NARRAGANSETT - About an hour after he received a standing ovation from residents, the Narragansett Town Council voted 3-2 to essentially remove interim town manager Dean Hoxsie from the position.
In his place, the council appointed Richard Kerbel as interim manager, which elicited a mixture of surprise and laments from the crowd of about 80 that stayed until the end of Monday night's meeting. Kerbel served as town manager in North Kingstown for 13 years.
As councilors hastily voted to adjourn the meeting moments after the vote, one person from the stunned crowd yelled, “You should be ashamed,” which was preceded and followed by murmuring and light booing.
The appointment is contingent on Kerbel reaching agreement on a contract with the town, but that appears to be a formality based on comments by the council and Kerbel's presence at Monday's meeting.
Kerbel did not speak at Monday’s meeting.
Councilors James Callaghan, Susan Cicilline-Buonanno and Douglas McLaughlin voted in favor of Kerbel, with Glenna Hagopian and Matthew Mannix voting against. McLaughlin was the only councilor to not speak about his or her vote.
At Monday’s meeting, residents questioned everything from Kerbel’s qualifications for the job and past work history, to the timing and manner in which Hoxsie was being replaced, to why the town was hiring another interim town manager instead of choosing one of four candidates suggested by a search committee.
Regarding a full-time and permanent manager hire, Callaghan said that the council could not unanimously agree on one candidate, which was a sticking point for at least one candidate for the job.
Mannix said he was frustrated with that hiring process, which was conducted in executive session. He shed some light on it, mentioning that he was holding back some details in an attempt to not violate the bylaws of executive sessions.
“Hoxsie was a finalist, along with three others,” he said, adding that Hoxsie initially didn’t qualify for the town manager job.
“The committee members clearly chose to override the qualifications [for the job],” he said. “I consistently told people that I was going to keep an open mind … As I evaluated candidates, it became clear that Chief Hoxsie was qualified for this opening.”
He added, “Sometimes in life and politics, the facts on the ground change, and we have to be nimble to adjust to those changes.”
In discussing Kerbel’s interest and qualifications for the job, both Callaghan and Mannix noted that he was not one of the four candidates for the full-time manager spot, nor was he in the batch of 100 candidates screened by a search committee.
“I had heard his name before, through my wife,” Callaghan said, mentioning that although she had worked with him in North Kingstown, he did not consider it a conflict. Callaghan added that he had reached out to two former North Kingstown councilors, and he was confident Kerbel would do a good job.
According to Kerbel’s resume, which was provided before Monday’s meeting on ClerkBase, he most recently served as the interim town manager of Bridgewater, MA from April 2012 to December 2012, and he is a lecturer at Brown. He is a resident of North Kingstown.
Prior to his job in Bridgewater, Kerbel was the interim finance director of Providence from January 2011 to September 2011, and the city’s director of administration from January 2008 to January 2011.
Before his positions in Providence, Kerbel was town manager of Coventry from August 2006 to August 2007, and of North Kingstown from July 1993 to July 2006.
However, Kerbel’s work in Providence drew the most criticism from members of the crowd, with several citing articles from The Providence Journal suggesting that Kerbel was part of the problem in underestimating a huge budget gap created by then-Mayor David Cicilline.
Several residents also questioned whether Callaghan and Cicilline-Buonanno could even vote on Monday’s motion to replace Hoxsie, claiming that both had conflicts of interest.
However, Cicilline-Buonanno said that even though Kerbel worked for several years for her brother, she had never met the man before Monday.
“I’m embarrassed, I feel a little accused of having met him,” she said. “I want to do the right thing for the town, and I think he’ll do a great job … I think we need to get on with the business of the town, and we need a manager to settle that.”
Meg Rogers, the head of the town’s Republican committee, chastised councilors for putting aside the work of its search committee for the town manager job.
“It defies credulity that in just a few weeks, you have done the work that took the selection committee months,” she said. “The process that brings this candidate here tonight doesn’t pass the smell test.”
The council did not advertise the interim town manager position, which most likely pays out at a similar rate to a full-time manager – about $150,000 per year, depending on the level of experience of the candidate and their workload for the town.
Since Hoxsie was also serving as police chief in addition to town manager, with additional pay for his new duties, presumably the hiring of Kerbel would lead to additional expenses for the town.
Mannix said that he didn’t understand the rush to replace Hoxsie.
“I’m not in favor of replacing one interim manager with another,” he said. “The process regarding this choice? Rushed … I think Chief Hoxsie can remain in his position and I see no rush to remove him.”
Hagopian spoke in support of Hoxsie, both for the full-time and interim job.
“I can’t remember another point in my tenure when I didn’t receive one complaint about something in town,” she said. “Unfortunately, this council appears to want to go in a different direction.”
She added, “I can’t support hiring a new interim town manager … I just think this is more dirty politics.”
In support of Kerbel, Callaghan mentioned that the search for a new manager had hit a “plateau,” and he felt that the town needed someone with more of a financial background than Hoxsie.
“He has crafted budgets and negotiated contracts for decades,” Callaghan said of Kerbel. “If appointed, I think he will do a fine job.”
Regarding the selection of Kerbel as a candidate, Callaghan said, “If it doesn’t work out, then there’s no one to blame but me. I alone contacted him … Obviously, this is a very hard choice, and it strikes a nerve in the town.”
Citing an unnamed source, Rogers claimed that the parents of Callaghan had put forward Kerbel as a candidate to replace Hoxsie. She said the actions Monday night were attempting to capitalize on the unpopular decision by Hagopian and the previous council to replace the previous town manager.
If the council is unable to reach a contract agreement with Kerbel, presumably, Hoxsie would be retained as the interim town manager. However, this and other contingencies were not discussed at Monday’s meeting.
In June 2012, the previous town council voted to accept a severance package agreed upon with Town Manager Grady Miller by a 4-1 margin, in effect firing him.
The September election saw McLaughlin, Callaghan and Mannix take the seats of two of the “yes” votes, David Crook and Alisa Trainor Fleet. Former councilor Christopher Wilkens, who voted for the package in order to avoid a court case as opposed to any dissatisfaction with Miller, ran unsuccessfully for a state office.
Miller, thanks to accrued vacation and sick time, and his severance agreement reached with the town, is being paid through April 2013.
After Kerbel was selected at Monday’s meeting, it was quickly adjourned. There was no talk amongst council members of what the next step will be in hiring a full-time manager.
Resident Carol Stuart said she wasn’t sure what the council’s plan was going forward.
“Where do you go from here? Is he going to be here for three months, six months, if he’s approved? What’s the future?”
She added, “I think you have a terrible dilemma on your hands. I just wish you well.”