put Thomas on leave in June of last year after two town employees said they heard him make an angry threat “to bring down” Selectwoman Susan Munford, who is also a Kingston police sergeant. Munford, a negotiator for town employees, said Thomas took offense after she opposed his plan to change the town employees’ insurance plan.
Munford alleged that Thomas sought retaliation by pressuring the police chief to put her on night shifts, and that four other female town employees said they had been victims of harassment by Thomas as well. After looking into the allegations, selectmen pressured Thomas to resign in return for a settlement of more than $47,000. Thomas’s attorney, however, maintained that he had left voluntarily, since the town brought no formal charges against him.
Thomas’s short tenure followed a more successful brief stay in office by Jill Myers Goldsmith. Goldsmith, who married during her time in the town administrator post, left Kingston two years ago to take the town manager post in Chatham, a job regarded as a step up, since a town manager generally has more authority than a town administrator.
Officials said the town has not enjoyed the kind of longevity in its top job that allows for long-term planning and consistent follow-through since Kevin Donovan left four years ago to run South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., the agency that oversees redevelopment of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station. Donovan had held the post for what Assistant Town Administrator Nancy Howlett called “eight wonderful years.” She has filled the top job herself on an interim basis since Thomas’s departure.
That year-to-year stability has been missing as the town dealt with issues such as cuts in state aid and complaints from neighbors that the town-built wind turbine is detrimental to their health.
Along with a record of longevity, Fiore said, the town chose Fennessy because of “a proven ability to bring people together and foster a team approach.”
An attorney with his own business, Fennessy worked in legal enforcement for a nonprofit agency for two decades before serving as town administrator in Boylston. Officials also pointed to his 18 years as a selectman in Plainville.
Randall acknowledged that frequent job changes in town administration, as in many other management professions, are not unheard of.
But sticking around has its value, he said.
“Unless you lived in Kingston all your life, it takes a while to learn the town,” Randall said. “It helps in terms of the degree of confidence people have in you, based on experience. They trust you. They don’t just trust the job title.”
Both he and Fiore pointed to the value of having candidates interview with department heads. “We’ve never done it before,” Fiore said.
The result augured well for their choice, she said, since the consensus of the department heads on the best candidate matched the board’s choice.
Randall said expanding the interview process made sense because a town administrator doesn’t work only for selectmen, but for the town as a whole and all its employees.
“If you do the job correctly, the administrator is going to outlive everybody on the board,” Randall said. Selectmen are elected for three-year terms.Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.