Most of the time, town board meetings are conflict free. In fact, they’re often technical, bureaucratic and, on occasion, downright sleepy.
That wasn’t the case on Tuesday night, Sept. 8, at the Board of Selectmen‘s first meeting back from a month-long summer break. What sparked a tense, almost half-hour discussion during the meeting was the topic of how a replacement for departing CFO Sandy Dennies would be found.
Dennies announced her resignation in mid-August. Around that time it was mentioned that first selectman Bill Brennan had pulled together a small search committee of three town officials—Bd. of Finance chair Warren Serenbetz, selectman Dick Dubow and Brennan himself—to lead the search to find a replacement.
However, at the time some town officials expressed their disagreement with that plan, given that Brennan’s term in office would be ending in November, and a new first selectman would take over as of Dec. 1. Some officials believe that the person who should lead the search should be the next first selectman, who might have different criteria for the job.
At Tuesday evening’s BoS meeting, the issue was discussed publicly for the first time. And not everyone felt the same way.
Brennan’s Position—Find Someone Now
Brennan introduced the topic and explained that with less than three months until the time that Dennies will leave, he felt it was important to find a replacement quickly. He told the BoS that he’d formed the search committee, using the same makeup of people who formed the search committee six years prior that identified Dennies.
He acknowledged that some people wondered whether finding an interim CFO would be more prudent than searching for a permanent replacement, and offered his thoughts:
“The issue that has been raised in the search has been a question of an interim CFO or a permanent CFO. The issue is the availability of qualified candidate—we’re looking for the most qualified candidate we can find for this most complex and demanding position. We met with NESC, the search firm that did the search for Sandy, and they did an excellent job and their fees are substantially less than a major search firm because they cater to the not-for-profit world, and they’re familiar with the position.”
He added that the position specifications have been “finalized,” and that NESC is “aware of a possible interim candidate need,” but would also be searching for a qualified permanent candidate.
“That is what we’re looking for,” Brennan said.
He asserted that they won’t know how things would develop until they dive in, but because of how close timing is to the municipal election in Nov., more than likely the new first selectman would wind up having some say in narrowing down a choice.
“The market will tell us where we are going with it, what candidates will be available. But I think the thing that’s important: the last time we did the search for CFO, when Sandy was hired, it took us over six weeks to get the long list of candidates. That’s pretty close to Nov. 3 and Election Day. We’re going to have a first selectman elect by the time that initial long list is presented to us. Which, if that’s the case, we’ll have a first selectman who can join the search team, and be part of the final interview process.”
Brennan said what mattered most was to find the best candidate for the job.
“The most important thing is to get the highly qualified individual. Yes, they’re aware that if there’s an interim, to raise that candidate, but right now, they’re searching for the best qualified candidate for this position. It’s a short time frame. What I’m saying is, we should have by the time they come up with the long list, we should be close or have the Nov. 3 election behind us.”
Dubow added his agreement:
“NESC said it is a tight time limit but doable. They assured us that if we get to a point where we recognize we’re not going to make it in a timely fashion, and it’s going to take considerably longer, we can fall back on ‘Plan B,’ an interim position. But on their advice, make it a priority to find a qualified candidate.”
Brennan said someone taking the reins of the town would likely want a qualified individual, not just a placeholder.
“Is there a qualified individual, not just anybody? If I was coming into this job as first selectman, the last thing I’d want is an empty seat down the hall. It’s too critical a job. There’s all sorts of complex systems. The CFO is also the treasurer; we have bonding issues,” he said, adding, “The real key is going to be the market—what candidates are going to surface. That’s going to drive the decision. Who’s out there, what’s their interest and how qualified they are.”
Deborah McFadden, a BoS member who is one of the two candidates running for first selectman, asked Brennan a clarifying question:
“So the intent is that, once the list is made, tentatively, then, the election would be concluded–…”
Before she could finish, Brennan said, “We think it will take that long. Unless we have a freak situation where somebody who is very qualified surfaces early, then that’s a different situation. Then you’d have a very qualified person and we’d have to be very concerned if we delay hiring a person, would we lose the individual. Based on the amount of time it takes to make the initial calls and do the interviews, they do a lot of calling before we get to meet people. Once they get that list together, it’s a good 6-week process. So I think if you just add six weeks to today, you’re pretty close to the election.”
McFadden continued: “So it’s likely then that the first selectman-elect—whoever that happens to be—would have the ability to then participate in the short list.”
“Absolutely,” Brennan answered.
Brennan added that the three men on the search committee had all served at one time as chair of the Bd. of Finance. “We’re familiar with what we consider the right qualifications for the job.”
Disagreement in the Trenches
The discussion between the selectmen reflected that there was disagreement, and the tension rose quickly.
Mike Kaelin, a current selectman who is also running for re-election to the BoS, expressed his disagreement that the decision rested with the current board of selectmen.
“That’s what my concern is, about the way we’re approaching this. You’ve repeatedly said, ‘The issue is qualifications and finding a qualified candidate.’ But the problem I have is that the body that should be determining what the qualifications are for the next CFO is the next Bd. of Selectmen. Sandy’s term ends when this BoS ends. What you all are doing is hiring and narrowing down the scope of candidates for the next first selectman. It would seem minimally that the new board should be determining the qualifications.”
Brennan seemed to bristle at that suggestion, and sounded frustrated at being challenged.
“I don’t agree with that. If you’ve ever done a search, and you’ve done specifications for a job, the specifications for a CFO are pretty, pretty well defined. The specifications have been updated from the search for Sandy, which was approved by the Board when we originally had the charge to come up with the specifications for that position. They have not changed that dramatically. There’ve been some edits: we have consolidated the treasurer position into the position of CFO (we eliminated a position, in doing that). So I don’t see the specifications as being that much different,” he responded, adding that he’s concerned about losing time.
“There are other towns also looking for CFO: the town of New London is also looking for a CFO. We’ve got to start searching or you’re going to end up with an injustice to the next first selectman, coming in here to someone who’s an interim. If that person is highly qualified, if one exists, fine, but my feelings are the specifications for the job are pretty clear cut.”
Dubow continued to agree with Brennan:
“We’re looking to fill the position with the person who best meets the needs of the town, long-term; boards will come and go, the CFO will probably be here longer than the next board will be. I don’t have the difficulty you do. It’s absolutely essential that the first selectman-elect will have the opportunity to have input into the process, and frankly I can’t imagine a candidate not wanting to have that.
Selectman Jim Saxe said he agreed with Kaelin. “He wants to see more involvement from the new board in selecting.”
Kaelin added, “I don’t agree with this idea, that there’s a set spec of qualifications for the CFO. The CFO isn’t even listed in the charter as a town officer.”
What’s more, he then directly implied that the other candidate for first selectman, Lynne Vanderslice, also disagreed with Brennan’s current plan.
“I know from talking to one of the candidates for first selectman, that they have different idea of the qualifications of what this [CFO] candidate should have. I think the easier and safer approach is, focus on getting an interim, because we’re not going to have a candidate by the time a new first selectman is going to be there. And if we can get an interim first, that seems to work best. That’s what we’ve done with police chief, with the fire chief, I don’t understand why we can’t do that with the CFO?”
Saxe suggested that Dennies might consider staying on beyond Dec. 1 as a consultant to help transition between administrations. “She may be willing to entertain being a consultant for a couple months, and being that interim person.”
Dennies, who was seated in the spectator seats, didn’t answer, but Brennan suggested that wasn’t a likely option. “I have a feeling I know what Sandy’s feelings are on that.”
The debate continued for a bit along the same lines, with Brennan supporting the idea that time is of the essence and the need to start searching for the most qualified candidate was paramount–and that this is how the town has typically searched for replacements in key positions.
“The way positions are sourced in the town, the search committee is formed, and goes through all of the material, position description, deals with search firms, and eventually, after they’ve narrowed it down, recommends a candidate to the Bd. of Selectmen for approval. The BoS members isn’t involved in the process. The search firm does the work.
Kaelin: “But shouldn’t the search team be getting their direction from the decision maker who’s going to hire the candidate?”
Brennan: “That’s what I’m trying to do tonight. We’re trying to get this interim thing out. There’s a difference in opinion on the thing. Having been through some searches, I am very concerned about the market level, the available candidates we’ll be able to get in the time frame we’re trying to get it done.”
Kaelin seemed to question whether procedure had been followed appropriately, referring to the search committee already being formed without the BoS having discussed it before.
“That’s my concern—I’ve been involved in a lot of search and it takes months; it’s not going to take weeks, and what I’m trying to avoid is wasting the time for the people who have volunteered to do this search. I’m choosing these words carefully because, there’s reference to a search committee, but in reality, all you are is a bunch of volunteers that have formed your own committee to find the next CFO. This is not something the BoS put together,” he said.
The suggestion didn’t sit well with Brennan, and his frustration was evident, as his voice grew sharper: “I really take exception to that, we’re not just ‘volunteers.’ The volunteers we’re talking about are Warren Serenbetz, Dick Dubow and myself; three former chairmen of the Bd. of Finance. They made up the search committee the last time we did it and we didn’t have a meeting in August when we got word that Sandy was leaving. One of the things we decided, we better get moving fast in order to get out there and find out what the market was or we won’t have anybody. We had to make some decisions to move, and I contacted Warren and Dick and asked them if they’d be willing to serve again. We also suggested that Dick would contact Deborah, Warren would contact Lynne, we would indicate the search committee was formed and they would be their representative. I got no pushback from anyone.”
Kaelin: “I’m grateful for everything you’re doing, but in actuality the group doesn’t have the authority to do anything. The only place you can get authority is the Bd. of Selectmen.”
Dubow: “In the end, we’re going to make a recommendation to the BoS; the BoS will have an opportunity to say Yay or Nay. That’s where the authority is. The search is a process. I’m not looking for another committee to serve on, I’m happy to step aside, I’ve got other things to do. It seems to me this is an efficient way to address a critical need in a timely fashion that respects the various players’ roles in this and does not politicize the process. There’s an election going on too, and I don’t want to see the selection of the process to get caught up with the election in any way. It’s too important a position to the town, and there are long-term responsibilities to the voters of the town, to the Town Meeting and the citizens of the town. I think there will come a point where we’ll sit down with NESC and they’ll say to us, ‘Look, we haven’t gotten a pool of applicants that we’re comfortable with, and we’re going to go to Plan B, which is too look for an interim.’”
Kaelin: “I’m merely alerting you to the fact that it might not be the most productive use of your time. Ultimately, you’re coming up with a candidate for the next BoS to decide whether we want that candidate.”
Brennan: “We’re merely looking for both here. If we stop this and say, ‘We just want you to look for an interim,’ that’s a separate search. Then you’re going to have to do another search, that doubles the cost. What we’re doing is trying to do it with a single search, but if any of the candidates are interested in just an interim basis with the potential for being hired in the future, to try and identify that in their questions. We’re not trying to say we’re only looking for interim; we’re looking for the best qualified individual out there. We’re keeping an eye out for both potential candidates. So we don’t have to do two successive searches at comparable cost.”
Kaelin: “I’m merely stating the reality, that without getting the input from the new board—which is impossible to get at this time—it’s going to be impossible to pick the new candidate that the new board is going to pick. I’m encouraging people to go slow, and get as much input from as many sources as you can. One of the ways you can create a slower procedure and give everybody time for input is have an interim. But if you can’t get an interim, you can’t get an interim.”
Dubow: “It’s not a question of can’t get an interim, it’s possibly losing a good person for the position, perhaps even the best person for the position.”
Saxe: “I’ve been hiring for a long time, and the best person—there isn’t only one. There’s always two or three or four. This isn’t a unique situation.”
Dubow: “It’s small core of potential candidates.”
Saxe: “That was the argument for the fire chief too.”
Dubow: “I’m very comfortable with the position we’ve established. The board certainly has the authority, when the time comes, to say, ‘uh-uh, not what we’re looking for.’”
McFadden: “I think it’s important that we start a search, because we need somebody that’s competent in the position. The time frame between now and the election is so short, that I suspect, looking at how long it took us to find somebody for facilities management and some other positions, we’re not going to be as far down that road Mike that you think we will be. We’ll probably still be gathering a pool of candidates. We can always modify the description of whether we’re wanting an interim or a permanent, but at least we’re out there searching for who is available, so we can start a long list. So that maybe, when we have the election, maybe we’ll have a short list, maybe we’ll have long list, but at least we’ll have a list. “Whoever the person who is first selectman-elect will have an opportunity to participate in the process. That process could totally be modified at that time, but at least they have something to start with.”
Brennan added that the public discussion might prompt a potential candidate to submit a resume. “We’re developing both candidate inventories. You really don’t know until you get the long list to know what you’ve got.”
Kaelin: “I am agreeing with that. I just don’t want to close the door to an interim…”
Dubow: “I don’t think we have. I think we have an A and a B Plan. They both exist and we’ll have that group of potential candidates. If it turns out we can’t satisfy our objectives and find a long-term candidate then we’ll fall back to Plan B…”
Brennan: “We’ll see what kind of interim candidates have surfaced, and if we have to plug someone in on an interim basis, until we get that perfect person on that long-term basis, then at least we’ve got the job covered for a period of time. I think we’re saying the same thing: we’ve got to have a plan, and we’re going down the road searching, trying to avoid two successive searches.”
Kaelin: “I’m in agreement.”
McFadden: “We’ve got to find a CFO; whether it’s an interim or permanent CFO, we need to keep searching for who’s got the skills for when we start the budget process.”
Citizen Comment—Unwelcome Criticism
During the public comment portion of the BoS meeting, one resident—Marianne Gustafson—rose to address the selectmen. As she sat in the audience listening to the earlier debate between the members, it was evident she had a hard time containing her opinion. She raised her hand more than once as if to try to interject or add her thoughts as the selectmen discussed the issue.
She was eager to ask her questions of the board members. However it didn’t seem that Brennan appreciated some of the questions she was asking.
Gustafson: “I’ve worked with lots of search people. I would love to understand the reporting structure? The CFO reports to whom?”
Gustafson: “I will tell you in all the people I’ve ever dealt with in the search business, it would make no sense for an outgoing CEO to hire the new CFO when a new CEO is coming in. End of story. Number two, I’ve been told directly by Lynne, Warren is not her representative on this committee. Period. Not at all. Those are her words to me. You can check that out with her.
Brennan: “I’m not so sure.”
Gustafson: “That’s exactly what she told me, Warren does not represent—”
Brennan: “Ok, I’m making your notes. Please go on with your comments.”
Gustafson: “Ok, who developed the job specifications for this?”
Brennan: “The job specifications, going back, was developed by the BoS and NESC when we did Sandy. It was then reviewed again and minor changes were made.”
Gustafson: “Again, the new CEO of this town needs to be in charge of what that job spec is like.”
Gustafson: “What is the fee that’s going into this?”
Brennan: “I’m not going into a lot of questions and answers. We’re here for public comment, why don’t you make your comment.”
Gustafson: “That’s important to me too. But I will tell you, when you’ve got a reporting structure, you’re chairman too—chairman of the board of selectmen, correct? The new permanent CFO, it’s the new CEO that needs to direct this search. Not an outgoing one. You’re—”
Brennan: “Okay. Please continue with your comments. You’re making comments, we’d like to hear them, but.”
Gustafson: “I think it’s an inappropriate way to go to it. While there may be people you may think you’ll miss, you don’t know that. I’m not sure if the charter has any specification about who puts together this kind of committee. But in the realm that there’s going to be a new BoS and definitely a new CEO, it makes no sense to have somebody going full steam ahead for a permanent CFO. You will be making selections through this process that you won’t know what a new CEO really is looking for. There may be other things, some aspects that the new first selectman wants to add. If you have limited it with the search firm or within your own committee, and only come up with one or two candidates, you may have missed other people. I don’t think appropriate or fair. I know you feel you’re under the gun, because searches sometimes do take a while. But for that reason, the new CEO and the new board need to be intimately involved.
Whether you break this down into a committee or not, who gets to be on that committee should be the choice of the new CEO or new first selectman. Those are my—
Brennan: “Okay, we thank you for your comments.”
Gustafson: “And I would suggest that you talk to other high level search people because this is a huge budget—
Brennan: “Okay I thank you for your comments, Marianne.”