2015-02-26 / Front Page

Forum Addresses Manager Search

By Barry Bridges

A small group of about a dozen Newporters attended a forum on Tuesday, Feb. 24, to offer their input on the attributes needed in the next city manager.

The session at the Newport Public Library was conducted by Randi Frank and Richard Brown of Randi Frank Consulting (RFC), the recruitment firm hired by the city to identify the best candidates to replace former City Manager Jane Howington, who left her position last July for a similar role in Ohio. Joseph Nicholson has since been serving as the interim replacement.

In receiving public comments, RFC is continuing in its informationgathering stage as it puts together a position profile. The company has already interviewed councilors and city department heads to solicit their views on qualities to look for in a new manager. Once the profile is compiled and approved by councilors, RFC will post the job, solicit resumes, and narrow the field to about 12 to 15 semi-finalists to present for the city’s consideration.

Federico Santi of the Historic Hill Association hoped that Frank and Brown would keep the city’s historic preservation interests at the fore- front while reviewing applicants. “We feel it is critical for the candidate to have either a degree in preservation or a background in an environment similar to Newport’s historic nature.” The Point Association’s Beth Cullen agreed with Santi, while adding that experience with military populations and the marine industry would be ideal.

Andrew Lavarre took the podium and made his case for a local hire. “The bottom line is that the city manager will have to understand the complexity of the culture here. Newport is like ‘Brigadoon’ – anyone who becomes a member cannot leave.”

Also making comments was Isabel Griffith, who remarked, “The most important quality to look for is a well-developed, unembarrassed sense of humor. I’m sometimes struck with how seriously everyone takes themselves in Newport. This makes for some grim meetings.” She continued to say that the best choice would have a zest for politics while embracing long-term goals. “The city is very, very political, and this is something that must be negotiated cleverly,” she stated. “Since the council treats each other as equals, the manager reports to seven people, and that’s not going to change. And because of an emphasis on the individual and problems working together in groups, it’s been difficult for the city to advance things like strategic planning and policy decisions that take a long-term view.”

Wide-ranging suggestions were also offered by Stephanie Schmidt, who said that the new manager should have the ability to learn from those already within city government. The hire will have to have “forthright conversations with City Council and with the public to get the lay of the land,” she began, and will need “an ability to think outside the box. We’re very much in the box here, with the door closed and locked.”

Schmidt hoped that Howington’s successor would seek the counsel of outside experts, using them “religiously, diligently and intelligently” in serving businesses, the military, tourists, full-time residents, and part-time residents. She argued that the new administrator should have sales skills while being tech savvy and customer-focused to effectively work with those constituencies. “Also, this person must have some real chops and demonstrated interest in environmental issues. We already have flooding in neighborhoods that cannot be addressed by people who stick their heads in the sand.”

Martha Marie Grogan recommended finding someone with empathy. “Newport is a quirky, beautiful little town that interestingly has a bad self-image,” she said. “We need to go back to all of the wild possibilities of our city, so we need someone with credible experience who can see himself or herself fitting here.”

Frank acknowledged that the firm’s public sessions typically do not draw a large number of participants, but told attendees that “there are people here who are active in different groups and that is helpful to us.” She reported that the Engage Newport website links to a form where anonymous input on hiring a manager can be offered through Feb. 26, while those wishing to comment by email may direct correspondence to randi@randifrank.com.

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