The Critical Relationship Between the Town Manager and the Board of Selectmen
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.
The job of the town manager or an elected official is not easy. But, when things are operating well, people are working cohesively, residents are happy, and results are being achieved, then it’s good to be in local government.
Results begin when three elements are in place: a positive working relationship between the board and the manager, a shared mission about what the town wants to accomplish, and a commitment to move forward together. The relationship ensures that a collegial rapport occurs based on trust and shared values. The mission guides the town’s allocation of limited resources: money, talent and time. And commitment pulls everything together. Absent any of those components, everything collapses like a two-legged stool.
That collapse often occurs when priorities become unclear, the manager becomes unsure where the board is headed, or individuals are moving in different directions. Therefore, a comprehensive or strategic plan is necessary to provide focus to both the board and manager. The key is to get the manager and the board members on the same page.
- Set clear expectations and accountability standards: After all, if you want the manager to drive the organization where you want, develop a map. Be clear, specific and direct.
- Understand your manager’s needs and expectations: Boards need to take time to get to know what makes their manager tick. Know the individual’s personal and professional goals, objectives and stressors and what can you do to help alleviate them.
- Provide a timely performance review and know the market for executive compensation: Late reviews and salaries that fall below their peers are two areas that cause the greatest resentment, resulting in breakdowns in the relations and turnover. In a market with a shortage of good municipal management talent, this can be a catastrophe.
- Set realistic performance goals: the strategic direction of the town will only be achieved when this is done well. The genesis of all goals should be the town’s strategic plan.
- Provide ongoing feedback on performance: It’s lonely at the top. The manager needs input from the board. An ongoing dialogue is essential.
- Support the manager’s development: Grow your manager. The world is constantly changing and your manager must be able to keep up. A stagnant manager with last year’s ideas is not going to move your organization forward.
There is a fundamental, almost systemic tension between the roles of the board of selectmen and the town manager. Who is in charge? Absent clear guidelines and a process to address roles, responsibilities, and strategic direction, conflict arises. Struggles for power and control emerge. As with any conflict, the solution is to get people talking and listening. Regardless, embracing the collective belief in the mission of your town is a powerful magnet to draw people together, allowing them to rise above ideology and personal agendas for the collective good of the town. A strong commitment to this belief and a passion to make it work allows most to make the relationship piece work. It happens everyday in well run communities.
Rick Dacri is a workforce expert, management consultant, and author of the book “Uncomplicating Management: Focus On Your Stars & Your Company Will Soar.” Since 1995 his firm, Dacri & Associates has helped municipalities achieve dramatic improvements in individual and organizational performance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.dacri.com.