The town manager: If it ain’t broke…

Nick Grabbe


In the rough-and-tumble of town politics, it’s helpful to have someone in the middle of the action who is not pushing an agenda but is charged with the smooth operation of government.

In Amherst, that person is the town manager. We’ve had one since 1953, and for the most part we have had capable people in the job. The Charter Commission, after thoroughly probing the benefits and trade-offs of having an elected mayor instead, is recommending that we retain this position. Seven commission members voted for keeping the manager position on May 6, the closest we came to a consensus.

We count on the manager to supervise employees, propose a budget, spend tax money wisely, and appoint department heads and committee members. He negotiates contracts, provides information, watches out for legal problems, and, most important, he implements policies chosen by elected officials. We pay our town manager well, $162,750 a year, and we ask a lot of him.

Our current manager, Paul Bockelman, was recently given high marks by the Select Board for his fiscal management, long-range planning, communication with staff and community, and relations with the board. “Paul has continued the tradition of strong and innovative administration of town government,” said Select Board Chair Douglas Slaughter.

I recently sat down with Bockelman and asked how much of his job could be termed “political” and how much is day-to-day management. He responded by outlining the tasks he’s currently involved with.

The Select Board recently voted to implement a new system of downtown parking fees starting Nov. 6. Bockelman is responsible for acquiring new machines and coordinating the work of the Public Works and Police Departments, and the collector’s office, to make the transition as smooth as possible.

He’s had to familiarize himself recently with the fine points of electricity procurement, property liability insurance and solar power. He’s monitoring the UMass proposal to create public-private partnerhips to build off-campus student housing and other facilities.

He’s had to figure out what to do about three upcoming paternity leaves in the Fire Department at a time when a study recommended increased staffing. Meanwhile, he has to pay attention to the Hadley proposal to stop using Amherst’s ambulances, which would cause a 20 percent drop in calls and reduced revenues.

At the same time, Bockelman has to prepare a budget proposal for the next fiscal year by mid-January, when he will have only a vague sense of how much state aid to expect. He has to solve the inevitable personnel problems and decide how to present information to the public.

It’s not an easy job, but Bockelman has a lot of experience, contacts around the state, and access to municipal best practices. He’s also undertaken a series of coffees with the public to find out what’s important to residents.

The Charter Commission heard from town employees that they like having an ultimate supervisor who is a non-partisan professional or, as one employee called him, an “orchestra leader.”

The town manager’s responsibilities won’t change a lot under the new charter. The commission’s proposal does call on the manager to give an annual “state of the town” address with the council president, and to attend three public forums a year on local issues. The charter calls on the manager to keep the council informed, appoint a community participation officer, and “promote dialogue and partnerships among the council, staff, residents and businesses.”

One major change is that the manager will no longer be responsible for appointing members of the Planning Board. The commission concluded that these seats, which have an influence on development, should be filled by the council, which is much closer to voters.

Amherst is a complicated town, with an annual budget of over $80 million, three campuses, a tradition of citizen participation in government, and a diversity of people and perspectives. The Charter Commission concluded that while the new elected council should be in charge of choosing policy, we need to keep a town manager whose job includes the implementation of that policy.


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