City Manager Robert W. Healy retires in June after 32 years running Cambridge government operations. His successor is not in place — or even a decision about how to run the process to find his successor. (Photo: Rachel Offerdahl)

City councillors are going slow on finding a replace for City Manager Robert W. Healy, who will retire in June after 32 years overseeing Cambridge’s government operations. At meetings in October and Monday, councillors made it clear there was no scenario in which the city didn’t have an interim manager after Healy leaves.

Not all were pleased.

“I’ve been pretty much stunned that it seems the majority of the council don’t feel we need a new manager in place by the departure of the current manager,” councillor Ken Reeves said. “It seems this might happen in the next council term even, which seems to me absurd, but it doesn’t seem to other people to be absurd.”

The council was also supposed to be in a search for a permanent city clerk, he said, “but that doesn’t even seem to come up.”

Margaret Drury announced her retirement in early November after nearly 20 years as clerk. She left in February, and her role has been performed since by her deputy, Donna Lopez. Healy announced his retirement in March as coming two months ago, but a council vote added nine months and changed the date to June 30 with language saying it was “imperative to the overall stability of the city” for the council to have more time to develop comprehensive short and long-term succession plans. The only time element named was that “any short-term plan should be in place before the FY 2014 budget process begins.”

A page of frequently asked budgeting questions on the city website says “The fiscal year 2013 budget cycle commenced in November 2011,” suggesting the fiscal year 2014 budget process begins this month. That deadline is impossible.

Looking ahead

Councillor Craig Kelley raised the issue of planning for officials’ retirements in December 2010.

Councillor Craig Kelley proposed as far back as December 2010 that the council look at the possibility of retirements among high-level staff such as the city manager and city clerk, but he was blasted for making an “insulting” and potentially discriminatory proposal aimed at, in the words of councillor Marjorie Decker, “how to move them along.”

On Monday, resident Gary Mello expressed alarm and Kelley said he shared Reeves’ concerns about the pace of the search.

“We’re now almost at Thanksgiving, which is almost at Christmas, which is almost the start of a new term, and we’ll be running for reelection in nine months. We’ve been sitting on this issue for three council committee meetings to discuss what is arguably one of the most important things we do,” Kelley said. “I don’t think it’s happening at all as I expected it … I think we’re not focused on this as we should be.”

David Maher, the councillor who leads the Government Operations and Rules Committee and therefore oversees the process, said the city was “still in the early stages of the process” and that he also had reason to be frustrated: the demand that search meetings be scheduled for the evening so more city officials and residents can attend, which — with various other municipal meeting schedules already in place — limited options to two nights a week. Yet the most recent evening meeting had fewer residents attending than earlier daytime meetings.

He said Monday that another meeting would be held within the next two weeks, with the date to be set that Tuesday, but as Thursday ended there was still no date on the city’s hearing schedule or public calendar. Kelley reminded him that if a meeting isn’t set and posted early, other meetings will get scheduled and take up times that could be used to advance the search.

A central place

At issue was an order asking for regular updates on the process. Kelley proposed it Oct. 22, but Mayor Henrietta Davis used her charter right to delay it one meeting. When it came up again Monday, a version of it passed despite Maher protesting that “we are not there yet.”

“We have a tendency to put the cart before the horse,” Maher said. “We have not yet decided exactly the process that we’re taking. I think that once we do decide and have a process in place, regular updates most definitely would be part of that, as well as access through the Internet.”

But other councillors argued that it would be good to have a central place residents can go for documents such as his committee report or to see when the next meeting was set even if, as Leland Cheung said, “it was just to say we’re still in the process.”

“It does feel that it’s moving a little bit too slow,” Denise Simmons said. “I early on asked that we had some sort of timeline … whatever gets us moving faster, I would certainly support.”

A rough timeline was discussed at the Oct. 24 meeting, with councillors looking to use a recommended list of vendors to run a search instead of a bidding process that could take three to four months. But Maher reported Monday that research into state law showed the faster process, called the General Services Administration Approved Vendor list, can’t be used.

Residents’ false expectations

That seemed less important when the committee meeting looked at the overall schedule for a search. A “visioning” process to decide what Cambridge wants in its next city manager — what the report described as including “stakeholder interviews (university leadership, business community, school leadership, focus groups, neighborhood representatives, city employees, public housing residents, student bodies within the community), citizen engagement surveys, and an analysis and report” could take six to nine months, potentially starting in January and ending in September, Healy said. Even if a search firm is working simultaneously within a six-month timeframe, the committee is seeing the search narrow to potential candidates or finalists in mid-2014. A search firm would likely cost in the six figures, he said.

Already Reeves was unhappy with the speed of the process, but Davis said Oct. 24 that she did not feel “the same sense of urgency” and felt the city would be fine if there was a gap before the hiring of the next permanent city manager., whom the council praises frequently for his organizational and fiscal leadership. According to Cambridge Community Television blogger Saul Tannenbaum, though, the city manager believes an excellent transition team is already in place: his current department heads and Assistant City Manager Rich Rossi, who could be acting city manager “without batting an eyelash.”

Residents shouldn’t get false expectations for a new city manager, Davis said.

“It makes it seem as if we’ve committed to go full steam ahead but we aren’t. I don’t think that there’s a commitment to go full steam ahead — there’s a commitment to figure out ‘Should we do a visioning process?’ What’s the scope of that visioning process? How long will that take?” Davis said. “Until we’ve settled on what process we’re going on, we’re setting expectations we’re hard at work. We’re not hard at work looking for a city manager … there is no promise of that sort that’s been made.”

The order that passed setting aside a section of the city’s website for updates also doesn’t have a schedule attached. It asks Healy “to take the appropriate action to develop a site where all relevant documentation” will be gathered.

“I’m getting very frustrated, and honestly I don’t think we’re doing our job on this one,” Kelley said.

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