How to approach the search for chief financial officer (CFO) Sandy Dennies’ replacement was a point of contention at the Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Sept. 8.
With contested races for first selectman and other seats on the board slated for the Nov. 3 municipal election, questions of whether to pursue a permanent or an interim CFO, and whether or not the current board should even be involved in the search with a new board coming into effect so soon, were raised.
Selectman Michael Kaelin had a dissenting opinion that was supported only by Second Selectman Jim Saxe, and only in part at that. All of the other selectmen seemed to agree that finding a permanent CFO should be made a priority of the current board, accepting that an interim candidate may very well turn up in the process.
“You’ve repeatedly said that the issue is the qualifications and finding a qualified candidate,” said Kaelin, “but the problem I have with this is that the body that should be determining what the qualifications are for the next CFO is the next Board of Selectmen. Sandy’s term ends when this Board of Selectmen’s ends, and so what you are all doing is essentially hiring and narrowing down the scope of candidates for the next first selectman.” The board’s term ends Nov. 30.
“I don’t agree with that,” First Selectman Bill Brennan said. “The specifications for the chief financial officer are pretty, pretty well defined ... and what I’m basically concerned about is losing time in identifying people. There are other towns that are also looking for a CFO. The town of New London is searching for a CFO. So, I think we have to get out there and start searching or you’re going to end up with an injustice to the next first selectman coming in here.”
“My sense,” said Selectman Dick Dubow, “is that, in filling the position, we’re looking to fill the position with the person who best meets the needs of the town, long term. Boards will come and go. Probably, in all likelihood, the new CFO will be here longer than the composition of the next board will be.”
“I kind of agree with Mike,” said Saxe. “He wants to see more involvement by the new board in selecting. Is that what you’re asking?”
Kaelin gave a yes-and-no answer.
“I don’t agree with this idea that there’s a set set of specifications for the chief financial officer,” he said. “The chief financial officer’s not even listed in the charter as a town official or as a town officer, and I know from talking to one of the candidates for first selectman that they have a different idea about the qualifications for what this candidate should have. I just think the easier and safer approach is: focus on getting an interim, because we’re not going to have a candidate by the time the new first selectman is going to be there, and if we can get an interim first, that seems to be what works best. That’s what we did with the police chief; that’s what we’ve done with the fire chief. I don’t understand why we can’t do that with the chief financial officer.”
Brennan explained that “the way positions have been sourced in the town is: a search committee is formed. The search committee goes through all the material, defines the position description, deals with the search firms and then eventually recommends a candidate to the Board of Selectmen for approval. The Board of Selectmen isn’t involved every (step of the way) … all board members aren’t a part of the process (of) participating in the search. The search team does the work.”
“But shouldn’t the search team be getting their directions from ... who’s going to hire the candidate?” asked Kaelin.
Brennan argued again that the timing necessitates action from the current board.
“I am very concerned about the available candidates we’re going to be able to get for this particular position in the time frame that we’re trying to get it done,” he said.
“That’s my concern,” replied Kaelin. “I’ve been involved in a lot of searches and it takes months. What I’m trying to avoid is wasting the time of the people who volunteered to do this search. And I’m choosing those words carefully because there’s reference to a ‘search committee,’ but in reality all you are is a bunch of volunteers that have formed your own committee to find the next chief financial officer, but this is not something that the Board of Selectmen puts together.”
“I really take exception to that,” Brennan said. “The volunteers we’re talking about are Warren Serenbetz, Dick Dubow and myself: three former chairmen of the Board of Finance. They made up the search committee the last time we did it. We didn’t have a meeting in August when we got word that Sandy was leaving. One of the things that we decided was that we need to get moving fast in order to get out there and try to find out what the market is or we won’t have anybody. So we had to make some decisions to move, and I contacted both Warren from the Board of Finance and Dick and asked if they were willing to serve again on the search committee, and they said they would. We also suggested that Dick contact Deborah and Warren contact Lynn, and I got no push-back from anybody.”
“I’m grateful for everything you’re doing,” Kaelin reminded Brennan, “but in actuality, the group doesn’t have the authority to do anything. The only place you can get authority to do anything is the Board of Selectmen.”
Dubow attempted to reconcile the argument.
“In the end,” he said, “we’re going to make our recommendation to the Board of Selectmen. The Board of Selectmen will have the opportunity to say yea or nay. That’s where the authority is. The search is (nothing but) a process.”
Kaelin fine-tuned his stance and again urged the board to find an interim CFO.
“I’m merely alerting you to the fact that it might not be the most productive use of time, because ultimately, you’re going to come up with a candidate for the next Board of Selectmen to decide if they want that candidate.”
Brennan pointed out that there are taxpayer dollars at stake.
“We’re looking for both at this point here in the process, to see what turns up,” Brennan said. “If we stopped and said, ‘we just want you to look for an interim,’ that’s a separate search, OK? So we find an interim, then you’re going to have to do another search. That doubles the cost of the search.”
The argument continued.
“It’s the question of losing a good person for the position,” said Dubow, “perhaps the best person for the position.”
“I’ve been hiring for a long time,” Saxe interjected, “and the best person: there isn’t only one. There’s always two or three of four. This isn’t a unique situation, Dick.”
At that point, Selectman Deborah McFadden weighed in for the first time. McFadden is running against Lynne Vanderslice for first selectman and were she to win, the new CFO would report directly to her.
“I think it’s important that we start a search,” she said, “because we certainly need somebody that is competent in the position, and the time frame between now and the election is so short, that I suspect looking at how long it took us for some of these other positions, we’re not going to be as far down that road, Mike, as you might think we’re going to be, so we’ll probably still be gathering a pool of candidates and we can always modify the description of whether we’re wanting the interim or whether we’re wanting a permanent, but at least we’re out there searching for who is available so we can start a long list, so that when we have the election, maybe we’ll have a short list, maybe we’ll have a long list, but at least we’ll have a list.”
At that, the board settled in agreement on the plans to move forward with the search regardless of the time frame put in place by the upcoming election.
Furthermore, it was generally accepted that the search should not be limited either to permanent or interim candidates, but rather be open to all qualified individuals.
The discussion was not an item on the agenda, falling under “miscellaneous other business.” There was therefore no poll on the subject and concurrently no official resolution.
That said, it will be an item on the agenda for the Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Sept. 21, and will be voted on then, according to the first selectman’s office.
If the current Board of Selectmen decides to proceed with the search, the National Executive Service Corps (NESC), a nonprofit consulting firm that caters specifically to  nonprofit clients, will be commissioned for a list of candidates that a search committee will then narrow down.
Whether that search committee will indeed be comprised of Brennan, Dubow and Serenbetz is not clear at this time. There is also no announcement of the position on the town website.
Brennan opened the floor to public comments, and Marianne Gustafson, who said she was a 20-year resident, sided with Kaelin, expressing her concern over the way the Board of Selectmen was moving forward so late in the life-cycle of its current composition.
“It would make no sense for the outgoing CEO to hire the new CFO when a new CEO or a new chairman is coming in,” she said.
“You will be making selections through this process, and you won’t know what the new CEO really is looking for. There may be other things; there might be some aspects in a CFO that the new first selectman wants to add, and if you have limited it with a search firm or within your own committee, through a process, and have come up with only one or two candidates, you may have missed other people,” Gustafson said.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate or fair. I know you feel that you’re under the gun because searches do sometimes take a while, but for that reason, the new CEO and the new board need to be intimately involved,” Gustafson concluded.