Hummel Report: Politics in Town Manager Choice
Immediately after North Kingstown’s new town council took over in early December it had an important – and pressing – decision to make: Whom 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.
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.
“My comment about Mr. Mollis was he’s an excellent candidate for a different job, but not the town manager,’’ King said. “His answer always was ‘I will do it the way I did in North Providence,’ ‘I knew this guy,’ and essentially pulled strings.’’
Town Council President Richard Welch has heard the criticism but maintains that Mollis was, in fact, 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.
“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,’’ King said. 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. They were reassembling the search committee on short notice. The committee met with the council in closed session and each member gave their recommendation. The top choice this time was a woman who lived in North Kingstown. None recommended Mollis.
Welch said he’s heard people question the speed of the council’s decision and Mollis’s North Providence roots. “’Why are you moving so fast?’ Well, I knew why we were moving fast,’’ Welch said. “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. [People say,] ‘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.’’
King said he takes issue with the process. “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 eight-person group, and it was a unanimous choice. I would think that should be difficult to disregard.’’
Welch said he believes Mollis’s background is a positive and not a negative – and that he’s gotten off to a great start. “One thing the citizens don’t have a grasp of is the things that need to be done by the town.’’ he said. “We need 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. “In two years the people will get another shot at you and me,’’ he recalled telling Mollis. “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.’’
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