In choosing new leadership, a tale of two communities

Former Fitchburg Mayor Lisa wong has been selected as the new Winchester Town manager while Burlington selected, current Assistant Town Administrator and Town Accountant Paul Sagarino, Jr. to take the reigns.

In a search for new town leadership, it’s been the best of times and the . . . not so best of times for Burlington and Winchester.

In Burlington, current Town Administrator John Petrin has announced his retirement. He’s set to leave next year in either March or as late as May (if the Board of Selectmen decide his presence is needed for Spring Town Meeting).

In Winchester, Town Manager Richard Howard announced early this year that he would be leaving at the end of the fiscal year (July 1). However, because of some issues concerning his replacement, Howard has agreed to stay on until at least Nov. 1.

Both towns have found a replacement for each official, though getting to this point has been a vastly different experience for each community. To be fair, there were some similarities: both towns conducted a search, both towns interviewed potential candidates and both towns came to an agreement on who should be the next person to lead.

All similarities end there, though, as both communities went about the process in completely different ways. Burlington, for instance, looked within for its next Town Administrator while Winchester looked outside the community. Burlington’s choice, current Assistant Town Administrator and Town Accountant Paul Sagarino, Jr., received the full support of the Board of Selectmen. Winchester’s choice, former Mayor of Fitchburg Lisa Wong, received the backing of three out of five members of the Select Board.

Burlington also had no issues with the selection or interview process, whereas Winchester had several issues with the process. While both towns took many months to come to the conclusions it reached, Winchester hit some speed bumps along the way. Burlington, on the other hand, traveled a less bumpy road.

“For us, the search for [Petrin’s replacement] has been a months-long event and a lot of homework was done on this and a lot of professional people were spoken to,” professed Burlington Selectman Chair Christopher Hartling, stressing much thought went into this decision.

On the other side, members of Winchester’s Select Board noted how their process “went off the rails.” The town convened a Town Manager Search Advisory Committee designed to bring the Select Board the best and brightest candidates. Unfortunately, while they received two qualified candidates, two members of the board felt that two just wasn’t enough.

In Burlington, the selectmen interviewed three internal candidates and decided that no external search was required. Out of those three, the board unanimously selected Sagarino Jr. who has been the town’s Assistant Town Manager for the past several years and the Town Accountant for the past decade.

In Winchester, no internal search began, as the town put out an RFP and formed the search committee. The reason the board never looked within may involve the last search for a Town Manager. At that time, seven years ago, the board initially chose Assistant Town Manager Mark Twogood during executive session (outside of the purview of the public). Residents, feeling the process lacked transparency, complained. Twogood, then, declined the board’s offer forcing the town to go about looking elsewhere for its next Town Manager (a move that, in the end, worked out by bringing Howard to Winchester).

Burlington, meanwhile, didn’t even need to put out an RFP (even though Town Meeting in May allocated the funds to begin an external search). That money, $20,000, will go into the town’s Free Cash account. The board felt that all the candidates already working in the town would suffice.

“I also agree that we should stay in town with our candidate,” expressed Burlington Selectman James Tigges. “We have three great candidates and one of them should be the next town administrator.”

It wasn’t that easy in Winchester. After convening the search committee, they brought three candidates (and one alternate) forward to the Select Board for a final interview and meet and greet. Unfortunately for the town, one candidate dropped out prior to any final interview and the alternate was never brought forward. If that wasn’t bad enough, the other two candidates who were interviewed also dropped out.

Therefore, while Burlington was choosing between three qualified in-house candidates, Winchester was debating whether to find more candidates or try and convince one to stay. Eventually, in a Monday night meeting a day before they were scheduled to interview the first candidate, the board voted, 3-2, to add two more candidates. However, by Friday, after interviewing both candidates and after both dropped out, the board voted, again, 3-2, to offer the job to Wong and see if she would reconsider.

Wong did, in fact, reconsider, so the board voted for a third time, this time 3-1 (with one abstention), to offer her the position assuming contract negotiations and background checks go well. The lone dissenter in the two votes to offer the job to Wong, Select Board member David Errico, originally made the motion to find more candidates. When that motion was ignored by the board’s vote to offer the job to Wong, Errico filed an Open Meeting Law complaint against his own board.

At a recent meeting, Errico’s attorney outlined the violation by saying the board never put on the agenda for the Friday meeting where they ultimately selected Wong that they would be voting to select her. The agenda only noted they would discuss adding more candidates. Another Open Meeting Law violation was also made by a resident making the same claim.

The two Open Meeting Law violation claims won’t nullify the board’s decision to select Wong as the town’s next Town Manager. Had the board not met again at the end of June to essentially revote the vote they took during the Friday meeting, then it’s possible that if the Attorney General found merit in the claims, the vote to offer the position to Wong could have been deemed null-and-void.

Fortunately, Burlington had no such issues. There have been no Open Meeting Law complaints against the town and no one has found fault with the way it went about choosing its next Town Administrator.

For Winchester, residents seem divided over the whole process. Some applauded at the June meeting whenever someone spoke up in favor of only needing two qualified candidates while others applauded whenever someone suggested starting over or expressed disappointment with how it all turned out.

It’s said that one can please all of the people some of the time or some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. For Winchester, this rule certainly rings true in this instance, as the Select Board definitely didn’t please all the people. One resident, who filed the Open Meeting Law complaint, expressed her disappointment at the end of June meeting.

“Winchester deserves better,” she said, admonishing the current board.

The board itself admitted the process went amok, but some had different reasons as to why. Errico disliked that his initial motion to add more candidates, which had been approved, was later ignored.

“I’m incredibly disappointed in the conversation on June 15 disregarding the June 11 vote (to add more candidates) and how it was all about offering Lisa (Wong) the position,” he shared.

Select Board member Jacqueline Welch also felt the board made a mistake in ignoring Errico’s motion, one in which she supported (she also abstained from voting on whether to select Wong to be the next Town Manager).

Select Board member Michael Bettencourt suggested the process took a wrong turn when Errico made that motion.

“We only asked for the best candidates,” he stated. “It’s very common for there to be two or (even) one candidate (by the end of the process). This is more the rule than the exception for candidates to drop out in the end.”

The former Select Board chair then suggested that Errico had an ulterior motive for making the initial motion to add more candidates; that he wanted a specific candidate to move through the process.

“David said he would boycott the process without more candidates,” Bettencourt informed the public. “He also made a motion to interview Winchester residents (at a different meeting earlier this year).”

While Winchester argued, Burlington introduced Sagarino, Jr. at a meeting late last month. The soon-to-be former Assistant Town Manager was quite honored to have been chosen.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity and really humbled by the board’s confidence in me. I will work as hard as I need to in order to become the town administrator [Petrin] is,” Sagarino said graciously. “You guys know I love the town, so this is an amazing night for me. Thank you.”

As Wong and the town are currently in contract negotiations, she has not spoken out on being selected or why she initially dropped out (though it should be noted Wong is currently pregnant with her fifth child and due to give birth in August).

(Information from Mark Biagiotti was used to compile this report)

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