A Tale of Three City Manager Searches

On tomorrow’s City Council agenda, the Mayor is proposing Eric Batista as “interim” city manager, a position that doesn’t exist in the city charter (item 10a), and also asking the city clerk for “a report concerning the procedures and timelines followed during the 1993, 2004 and 2013-2014 City Manager searches and appointments.”  (item 10b)

Mayor Petty served as a City Councilor in 2004 and was one of the prime movers in the non-process of appointing Mike O’Brien as permanent city manager; he did the same as Mayor when he made Ed Augustus city manager 10 years later.  He wasn’t terribly interested in the process either of those times, and one supposes if he were interested in the process this time, he’d have asked about it before appointing someone to a position.

But for those of you who are interested in what happened the past three times, here’s my accounting.  Links should be accessible with your Worcester Public Library card login.

2013-2014 City Manager “Search”

Mike O’Brien resigned from his position as city manager in late November 2013, effective January 6, 2014.  In very short order, we found a new city manager.  Not an acting city manager – a real, live city manager with a short (9 month) contract. In order for a city manager to be called “acting,” they need to be a city employee at the time of hire.  In November 2013, there were only two city employees who appear to have been asked: Kathleen Johnson, the assistant city manager (who said no) and Tim McGourthy, then chief development officer, who was leaving the city for the research bureau.  (Mayor proposes Augustus as an interim manager – Motion put on hold for a week; November 27, 2013 and No ‘acting’ for city manager favorite – Council set to name Augustus for 6 to 12 months; November 28, 2013)

In the absence of anyone in the city government willing or able to take the position, how then did we find someone with the executive experience to run a medium-sized city?  Spoiler alert: we didn’t!  Many of us were surprised when Rick Rushton announced that Ed Augustus was going to be city manager.  He was stuck in a government relations position at Holy Cross and hadn’t lived in Worcester for years.  But, hey, he’d donated to the campaigns of the two people who were putting him forward to the City Council, so that should count for something, right?  If you hadn’t lived in the city very long, you’d likely never have heard of him, despite his relatively successful political career.

When Augustus was appointed, he said his intention was to return to his job at Holy Cross after nine months.  He even signed a document stating “Mr. Augustus acknowledges the vote of the City Council of December 3, 2013, that let it be known that Mr. Augustus be disqualified for consideration for reappointment following the term of the contract” but it appeared those words and two dollars will get you a ride on the Red Line.  Indeed, by January, the press was already reporting that people wanted him to remain in the position indefinitely.  (Effort launched to keep manager in job – Local activist says appointing Augustus is a ‘no-brainer’; January 18, 2014 and Augustus leaves city perplexed; January 27, 2014)

It took three months for the Municipal Operations subcommittee to start having meetings about what citizens wanted in a new city manager.  This was on purpose, of course; many of those who supported Ed Augustus were also behind the Mike O’Brien coup, and they knew the longer someone was in the temporary position, it would only be a matter of time before the incumbent became permanent.  In the meantime, elected officials could berate residents for speaking about actually answering the question they were asked.

The press remained convinced that Augustus didn’t want the job (except, of course, he did); by March, rather than ask when we’d be hiring an executive search firm, at least two city councilors were desperately trying to extend his contract past October.  (Pair seek to retain Augustus – Rivera, Rosen call for extended pact; March 30, 2014)

From the time Mike O’Brien resigned, it took over six months to hire an executive search firm.  When a firm was hired, it was responsible for the most embarrassing, unprofessional job posting imaginable, and it took the attention of yours truly and Dianne Williamson for the job posting to be corrected and re-posted.  (While we waited for the resumes to roll in, citizens had a fun time once again talking about a strong mayor form of government!)

We had three finalists for city manager; one internal candidate and two candidates with city management experience. (Are city manager finalists up to snuff?; August 27, 2014 and Meet the managers – Councilors face deadline and limited choices, September 11, 2014)

Did any of the candidates have a chance?  When I looked at it at the time (12), it didn’t appear so.  There was no “enthusiasm for any of the candidates” (No manager choice, so back to square one – Council will discuss offer to Augustus Thursday; September 17, 2014).  Indeed, there was pressure from nearly every angle but this blog to appoint Ed Augustus as city manager (Leaders: Augustus is the one; September 14, 2014).

Ten months after being originally offered the job, Ed Augustus finally gave the city council his resume.  The mayor announced, via the agenda known as “The Jordan Levy Show”, that Ed Augustus would be offered the permanent job.

There was more purported public process here than there was when Mike O’Brien was appointed city manager, but not by much.  There were public hearings where city councilors yelled at residents; there was an incompetent executive search firm; there were attempts throughout the search process to permanently recruit Ed Augustus; bad faith abounded.

I said it best in 2014:

When we start down the path of saying that the public’s opinion doesn’t matter, that items do not need to appear on the agenda, that process is nothing important, we can excuse any number of bad decisions and questionable choices.

2004 City Manager “Search”

On March 16, 2004, City Manager Thomas Hoover, who’d previously had very good reviews and a recent contract extension from the Council, resigned from office after receiving a letter signed by eight city councilors “suggesting” that he resign.  Among those who requested the resignation were Councilor-at-Large Joseph M. Petty.  For those looking from the outside in, it was unclear why the councilors requested Mr. Hoover resign; in fact, there were city councilors who didn’t sign on to the letter who were also mystified. (Council forces Hoover resignation – Manager leaving after eight oppose him; March 17, 2004)

An aside about the firing, because that’s what it was…there was an article where the councilors behind the coup indicated why they’d asked for the resignation.  The reasons consisted of (a) he was too nice to the mall owners, (b) he didn’t do anything for economic development, and (c) he never called me.  There was something more there, but I’m no insider so you’ll have to find someone who’s in the know. (Councilors reveal reasons behind call for resignation; March 18, 2004)

Within one day of the resignation, there was a contender for the job: Michael V. O’Brien, then commissioner of parks, recreation and cemetery.  (O’Brien is backed for interim post – Parks official may fill in as city manager; March 18, 2004)  Then-mayor Tim Murray tasked the Municipal Operations subcommittee (consisting of three people: two who’d nominated Mike O’Brien, plus Joe Petty) and two other councilors with forming an ad-hoc city manager search committee.  (Panel to aid search for city manager; March 23, 2004)  On March 24, O’Brien became acting city manager (for a nine month term).  (Interim city manager is sworn in; March 24, 2004; O’Brien ready for ‘challenge’ – Council inducts acting city manager)

After the appointment, it was clear that Mike O’Brien was saying the right things and in the good graces of the right people.  (Strong wind blows cobwebs off City Hall – O’Brien is hands-on manager; March 25, 2004)  The ad-hoc hiring committee was in no rush; it took them a month to have their first meeting, the second meeting was cancelled, and then, well, then it was budget season!  How can you have a meeting to discuss hiring someone to fill the most prominent position in city government when you already have another meeting the same week, right?

Make sure to pay attention to some of the 2004 arguments against a nationwide search, because they will surely make a comeback:

1 – It costs money!  “If the city cannot find $7,000 [to convert Pearl Street from a one-way street to two-way], where is it going to find the $25,000 to $30,000, or possibly even more, to hire a consultant to do a nationwide search for a city manager?”

2 – Property developers like a “real” city manager.  “Mr. Petty added that having an acting city manager for an extended period of time hurts the city. He said developers interested in coming to Worcester want to deal with a leader they know will be around for a while, rather than someone who is filling in on a temporary basis.”

3 – No one will apply to work in other city jobs.  “People are less interested in coming here if there is an acting city manager because there would be so much uncertainty about the future,” Mr. Petty said.

4 – If you have the perfect person already in the position, why bother looking.  Petty, again: “If he succeeds, as many of us believe he will, why go with a nationwide search?”

(Some councilors inclined to shorten O’Brien’s job title; May 23, 2004)

Whenever there is a change in city manager, there is talk of changing the form of government to a strong mayor; 2004 was certainly no exception.  There was a vibrant young leader in Tim Murray as well as a sense of how much the city’s potential might be constrained by the relatively conservative/slow pace of a city manager form of government.  I won’t delve into this too deeply now, but it’s worth remembering that this is not the first time people have talked of charter change.  (Familiar terrain – City Hall turnover fuels charter-change talks, May 24, 2004 and Push for strong-mayor dying, O’Brien may be set; May 26, 2004 and Grass-roots effort breathing life into strong-mayor model; June 2, 2004)

By late May/early June 2004, people at the supermarket were telling City Councilor Rick Rushton that they wanted Mike O’Brien to stay in the job; this seemed to be a better process for selecting a chief executive than either public meetings or a nationwide search. (A chamber of lost purpose – Open deliberations a thing of the past; June 2, 2004)

A month later later, the people at the Big Y checkout had spoken: Mike O’Brien was no longer “acting” – he was permanent.  The City Council who, then as now, like nothing better than kowtowing to someone they perceive as more powerful than then, gave the contract to the “ice man” for whom there were “no shades of gray.”  One city councilor said that the only other person who would have gotten the job was Jesus Christ.  (O’Brien isn’t just `acting’ anymore – Council’s 8-3 vote appoints manager; June 30, 2004 and Tentative contract reached with O’Brien; July 15, 2004)

Keep in mind that this was a process that Joe Petty partly ran, and that he spoke about extensively with the press.

1993 City Manager Search

Jeff Mulford resigned from his position in April 1993 effective January 31, 1994 – giving the city nine months for a search and hire process. (MULFORD’S DECISION GREETED WITH MIXED FEELINGS; April 23, 1993)  Mayor Jordan Levy appointed a three-member committee (including himself) for the search


As happened in the non-search for Mike O’Brien, there was a debate about whether the city could afford the services of an executive search firm, but there was much more of an emphasis on having a correct process.  “When the council conducted its last search for a city manager in 1984-85, it hired a consultant who helped draw up the qualifications for the job, recruit candidates and screen resumes.” (THE EARLY ACTION COULD REVEAL MUCH IN MANAGER SEARCH, May 9, 1993)

Within a month of the resignation, the city council had decided to hire a professional search consultant.  There was talk of having public hearings so residents could “comment on what qualities and qualifications they would like to see the next city manager have” and then hearings after semifinalist interviews and before hiring the new city manager.  The ad-hoc committee was criticized for having meetings in the middle of the day; these days, we’d be grateful they had any meetings. (SEARCH COMMITTEE WANTS TO HIRE CONSULTANT IN HUNT FOR MANAGER; May 22, 1993 and SEARCH PROCESS PANEL CRITICIZED FOR MEETINGS; May 31, 1993 and “VERY PUBLIC’ MANAGER-HIRING PROCESS URGED; May 29, 1993)

The process seemed to slow during the summer, but five firms responded to the RFP for the search and one firm was hired within a week of bids being received!

(SENSE OF URGENCY GONE FROM SEARCH FOR CITY MANAGER; July 4, 1993 and 5 SEARCH FIRMS IN RUNNING \ PROPOSALS FOR CITY MANAGER SEARCH TO – recommended if you want to see what a search firm should do; July 20, 1993 and CITY HIRES SEARCH FIRM \ $17,500 IS BID TO FIND MANAGER, July 27, 1993)

In what the Telegram editorial page called a “Worcester search,” Councilor Tim Cooney “suggested that the council interview all local candidates regardless of the consultant’s recommendations. His reasoning: Executive search firms often exclude local candidates from reaching interview stage.”  The Worcester argument, of course, is that no amount of executive experience is the equivalent of the ultimate experience: living in Worcester for one’s whole life! (A ‘WORCESTER SEARCH’? \ LET’S NOT PUT THE CITY THROUGH ANOTHER; July 25, 1993 and REQUIRING MANAGER TO HAVE EXPERIENCE MAY RESTRICT FIELD; August 1, 1993)

There was also that recurring bugbear of Worcester politics: that a lame-duck or not-permanent city manager meant qualified candidates for other city jobs wouldn’t apply.  (COUNCIL DEBATES THE IDEA OF INTERIM MANAGER; July 25, 1993 and MULFORD’S LAME-DUCK STATUS HINDERS HIRING; July 21, 1993)

Despite the Council’s opinion that citizens needed to be heard, few showed up at public hearings (123) though perhaps those that mattered already gave their opinion to the newspaper of record.  There was some refining of the qualifications for candidates; they opened the search up to those who had been assistant city managers.  By October 21, the executive search firm had 6 semi-finalists for the city to review.  The city council moved quickly in interviewing candidates and had two finalists a week later.  By Halloween, the City Council unanimously selected Tom Hoover as the new city manager. (FINALISTS NAMED FOR CITY MANAGER \ NO LOCAL CANDIDATES AMONG SIX; October 21, 1993 and TWO FAVORED FOR TOP CITY POST; October 29, 1993 and CITY COUNCIL FOUND A CITY MANAGER IT COULD WORK WITH; October 31, 1993)

When I read the newspaper accounts of the search and selection, there were frequent complaints about the slowness of the process.  I think the RFP for the search firm could have been made quicker, but compared to the processes (or non-processes) we’ve seen in the past twenty years, this process at least seemed like there were steps to follow, and a decision was made relatively quickly once candidates were presented.  I wonder if the difference is that Mulford gave the city council nearly a year to find his replacement.  In some ways, the lack of urgency may have felt like a lack of urgency for some, but was, perhaps, more marked by a lack of desperation.