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Looking ahead after the Boynton era

July 7, 2014

When Tom Menino ended his 20-year tenure as Mayor of Boston earlier this year, he earned accolades from many in the city, and the region, for his role as an “urban mechanic” who had focused on hyper-local neighborhood issues while helping to transform the city’s economy.

But there were also some in the city who breathed a sigh of relief that he was gone. Menino was a notoriously thin-skinned micro-manager, who had done a lot of good for the city of Boston, but had also made his share of enemies.

He held many long-term grudges and could be ruthless in his vindictiveness. Certain businesses, developers, and neighborhood activists found it difficult to get support they needed from City Hall if he didn’t like them.

At the same time, Menino was well-liked by those who he needed to please the most – his constituents. He was charismatic, responsive to residents, and had an often self-deprecating sense of humor. Voters re-elected him five times, by overwhelming margins.

Menino had maintained such an outsize role in city affairs for so long, that when he stepped down, it put much of the city in a state of uncertainty.

“In a city where everyone in the business community knew where they stood, suddenly no one is quite sure what happens next,” one Boston Globe reporter wrote shortly after Menino announced last March that he would step down.

A similar dilemma, albeit on a smaller scale, now faces the Walpole Board of Selectmen, as a certain Walpole politician, who shared many of Menino’s traits and management style, enters his final days in office.

Town Administrator Michael Boynton, who has been in office since 2001, announced last month that he will leave Walpole to hold the same position in Medway. His last day in Walpole will be July 17.

Like Menino, Boynton made plenty of adversaries– though his, unlike Menino’s, tended to be other politicians rather than businesses. But when it came time to get things done – to manage the operations of the town in a competent manner – Boynton was a stable leader who had a good handle on the duties of the position. He responded to and followed up on constituent concerns, had vast knowledge of government operations and finances, and was generally accessible to residents who wanted to talk to him, as long as he liked them.

Despite all of Boynton’s personal flaws, and the occasional controversies that he brought to the office during his administration, he maintained a level of stability while other communities saw repeated turnovers in their own Town Administrators.

In communities in Massachusetts, it is unusual for a Town Administrator to last in the job more than about ten years, according to one estimate from the Mass. Municipal Management Association.

Boynton not only surpassed the ten-year mark, but he could have stayed in Walpole a lot longer if he wanted to. Selectmen are in no hurry to see him go.

While Boynton maintained significant support from Selectmen and other town officials, he was criticized frequently for his paranoid, controlling nature, and tendency to mistrust and hold grudges against town employees, committee members, and even residents. During the last two years of his administration, Boynton faced several scandals and cases of mismanagement under his watch, and was famously denounced by two disgruntled ZBA members who felt he was micromanaging their board.

Like Menino had done to the Mayor’s office, Boynton used his office as a weapon, both for good and bad. He was perhaps the most powerful Town Administrator this town has ever seen.

Selectmen now have the task of redefining what the job description actually entails – not what Boynton turned it into.

Boynton’s huge power was enabled in large part by Selectmen that grew accustomed over 13 years to allowing him to tell them what to do, not the other way around. Boynton was an overly active participant in Selectmen meetings and Town Meetings – in steep contrast to Town Administrators in other towns. Boynton was fanatical about keeping Selectmen informed about town issues, but that meant he also controlled the flow of information. He had a way with words such that he could turn a seemingly major crisis at Town Hall into a minor dust-up that could be talked away. Boynton often even helped Selectmen construct the phrasing of motions during their meetings, and routinely butted in during discussions to offer his own opinions or debate individuals who came before the Board.

The Town Administrator should not have as commanding a role at Town Meeting and Selectmen meetings as Boynton did. The Town Administrator should only speak when called upon for information, not intervene during the proceedings to engage in debate.

In choosing a new Town Administrator, Selectmen must recognize that they – not the Town Administrator – are the ultimate decision-makers in Walpole. The Town Administrator simply serves as their eyes and ears during the day, because many Selectmen have full-time jobs and other commitments of their own. Selectmen set policy, while the Town Administrator executes those policies.

Selectmen should expect Boynton’s successor to implement their wishes – not instruct them as to what their wishes should be.

Responsiveness, charisma, knowledge, and accessibility are all traits that Walpole needs in a Town Administrator, but only to a point. Where Boynton went too far was in not only being responsive, but lecturing those who disagreed with him.

A Town Administrator also should not micromanage town employees; he should respect town employees and work collaboratively with them. The Town Administrator should not be afraid to entrust major decisions to Department Heads.

Boynton was a professional bureaucrat, who, after decades of service in various municipalities, had developed a way of justifying just about any expense in the budget, be it big or small. Boynton was notorious for convincing Selectmen and the Finance Committee, along with Town Meeting, that certain expenditures in the budget were necessary. Even so-called fiscal conservatives on the Board of Selectmen ended up falling under his spell, routinely supporting unnecessary spending when they should have known better.

The Town Administrator should be a solid fiscal conservative, who can bring about savings in any budget but who does so with fairness and compassion, rather than out of vindictiveness to avenge town employees or departments who have wronged him.

One area where Selectmen particularly need to take a central role, and where the new  Town Administrator will need to take a back seat, is in union negotiations and town health insurance. Boynton took over too much involvement in those areas, which was likely detrimental to town taxpayers. The Town Administrator should not participate in union negotiations without at least a town board member and legal counsel at the table representing the town.

Boynton also received criticism for his decision to reside in Bellingham, rather than Walpole, which had been a break from past practice of Town Administrators. During the early years of his administration, the town charter was modified to permit the Town Administrator to live outside of town limits, as long as it was within a 15-mile distance. While Walpole would be best served by a Town Administrator who also pays taxes in town, it is understandable that the best candidate for the position may not also be capable of living in town for any number of reasons. Nevertheless, Selectmen should actively encourage Town Administrators to live in town. Selectmen never discouraged Boynton from leaving town, which was a mistake.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2014 9:08 AM

    On your last sentence do you mean “leaving town” or “living in Town”.

    • July 7, 2014 9:27 AM

      I was looking at that just now and wondering if I worded it correctly. I believe I wrote it correctly.

  2. Tom Driscoll permalink
    July 7, 2014 4:08 PM

    Fair, balanced and right on

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