2014-07-10 / Front Page

City Looks Ahead

By Barry Bridges

With the resignation of Newport City Manager Jane Howington due to take effect at the end of the month, the City Council has tapped Solicitor Joseph Nicholson Jr. as her temporary replacement, effective July 25.

As is often the case with personnel matters, the council met in closed executive session on July 2 to lay plans for filling the gap. Councilors made their decision known publicly at their regular meeting on Wednesday, July 9.

The part-time city solicitor since 1988, Nicholson also maintains a law practice. He previously served as the interim manager in 2002 for approximately nine months upon the resignation of Michael D. Mallinoff, and for a brief period in early 2012 prior to Howington’s tenure.

Howington, hired two-and-ahalf years ago to take over for the retiring Edward F. Lavallee, has made a number of changes while trying to make City Hall more customer friendly. She has sometimes butted heads with councilors on various issues, but recently secured an 11-month extension of her employment contract through the end of December 2015.

Nonetheless, she submitted her resignation on June 27 with a fourweek notice. She has been selected to assume the helm of the city administration in Hudson, Ohio.

It is not clear how long Nicholson will serve in the interim role, as the fall elections complicate the picture. Since all council seats are up for grabs in November, it may be that hiring a permanent replacement is delayed so that the new council will have the opportunity to choose its working partner.

The Newport city staff has been led by 12 administrators since the city manager form of government was established by the Charter in 1953. Additionally, numerous acting or interim managers have served during transition periods between permanent employees.

Some, like Howington, have completed relatively brief terms. James C. Smith spent about twoand a-half years in the position from November 2002 to May 2005, while Paul Alan Steinbrenner worked for less than five years in the late 70s.

In a conversation with Newport This Week, Third Ward Councilor Kathryn Leonard acknowledged the demanding nature of the job and suggested that the “burnout rate” may be less than five years. “There are very few communities that keep people for a long time,” she indicated.

“It’s a very complicated picture to run this town,” she continued, pointing out the difficulties inherent in a locale with various tourist draws such as the ocean, a storied history, and a potential casino.

Adding to the complex dynamic, she has previously said, is the fact that the seven council members sometimes may seem like seven bosses. Leonard is not sure how to change that “nature of the beast,” other than through a “strong-mayor” form of government where a manager may work more directly with one individual.

However, Leonard does have ideas on what is needed in the upcoming search for Howington’s successor.

What qualities to look for in candidates is a “huge question to be answered,” she remarked, pointing out that previous hires came to the job with varying credentials. For example, Lavallee was brought on from the police department with limited city administrative experience.

Leonard suggests that the private sector offers guidance in best employment practices, and feels that completing a thorough job description should be the first step in getting search efforts under way.

Job descriptions for department heads are sometimes insufficient to hold employees properly accountable, she said. “You need good job descriptions to ensure proper evaluations. As in the corporate world, they allow the city as an employer to point out expectations, and they give a way to measure and compare employee performance.” She continued to say that such descriptions are a necessary part of the paper trail used to monitor the successes or shortcomings of staff. Such a protocol also saves money in the long run, Leonard asserted.

The city human resources department advised Newport This Week that no job description presently exists for the manager position.

Expanding on her comments, Leonard said that “Newport is a $110 million business. We need someone with vision who can connect needed services with revenue and expenditures. We also have to be able to live within our budget.”

In addition to candidate qualifications, Leonard also wants to focus on the hiring process itself. Whereas Howington was hired through in-house channels, Leonard feels that the next effort could benefit from the services of a professional headhunting firm. Due diligence, including a close examination of prior experience and references from former employers, should be an important element in hiring the next manager, she said, regardless of who spearheads the search.

“I like transparency and openness,” Leonard concluded.

Return to top