Advice and Discontent
The selection of former North Providence Mayor and Secretary of State Ralph Mollis as town manager of North Kingstown took many by surprise - including members of a citizens advisory committee that unanimously recommended someone else for the job. This week: Jim Hummel speaks with two of the committee members, the council president who advocated bringing Mollis on board, and we take a look at the search for a manager in a similar town that had a more transparent selection process.
Right after North Kingstown’s new town council took over in early December it had an important - and pressing decision - to make: Who to hire as town manager?
Tom Mulligan, the former police-chief appointed nine months earlier as manager, had announced he’d be leaving in February.
Eight weeks to the day after being sworn in, the council voted to hire Ralph Mollis, a former North Providence mayor and councilman who also served two terms as Rhode Island Secretary of State. It was a 3-2 vote.
King: ``My comment about Mr. Mollis was he’s an excellent candidate for a different job, but not the town manager.’’
Will King grew up in North Kingstown and was on a citizens advisory committee assembled to help in the selection process. King said the committee unanimously advised the council to choose another candidate and that Mollis was not anyone’s top choice among the three finalists.
King: ``Each of us had prepared our own personal questions. Most of us have hired vice presidents and directors and we know what to ask and how to get to the essence of a candidate. What’s the strength there. Our previous discussions with Mr. Mollis was that he solved problems by pulling political strings. Because I asked him a lot of questions: what would you do with this? What would you do with that. His answer always was I will do it the way I did in North Providence. I knew this guy and essentially pulled strings.’’
Welch: ``All of the input I personally received from people throughout the state that knew him, everything was positive.’’
Richard Welch, who became council president in December, has heard the criticism but maintains that Mollis was the best candidate. Welch a Democrat, along with Independents Ellen Waxman and Kevin Maloney, voted for Mollis after meeting with the citizens committee. Republicans Kerry McKay and Doreen Costa voted against.
The roots of the search began more than a year ago when longtime manager Mike Embury left in October of 2015 to take a job on the Cape. King was one of a dozen people who volunteered to be on the citizens committee. Their recommendation to the council at the time would be simply that - a recommendation.
After initially narrowing the search to seven candidates, the committee recommended - and the council made an offer to - a candidate from Pennsylvania, who accepted, then pulled out in March of 2016, weeks after accepting the offer.
King: ``My suspicion is somebody called him and poisoned that well because he declined stating that there’s too much political turmoil in town over this town manager issue.’’
Mollis and two other candidates were finalists a year ago. Mulligan remained in place as manager.
Fast-forward to December of 2016 when King was out of state on a ski trip right after the new council had been sworn in.
King: ``I got an urgent email from the town clerk: can you possibly be at the town hall this Thursday, two days later, to re-interview the remaining three candidates for town manger.’’
King said only eight of the dozen committee members could come back on short notice.
Lemieux: ``To call a meeting in two days, that was a strange part.’’
Elaine Casey Lemieux was also on the citizens committee. Lemieux, who has lived in town for two decades, also served on the charter review commission, Wickford Plan committee and the Zoning Board.
Lemieux: ``Why the rush?’’
Hummel: ``JH Is that what you thought?’’
Lemieux: Yeah, why the rush?’’
Hummel: ``We’ve got to make this decision that’s very important for the town’’
Lemieux: ``And you’re going to do it in two days.’’
The committee met with the council in closed session and each member gave its recommendation. Lemieux said their top choice was a woman who lived in North Kingstown who Lemieux believed had a better background. None recommended Mollis.
Lemiexu: ``She was on point with everything that the town needed as far as the engineering, the sewers, the schools…she had insight into the town.’’
Welch saw it differently:
Welch: ``We want some permanency but most of all we want somebody that knows the ins and outs of dealing Rhode Island, dealing with the state and we voted for Ralph Mollis. Why? Because of his resume. He had the best resume. He was council president, he was mayor of a town that had same population as North Kingstown for 10 years. That meant he was reelected five times.’’
Hummel: ``I have heard from people on the committee who said there was not one person who said they wanted Ralph Mollis, they wanted the other person and they relayed that to the council. Did that weigh on you at all in your decision-making?’’
Welch: ``The other candidate did not have the credentials that Ralph had. Ican’t help it how you see someone.’’
Hummel: ``The fact that universally a group did not go for the candidate you ultimate voted for, did that not give you pause at all?’’
Welch: ``The pause in listening to why they were deciding one way versus another versus what I got out of it, out of their interview, their questions, our questions, etc.. They didn’t convince me their choice was the way I thought the town needed to go.’’
Then there’s the issue of public input: in North Kingstown the council never publicly released the names of the finalists - or that Mollis was the council’s choice until the night of the vote.
That stands in contrast to the way the town of Barrington handled a similar search last year. Longtime manager Peter DeAngelis announced his retirement in early 2016, giving the council about 9 months to choose a replacement.
Speakman: ``We knew we wanted public input, because after all this is a public servant.’’
June Speakman was the council president during the search. Although the council served as the search committee, the final stages were a public process leading up to the decision.
Speakman: ``We had profiles in the paper and then we had the hearings in this chamber and members of the public were invited to the hearings. I was very impressed with the public participation as I often was in Barrington. The questions were well-founded they were thoughtful. And then I was impressed with the feedback that I got afterwards; folks were invited to send council members their feedback on the candidates and again, very very thoughtful.
The council voted to appoint retired Navy Captain James Cuhna, a town resident, as manager.
Speakman: ``It also helps the successful candidate to have gone through the process, to have met with the public, to have been written about in the paper and commented on by members of the public in an open process. He then comes to his job already known by the community and embraced by many members of it.’’
Welch said he’s also heard people question the speed of the council’s decision and Mollis’s North Providence roots.
Welch: ``Why are you moving so fast? Well I knew why we were moving fast. We had a budget coming in. We needed to get somebody in house and get the process going because May 1st we have to have a budget certified. You know we don’t want North Providence in North Kingstown. We don’t want to see all of a sudden new people brought in who come from North Providence. Excuse me? I want the best of available people working here.’’
13;50 The concern I have is there were eight people that poured their heart into this thing and did a really good job of making a selection - and it was unanimous, and there were Democrats and Republicans and Independents in that eightp-person person group, and it was a unanimous choice. I would think that should be difficult to disregard.’’
Lemieux: ``I don’t understand. I don’t understand why we were put together. We gave our opinion and it was unanimous. And so I don’t get the results of how the choice was made?’’
Welch said he believes Mollis’s background is a positive and not a negative - and that he’s gotten off to a great start.
Welch: ``One thing the citizens don’t have a grasp of is the things that need to be done by the town. Timely, and where we need to have good reach. We need, even yet, to have very good reach upstate. And by that I mean, somebody who can pick up the phone and get someone on the other end to answer the call because they know the person and they will deal with them. When I call they don’t know me from Adam, but when Ralph calls, as a former state office holder I expect someone is going to pick up the phone and say hello to Ralph.’’
Welch notes that Mollis works at the pleasure of the council, and reminded the new manager that all five members are up for election in an at-large race every two years.
Welch: ``In two years the people will get another shot at you and me. I said we got two years to show this town that the right choice was made when they elected me and when we put you as town manager.’’
In North Kingstown, Jim Hummel for the Hummel Report.