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‘Dearth of applicants’ stalls Maine municipalities’ attempts to fill top government jobs

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Ethan Genter
Blue Hill voters approved $16,680 in pandemic-related bonus for firefighters and town hall staff.

After Blue Hill town administrator Shawna Ambrose decided to step away from her position in January, the Select Board put out a call for a replacement. Four months later, they still haven’t found someone to take up the reins.

The board decided to recently repost the job ad.

It’s a struggle that municipal officials across Maine have become all too familiar with. While many professions have had trouble finding workers, people in the public administration field say that it’s been especially challenging the last few years to fill high-ranking public manager jobs in the Pine Tree State.

Top city and town posts can be left without permanent replacements for months. Officials are increasingly having to decide whether they want to hire people without extensive experience or wait months to find the right candidate. The problem may magnify in coming years as many in the current crop of town and city managers are nearing retirement age.

“Everybody’s dealing with it,” said David Barrett, the director of personnel services and labor relations for the Maine Municipal Association. “There are a lot of towns looking and there is a dearth of applicants.”

About seven years ago, Don Gerrish, a municipal consultant with Easton Peabody, was helping Bar Harbor look for a town manager. Back then, he got 50 applications. Last year, when the town hired former Saco city administrator Kevin Sutherland, he only received about 15.

“It’s a challenge today to find someone to fill the positions,” Gerrish said. “If we get two to three qualified candidates, we’re doing well.”

Some hiring processes stretch on for months. Gardiner and Millinocket both took more than a year to find permanent managers; Southwest Harbor spent most of last year searching for a town manager; and Gouldsboro has been looking since last spring.

Barrett and Gerrish say there is a combination of things that are leaving municipalities desperate when their top officials step away. Maine is the oldest state in the country and many managers are starting to get gray hairs. The hot jobs market has also increased competition for workers, possibly enticing would-be managers to work outside the public sector.

“It’s a difficult position and I think more and more people who are qualified really don’t want to get into it,” Gerrish said.

It can be especially hard for smaller municipalities, which can have high housing costs but can’t offer salaries that large cities or other states can.

“More and more people are being lured away by a national marketplace,” said Bry Martin, the public administration program coordinator at the University of Maine at Augusta. “There’s a good possibility that a town or city position may be open in another state that pays more money.”

Fewer young people seem to be gravitating toward public administration jobs, too. Gerrish and Barrett said. The University of Maine had a municipal management feeder program in the past but that was discontinued years ago.

The University of Maine at Augusta now offers the only public administration bachelor degree in the state, though there are other higher level programs that can put people on the path to municipal leadership, according to Martin. His program tends to attract an older set, often current town clerks, police officers and others with some municipal experience that are looking to get a stronger managerial background.

Some of these non-traditional applicants are being tapped for town and city manager jobs. Auburn’s city manager was the former police chief. Ellsworth’s city manager also is the police chief.

Southwest Harbor’s town manager was promoted up from town clerk, but only after the town offered the job to a candidate who had past assault convictions and later backed out.

“We’re seeing a lot of other professions get into the manager’s position,” Gerrish said.

The Blue Hill Select Board hopes the reposted job ad will attract more qualified candidates, but if it doesn’t the town might have to come up with an interim solution, said board member Ellen Best.

“We didn’t get much of a response the first time around,” she said. “We decided we would reopen it and see what happens.”

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.