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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Process to create new Pennichuck board took months and included private interviews

NASHUA – The word went out last spring.

The city of Nashua needed people with executive experience, business and legal acumen, engineering and environmental backgrounds and an understanding of water operations.

Mayor Donnalee Lozeau had opened a search for a board of directors that would lead Pennichuck Corp. and its water utilities for when the city takes ownership of the company.

Fifty-one people applied for the job, with candidates hailing from Nashua, Litchfield, North Conway, Massachusetts and Maine.

In a private process, with a small, hand-selected review team, Lozeau winnowed the 51 applicants to 25. Those candidates were then interviewed for the first time by another team that included a single alderman.

A third team – which included different members and a different alderman, and had Lozeau returning to the process – then interviewed a thinner pack of 16 candidates. This team forwarded a list of nine candidates to the full Board of Aldermen, which last month approved those nine to serve on the Pennichuck Board of Directors.

Lozeau, who will also serve as a director for two years, kept the nearly six-month interview process private, having the teams conduct interviews behind closed doors and updating the full aldermanic board only in general terms.

Lozeau recently said of the process, “If the responsibility is mine to nominate people, I’ve never conducted those interviews in public.”

While people seeking employment with the city are typically interviewed in private for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to alert their current employers, these candidates weren’t interviewing for full-time jobs, but rather positions on the new public water utility.

Lozeau said that while the Pennichuck board members won’t be full-time employees, they also won’t be volunteers; thus, the need for privacy with interviews. A Pennichuck director will receive $12,000 annually.

However, when asked, Lozeau provided The Telegraph with a list of the names of all 51 applicants once aldermen had approved her nine nominations. She said she wouldn’t have made the list public during the interview process.

No aldermen have complained about the private nature of Lozeau’s search for directors.

Once aldermen saw the resumes of the nine finalists last month, just about every one of them expressed satisfaction with Lozeau’s process and praised the group that will help guide Pennichuck from private to public ownership.

“They are making history, and they are going to set the standards and they are going to set the bar high for the members that are going to come after,” Ward 7 Alderman June Caron said.

Alderman-at-Large Mark Cookson, who was among the team that conducted the first round of interviews, said Lozeau could have hired a professional outfit to conduct the search, and could have cast the net further by advertising in water trade journals. But Cookson also said the chosen board members include people with strong skill sets to lead Pennichuck forward, and he’s excited to watch them work.

The city is less than a month away from owning Pennichuck. The directors will start work as soon as the acquisition is final. Board members’ terms will range from one to three years.

Pennichuck’s water utility serves not just Nashua, but also dozens of other communities. The board is made up of six Nashua residents, a person from Windham, one from Amherst and one from North Conway.

“It’s a good cross-section of people,” Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy said. “There are a couple of guys who have a lot of experience with water utilities and water regulations … and there are a lot of people with experience running companies.”

Lozeau will eventually forward a nomination for another seat. That candidate is expected to come from the Merrimack Valley Regional Water District.

Lozeau’s term on the board will last only two years, Ward 4 Alderman Arthur Craffey said. The city wanted to have someone with executive experience to help steer the company from its long history in the private sector to its future in the public sector, he said.

Another two directors might be added later. One of these directors will be someone with a skill set that the board has realized it lacks, Craffey said.

“They’ll figure out what they’re missing,” he said. “They might need another water guy. They might need a legislative lawyer.”

And the city someday may want to have a director who serves on Pennichuck’s current board, Craffey said. But that seat holder has to be removed from stewardship of the private Pennichuck company for a minimum of two years to avoid any conflict, he said.

The city requires the board of directors to have a minimum of seven members and no more than 13.

To arrive at the group of nine, Lozeau went on a barnstorming tour, of sorts.

She spoke about Nashua’s impending acquisition to the elected boards of towns that get their water from Pennichuck-owned utilities. She also put out a call to Nashua residents and those who live in those other towns to consider serving on the board. The city also placed advertisements in local newspapers.

Lozeau’s office accepted the applications of 51 people, including that of former Mayor Bernie Streeter, who started the ball rolling nearly a decade ago when his office first tried to buy Pennichuck. Streeter eventually removed his name from consideration.

Lozeau selected a team of people to review the applications and narrow the field to 25.

That team included Lozeau, McCarthy, City Tax Collector and Treasurer David Fredette, City Assessor Angelo Marino, City Attorney James McNamee and City Chief Financial Officer John Griffin.

A second team, chosen by Lozeau, had four members: Cookson, Fredette, Marino and McNamee.

They conducted the first round of interviews and reduced the field from 25 to 16 candidates.

A third team, also chosen by Lozeau, interviewed the 16 remaining applicants.

This team consisted of Lozeau, McCarthy, McNamee and Ward 1 Alderman Kathy Vitale, and they selected the nine who ultimately received aldermanic approval to be directors.

“There are some very strong candidates on this board of directors, really strong leaders,” Cookson said. “I’m looking forward to what they can do and figure out a direction for Pennichuck Corp.”

A few of the 51 who applied for the job, but didn’t get it, told The Telegraph they had no qualms about the nomination process.

Steve Densberger, a vice president at Pennichuck who’ll be retiring when the city takes ownership of the company, wasn’t asked for an interview, and he said he understands the reason why the city won’t consider, for at least two years, people who have worked for the private company.

“I’m probably viewed as part of the old guard, and the city is trying to change the vision and leadership of the company,” Densberger said.

William Wilkes believes, but doesn’t know for certain, that politics played a role in his not getting a call to interview for the board.

He suspects the search team didn’t want a Merrimack resident on the board because the town has protested the sale of Pennichuck to Nashua.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-6528 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow McKeon on Twitter (@Telegraph_AMcK).