Wellfleet discovers that good help is hard to find

WELLFLEET–The tourists may leave each fall, but Wellfleet’s 3,100 year-round residents lend character to a town already rich with shops, restaurants, and spectacular seaside vistas. This Lower Cape community brings together artists, shellfishermen, retirees, and Yankee traditionalists. Yet some say the town’s very diversity has contributed to its difficulties finding the right person to run the day-to-day operations of local government.

Three town administrators have left since 1995, with three acting administrators filling the role on a temporary basis. One of the interim administrators even returned for a second stint when the administrator he helped hire was forced out a year later.

Now town officials are hoping that they have found a more permanent replacement in Timothy Smith, the former city manager of Calais, Maine, who was hired in October. But Smith isn’t making any promises. When selectmen asked in his public interview if he could stop the “revolving door,” Smith responded, “I don’t suspect that I can. I’m going into it blind… I don’t know the background here, and I don’t know what is going to transpire.”

Local political observers, including several former town officials, say that the instability in town hall is a result of ongoing tensions over questions about how Wellfleet is to be run–and by whom.

The instability may be the result of tensions over how Wellfleet is run–and by whom.

After more than 200 years with a board of three full-time selectmen managing municipal government, Wellfleet adopted a charter in 1985 that expanded the board to five part-time members and gave many of its duties to the newly created town administrator. The transition to a new form of government can be a difficult one for any community, but Wellfleet adapted well at first, according to its first town administrator, Julia Enroth-Whitlock, who now holds the same position in the town of Longmeadow, at the opposite end of the state. But during the nine years she held the Wellfleet post, she says, new selectmen who exerted more control over the town’s daily business were elected.

In the six years since Enroth-Whitlock left, Wellfleet has amended its charter five times and discussed amending it more times than that. Many in town‹and town government‹say the administrator’s position needs to be strengthened, to keep selectmen from meddling in day-to-day municipal affairs. Yet some residents would prefer to return to a board of full-time selectmen, and several recent charter amendments have increased the selectmen’s powers.

In 1995, for instance, selectmen were given the authority to appoint the fire chief. In 1999, language was added that muddied the separation of duties even further. While the town administrator was still to have control over the town’s daily operations, the charter was amended to say, “the board shall regularly direct the Town Administrator in carrying out its goals and policies.” Some say that direction from the board is now coming far too regularly.

“Selectmen should not be getting in the minutiae of running the town,” says police chief Richard Rosenthal. “Selectmen have been involved in everything from placement of bathrooms at town beaches, to [Department of Public Works] problems, to addressing citizen complaints on personnel issues–all things that should be within the purview of the town administrator.”

Dale Donovan, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, says the board has needed to step in because a lot of those daily tasks were not handled well by then-town administrator William Dugan, who resigned in May after his third unsatisfactory evaluation in two years.

For Donovan, the last straw came when Dugan applied for an $8 million no-interest state loan for a controversial public water project proposal without informing the selectmen. Private wells in the downtown area are contaminated by high levels of nitrates. Despite recommendations from both the town’s environmental engineering firm and the state Department of Environmental Protection–which has threatened to step in–to build a public water system, selectmen said they wanted to look into other solutions, such as upgrading private septic systems and placing nitrate filters on water taps. At a special town meeting in June, voters backed the selectmen, rejecting the public water system and authorizing $75,000 to study alternatives.

Donovan says the reason Wellfleet has not been able to keep a town administrator is that it simply has not been able find the right fit for the town. Former selectman Robert Costa concurs, though he puts the onus of that failure squarely on the shoulders of elected officials. “Basically, the problem has been that selectmen haven’t selected a town administrator that could do the job properly,” says Costa.

But police chief Rosenthal disagrees, saying that John Hinckley, who is now a selectman in nearby Chatham, did a fine job during his one year in Wellfleet’s top post. His tenure ended in March 1997 when the selectmen voted not to renew his contract.

For his part, Hinckley says the selectmen indeed had a hands-on approach to the daily running of town affairs while he was administrator. “The charter is very specific that selectmen deal with policy and the administrator takes care of daily operations,” says Hinckley. “The gray area is, what is daily operations?”

The revolving door at town hall hasn’t been limited to the top job. The posts of public works director, shellfish constable, and conservation agent/health inspector were all open last fall (though interim appointees were filling the public works and shellfish jobs by December). In his letter of resignation last summer, DPW director Jamie Bell, who helped Dugan apply for the public water system grant, wrote, “due to the long term void in management leadership and the present political situation, I feel I must resign…”

That leadership void also has contributed to department heads, town support personnel, and call firefighters (who are part-timers, paid for their time on-call) formalizing the Wellfleet Employees Association, which the selectmen recognized a year ago. According to the group’s acting director, library director Elaine McIlroy, the employee association dates back a half-dozen years, but had honored the selectmen’s longstanding request that it work informally with the town. But with the town administrator’s position constantly in flux, McIlroy says, the association members felt their concerns were not being addressed, and so became a state-recognized union.

“The town has lost six or seven department heads in the last two years,” says Ray Squire, an organizer of the employees association who resigned as assessor last March after 10 years on the job. “That just shows that the problem still exists.”

The turmoil has given the town a reputation that is now scaring away potential candidates, according to Hinckley and other observers. “Every time an administrator is let go short of four or five years it tends to decrease the number of good candidates that are willing to take the job,” Hinckley says. “That is part of the issue there in Wellfleet.”

The most recent acting administrator, Thomas Groux, told the Cape Cod Times last August that “people in this business in Massachusetts” are well aware of Wellfleet’s revolving door and that it has been keeping candidates at bay. But Groux now says that the current board of selectmen, with two new members and a new chairman in Donovan (who joined the board in May 1999), is more committed to a strong town administrator than those in the past. That may bode well for Smith, the current administrator who says he hopes to pull together town employees and improve morale. But in Wellfleet, pulling people together can be a tall order.

Meet the Author
“Wellfleet is a very diverse community,” says Enroth-Whitlock, the first town administrator. “You have people from all types of political viewpoints, professional backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds. There is [a range of views, from] a strong artistic philosophy to a strong Yankee traditional philosophy in town. The politics of the town and the people on the board of selectmen represent that diversity. That is one of the challenges with that job.”

Andrew Nelson is a freelance writer in Hingham.