Halifax Selectmen select Haddad as next TA
Halifax hired Bernie Lynch of Community Paradigm Associates to find and vet candidates for the open Town Administrator position. A screening committee was also created that included the Town Accountant Sandy Nolan, the Town Clerk Sue Lawless, both the Fire and Police Chiefs, and three citizens-at- large. “We had those folks act as our first pass through with the help of Bernie as well,” Selectman Jonathan Selig explained during the Board of Selectmen meeting on Friday, Nov. 18.
Selectmen John Bruno and Naja Nessralla joined Selig and Lynch to interview the three finalists.
Edward Swartz was the first candidate to be interviewed. Swartz said that at 27 he was elected as a City Councilor for Taunton. “It was instilled in me, at a young age, to get involved,” he explained. He said that he moved to Dighton in 2000 when his children were young. “In Dighton, for 17 years, while I was the Chairman of the Finance Committee, we didn’t have a Town Administrator, so I acted as a quasi-Town Administrator,” Swartz said. He said he is very loyal having spent a decade or more with a few of the companies he has worked for, having been at the most recent one for the last 17 years. “I live by a motto of always look at what we can do, not what we can’t do,” Swartz told the Selectmen.
“I find, and I found it in Dighton all the time, the towns underutilize their opportunities of what they can get from their State legislators because they just don’t know how to proceed with it and they control a lot of what goes on with the grants,” Swartz said. Swartz also said that he is all about community involvement. “I love events, we have tree lighting ceremonies I always attend… doesn’t matter what parade,” he said. He also said that he is a runner and is involved in a running group out of Abington. “Going to events, getting to know people, that’s who I am,” he said.
Asked about how he would handle criticism, Swartz said, “When you put yourself out there as an elected official… whether it was in 1995, 2015, or here in 2022, the only thing is people are a little more vocal about it now and we have social media… you don’t get yourself into social media wars… I’m going to look you in the eye and we’re going to have a conversation.” Swartz added that he sees social media as a tool to relay factual information about what is going on in the town.
The Selectmen told Swartz that one of the roles fulfilled by the previous Town Administrator was Chief Procurement Officer which they noted required some schooling. Swartz said, “I took the first class… and I have plans to take the next one.”
Selig asked Swartz how he intended to maintain the small town feel of Halifax while also keeping growth in mind. “In order to keep the balance between residential and commercial taxes, you have to involve growth, you have to find a way to bring the right commercial into town in the right locations,” he answered.
Cody Haddad, the current Assistant Town Administrator in Dartmouth, was next to interview. He said that prior to that he was the Director of Development and Grants. “I’m ready to make the step to be a Town Administrator. It’s important for me to find a good fit; not just for me to be a good fit but also for the community to find me a good fit,” Haddad explained. He continued, “When I look at Halifax and I look at some of the projects you have upcoming, I think this is somewhere I can come in and be very successful.” He referenced the recent instability in Halifax and said that he feels that Halifax is the kind of place where he could put his roots down and stay for twenty plus years.
Haddad noted that he oversees affordable housing in Dartmouth and said that he helped to improve the Capital Improvement Plan there as well. He said that were he to be hired in Halifax, he would look to update the Master Plan. Regarding the Master Plan he said you need a “tool of some sort where you rank the items and say these are the items that we’re going to pursue. Not because we think the Highway Department is more important than the Police Department or anything along those lines, but this is where they rank, and we have a process… so the items get funded.” He also said, “I view it really as a strategic plan for the town… it sets the goals, the guidelines for how departments should work. Select Board goals is another important strategic plan based off of that. Your compensation and classification study is something that needs to be done,” Haddad said. He said he would also focus on recruitment and retainment of staff, noting that he recognizes that the town is limited in what they can pay.
Haddad was asked about his grant experience which he described as “quite extensive.” He said, “When I came in the town would average, on a good year, a million dollars in grants. Since I’ve overseen the grants in the town, 3 million is what we’re averaging and that’s completely me.”
“My management style is very open door,” Haddad said. He continued, “I’ve been very successful in Dartmouth of creating that atmosphere where staff and department heads have issues, I’m the one that they come to… they come to me with issues and we’re able to talk through them… I’m a big collaborator so I think teams on almost everything is very important.”
Haddad said that better communication with residents is vital. He said that in Dartmouth he launched a separate website that he referred to as “an engagement portal.” He explained, “It was an opportunity for the public to engage with the town. We would post updates on projects… it was a place you could go and still can go to get factual information about things going on in the town. What happens, lots of times, is misinformation gets out there and then that’s it once it gets out there, it’s really hard to control.” He said that there was a spot on the website called “what the fact” where people could post questions about things in town and himself or the Town Administrator would respond within 48 hours. “One of the things I like to say is if I don’t know the answer, I’ll get you an answer,” Haddad said.
Asked about his experience with collective bargaining he said, “I’ve really been involved with collective bargaining entirely from doing research in other communities, looking at contracts, costing out contracts – that’s one really crucial thing that you have to do before you even bargain. Looking at what the town can the town can afford, first… so we don’t get in a bad position where we offer something and then the town isn’t financially in a good spot…. I’ve actually been at the table leading negotiations with the unions – we have 11 unions in Dartmouth.”
Rebecca Meekins was the final applicant to appear before the Board. “I grew up with a mother who served as town councilor for the community that I grew up in in Vermont. So, it’s sort of always been in me… I like to say that I was born with the public servant gene,” Meekins said. “This is the career that I intend to pursue until I’m done,” she continued. Meekins said that she has served as the Assistant Town Administrator in Grafton and currently serves as the Assistant Town Administrator in Northborough. She said that her time in Grafton was largely finance based saying she was responsible for putting together the annual operating budget as well as the five-year capital plan.
Regarding her wanting to take a job on the South Shore when she currently works in central Massachusetts, she said her parents recently moved to Kingston. “My wife and I recently started a family and it’s amazing what having children will do to your worldview… and we are looking to move up here and get closer to family,” she explained.
Asked about community involvement, Meekins said, “Part of the reason that I love doing this work is that you really get to immerse yourself in a community. In seeking to become a Town Administrator it’s not about a steppingstone for me, it’s about developing a long-term relationship with a community and its members and seeing the fruits of my labor come to fruition over time.” She said she looks forward to coffee hours at senior centers and participating in public input sessions for various projects. She said that she doesn’t want to sit behind a desk and noted that she loves that every day is different, and you get to interact with many different people including legislators.
Bruno asked about grant writing and human resources saying, “In our town we have some holes in our process.” He said he believes Halifax loses a lot of opportunities in terms of grants. He also noted that problems sometimes arise in town due to a lack of a human resources department. With respect to the human resources issue, Meekins said the town she is in now doesn’t have a human resources department either, so she is familiar with how to handle those things. “Classification and compensation, I think, is incredibly important so that the staff understand that there is a fair and equitable way that this has been decided, that there is a process,” she said. Selig then asked about retention given a limited salary value. “I don’t think there’s a municipality in Massachusetts that hasn’t faced that challenge as of late,” Meekins said. She said that she believes in being transparent about salary ranges and steps at the beginning when hiring. She also noted that she believes in being creative in the steps taken to retain people.
Meekins said she was certified as a procurement officer. “Ninety-five percent of grant writing is just knowing that the grant exists. I like to think of myself as fairly tapped in. There are a lot of financial resources floating out there right now particularly coming out of covid,” she explained. “The Community Compact Program, I do believe will be continued by the new administration… that’s an incredibly valuable resource for cities and towns to be able to implement best practices in a variety of services,” she continued. She said she was able to secure the ADA grant in the town of Grafton. “The great thing about that grant is that once you complete the self-evaluation plan, you then become eligible for construction money, construction grants. We can identify all of the infrastructure problems we have but if we don’t have access to funds to improve it, that doesn’t do us any good… Every year you can apply for up to $300,000 from the State to make those improvements,” Meekins said.
Asked how quickly she could start, she stated that there was a relocation aspect involved as she would need to buy a house and move her family. “I am here because I am very interested in the opportunity to relocate,” she said. Asked what she sees as the role of the Town Administrator she said to the Board, “I am carrying out your vision.” Bruno asked how she would handle disagreement with the Board. She said, “I believe in civil disagreement; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think that’s somewhat lost on people especially these days.”
Asked about her views on social media, she said that she had conflicting feelings. She noted that in larger towns that have staff available to be dedicated to answering questions on social media, she felt that it could be useful. For smaller communities, she said it was best used for one-way communication.
The Selectmen conferred with one another before making a decision toward the end of their meeting. “I think anyone would be fortunate to have any one of the three of them,” Bruno said. Bruno said that he felt that Swartz might be the best fit. Selig said, “those were the best three interviews I’ve seen for a Town Administrator on this Board.” He continued, “It comes down to flavors of ice cream.” Selig said he was leaning toward Swartz or Haddad with a slight advantage to Haddad. Nessralla stated his preference for Haddad as well. The Selectmen voted unanimously to hire Haddad pending contract negotiations.