Town divided over how to govern itself

RICHARD WHITE RICHARD WHITE (John Bohn/Globe Staff File 2008)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / January 25, 2009
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Just three years into a new form of government, Winthrop is once again attempting to reinvent itself after the sudden departure of its first town manager.

As residents and town officials assess the legacy Richard White created as the first to hold the position, they're also anxious to usher in the post-White era with someone who can lead the town through current and anticipated fiscal hardships.

Opinions on White's time in town are mixed among those who thought he did a good job, those who thought he didn't, and those who were generally opposed to the change in government to begin with. In 2006, the Town Council and Town Manager form of government replaced the Board of Selectmen and Town Meeting.

White, who could not be reached for comment, left Winthrop Jan. 17 to become town administrator in the Cape Cod town of Dennis. His contract in Winthrop, which would have been up this spring, was not renewed by the Town Council.

A consultant has begun the process of searching for a new town manager, which could take 120 days, Town Council president Thomas E. Reilly said. In the meantime, Lawrence Holmes, the veterans services director, is serving as the interim town manager.

Like many residents, the Town Council's nine members had mixed feelings about White.

"I had a high opinion of the work he did," Reilly said. "I thought he did a good job and the direction he was taking the town was a good one, but there are other people on the council who don't feel that way."

Whether it was White's personality or his style of management that couldn't win over some residents in this small, tight-knit community, Reilly said it's difficult to tell. At past public meetings, some residents accused White of being unresponsive to their concerns, while others preferred his no-nonsense style of streamlining government while staying above the fray.

White consolidated departments, such as Finance and Public Works, by adding responsibilities that had previously been done by independently elected boards and commissions, Reilly said. He also worked with town unions on a tight deadline to agree to go into the state's health insurance plan. With White on board, the town became more professional, Reilly said.

"The problem before was divided responsibilities," said Reilly, a former selectman. "Decisions could only be made when the Board of Selectmen could meet. With a manager, they could be made any time of the day."

Planning Board chairman Richard Dimes agrees that White did manage the town well, including implementing the site-plan review process to streamline the application process for developers. But White's methods of making decisions independent of public opinion, or at times, the council's, didn't win him too many fans in town, Dimes said.

"His major problem, I think, is that everybody got disturbed that he had no public relations," Dimes said. "He turned an awful lot of people off."

A group of residents have mobilized to gather signatures to put a question on the November ballot asking voters if they would be in favor of forming a charter review commission. Although some residents would like to see the restoration of the old form of government, others would like to see revisions to the current form, such as taking some power away from the positions of town manager and Town Council president.

Alex Mavrakos, chairman of the organization Citizens For Fair and Balanced Government, is among those who would like to see the current power structure revised.

"The charter has to be amended," Mavrakos said. "The council president's position has to be reduced in power, and the town manager's position has to also be readjusted, knocked downward. This council has no legislative power at all."

Patricia Milano, chairwoman of the School Committee, said the town made the right choice in going to a full-time town manager to handle everyday operations, but added that White may not have "been the right fit for our community." The new town manager should be someone who is "simple, direct and provides good information."

"One of the things that folks miss most in this community is the participation and decision-making," Milano said. "People want the ability to weigh in on whatever the issues may be."

In coming to Winthrop, White may have already been at a disadvantage with some residents, according to Yvonne Vissing, a professor of sociology at Salem State College. Vissing, who is not familiar with the specifics in Winthrop, said if a transition into change is not well-conceptualized, it can create problems.

"As the town was shifting its operating model from a community network where everybody talked and came up with a community consensus about it, to having someone come in as a town manager to be put in a position to make authoritative decisions without engaging in that extensive dialogue and community decision-making, it could annoy those who were in power," Vissing said. "Perhaps he thought he was coming to clean house and restructure in an autocratic model, not a collaborative, organizational philosophy. He probably thought he was doing the right thing."

Resident John Vitagliano, who was not a fan of White's style of management, said it's time to move on.

"Winthrop can and must rebound," Vitagliano said. "But before we move forward we have to do a complete assessment of what has gone wrong here in the first 2 1/2 years with our first town manager. That's the absolute necessary first step before we hire someone."

Katheleen Conti can be reached at

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