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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Town manager requirements may be changed

MERRIMACK – Merrimack’s next town manager, to be announced in the coming weeks, may not have to live within town borders.

Town councilors, who are reviewing candidates to succeed departing Town Manager Keith Hickey, are proposing to amend the town charter to allow their lead administrator to live in surrounding communities.

The charter language, adopted five years ago, requires the person to move to Merrimack “within a period fixed by the Town Council.”

But the provision has grown outdated, according to some councilors, and changing the language to allow the manager to live “within a reasonable distance” could appeal to a broader field of candidates, they said.

Residents will review the proposed change at the March 9 Deliberative Session before voting on the matter in April.

“It provides us with more flexibility. … It opens us up to more potential candidates,” said Town Councilor Tom Mahon, who was chairman of the charter commission that first recommended the residency provision.

“A lot of times (town managers) spend more time in town than people who live here, anyway.”

In crafting the town charter in 2006, commission members opted to include the residency requirement as a way to secure a strong connection between the position holder and residents, said Town Councilor Finlay Rothhaus, who also served on the charter board.

By living in town, the manager, who’s responsible for shaping the town budget, would not only live among the taxpayers, but feels the direct impact of municipal spending, Rothhaus said.

“They live firsthand what’s being implemented through policy decisions,” said Rothhaus, who opposes the charter change. “That’s as important to me today as it was when we did the charter.”

But others contend the provision puts a hardship on the new manager.

Hickey lived outside town, struggling to sell his Bedford home for more than a year after he took the Merrimack job, he said.

“I could get to the town offices from where I was living in Bedford a lot easier than I could from some parts of Merrimack,” said Hickey, who recently accepted the town manager job in Salem.

“On the surface, people are going to say it makes sense for the person to live in town,” he said. “I understand and respect that, but I would suggest the town manager’s not going to make a decision based on whether they live in the community.”

Cities and towns vary across the state in their residency policies. Some other towns, such as Bedford, require their top administrator to live in town.

“I’ve always felt you should live where you work,” said Russell Marcoux, Bedford’s town manager. “People ought to see that you’re involved in the community.”

But other towns, such as Amherst, Hudson and Milford, don’t have any such requirement.

“You can look at it two ways,” said Jill Collins, town administrator in Hinsdale, who also serves as president of the N.H. Municipal Management Association.

“On one hand, when you live in the community, you have an additional vested interest in that community,” said Collins, who lives in Hinsdale, although the town charter doesn’t require it. “On the other hand, if you live outside that community, you might have a … wider perspective about how things go on elsewhere.”

Town councilors, who are currently considering applications for the post, are hoping to select a new town manager before Hickey’s departure March 11 – before residents vote on the charter question at April’s town elections.

If voters approve the change and the council settles on an applicant from out of town, officials could work the revised policy into the new contract, councilors said.

But with most serious candidates either living in Merrimack or willing to move to town, the residential policy shouldn’t be an issue this time around, Mahon said.

“I’m just looking down the road,” he said. “At some point in the future, some future council may find it useful to have the flexibility to (look elsewhere). … Who knows when it could become an issue?”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.