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Open communication and assistance with human resources issues are the foundation of a healthy relationship between department heads and town managers and administrators.
Three department heads brought that message to the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association’s annual “boot camp” for new or aspiring administrators, held on Oct. 12 in Sharon.
During a panel discussion, Concord Finance Director Kerry LaFleur, Norwood Police Chief William Brooks and Scituate Public Works Director Kevin Cafferty each mentioned the importance of open, honest and ongoing communication between themselves and their town managers or administrators.
A former town manager herself, LaFleur said managers may question their ability to give feedback to a department head who is an expert in a field that they themselves are not as well versed in. Department heads, however, do appreciate honest feedback on a regular basis.
“As a department head, if I’m giving you my best and that’s not going to solve the problem, I’m going to want to know why,” she said.
Chief Brooks said managers should set clear expectations around communication. Brooks said he once reprimanded a dispatcher but didn’t tell his manager, who then told him to notify him every time an employee disciplinary action is taken.
“If he’s asked about it – and I would feel the same way – he doesn’t want to look surprised,” he said.
Cafferty said he once worked with an administrator who, when Cafferty knocked on the door, would tell him to make an appointment because he was too busy to talk.
“That’s the kind of thing you can’t have,” he said. “You need to have a good relationship.”
Two-way communication also matters with the public. Cafferty credited Scituate Town Administrator Jim Boudreau with creating the “Coffee with the Chiefs” event, where Boudreau, Cafferty and other department heads announce on social media that they will be a coffee shop in town and residents can come in with questions, concerns and problems.
Brooks said managers and administrators should make sure their department heads are looped in on feedback from the public pertinent to their department. For instance, if residents complain about speeding on their street, he would want that information relayed to him.
Not every department head works regularly with a board or committee and may not be used to interacting with the public or dealing with complex personnel issues, LaFleur said. These are areas where town managers can offer effective assistance.
Cafferty echoed the need for managers to support department heads with personnel issues.
“If I have an 8-inch line break, I know it’s going to take 27 turns to shut off that water,” he said. “If you ask me for details on FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act), I’m going to look a little lost. That’s the support we need.”