‘A new beginning’ for Auburn officials

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AUBURN — A facilitated discussion among city officials on Monday looked to address gray areas in leadership roles as Peter Crichton takes over as the new city manager. 

The primary goal of the workshop was to pin down the ideal relationship between the City Council and city manager, with the hope that clear lines of responsibility can help Auburn leaders better tackle the city’s issues. 

Elected officials are hopeful that Crichton — the first permanent city manager since September 2016 — can stabilize Auburn Hall after a period of steady turnover. 

“The house has been shaken off of its foundation for a while now,” Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said. “We will need time to rebuild that foundation.”

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The discussion came during the first day in office for Crichton, who called the meeting “a good beginning.” 

“I think it will be a very important evening for us all,” he said at the outset. 

The workshop, facilitated by Craig Freshley of Good Group Decisions, was designed to bolster collaboration among the council, city management and department heads, and to allow officials to have a dialogue over process issues.  

Many said the lines of responsibility often blur, causing confusion or a lack of trust between staff and elected officials.

Crichton said he found the issue of roles and responsibility “a top issue” when he took the job in Auburn. 

Freshley, an experienced facilitator who often leads discussions for municipalities, called the workshop “council development,” although city staff were also given a chance to comment. 

When asked to describe a key aspect of a successful council/manager relationship, the words most repeated from city officials, including staff, were: trust, communication and respect. 

The discussion also brought specific issues to light, including perceived barriers in communication between councilors and the city manager. Councilor Leroy Walker said the city manager has often been unavailable, or the manager’s office has been closed or locked when he’s seeking information. 

LaBonte said last week that he and Crichton agreed that beginning his tenure with a facilitated discussion on expectations was “an important place to start.” 

Councilors spoke about the parameters around speaking with city staff before first going to the city manager — the need to have clear lines in the chain of command. 

Auburn has been without a permanent city manager since Howard Kroll resigned in September 2016. Since then, Denis D’Auteuil and John Bubier have served as acting managers, respectively. D’Auteuil is now assistant city administrator in Lewiston. Bubier will overlap with Crichton to help roll out next year’s budget. 

Crichton spent the past 18 years managing Cumberland County but is also familiar with Androscoggin County. Prior to working in Cumberland County, he spent 10 years in Lewiston, first at Public Works, then as assistant city administrator.

Among the discussion points Monday was delineating clear lines of responsibility, from crafting the budget to setting meeting agendas and creating an overall work plan for the city. 

Some had specific issues in mind. 

LaBonte said weekly staff reports recapping day-to-day operations are “useless” to the elected officials, and should instead focus on policy objectives. 

Councilor Bob Stone said that with a charter that states the city manager reports to the seven-member elected council, there are “seven different opinions,” which can put the manager in a bad position. Stone said the city should look at creating a City Council president position, which could boost efficiency. 

Freshley shared pyramid diagrams showing the supposed roles of each body, with some roles overlapping in the middle. Many said that middle ground is the issue. 

“How far down should the council get involved?” Freshley asked. 

“Where you have tension is the center point,” Councilor James Pross said, adding that if management fails to carry out policies forwarded by the council, that’s when councilors tend to “wade into procedures.” 

Another focus of the workshop was to come up with clear goals for the next eight months, the time left for the sitting elected officials. Each person was asked to write down a specific goal, which Freshley organized into categories. 

But much of the conversation came back to the importance of the budget process. LaBonte said too much focus was being placed on special projects and not on the city’s budget goals for next year. 

Many department heads agreed. 

Auburn Public Services Director Dan Goyette said the city’s Capital Improvement Plan and budget are the “two most important things. Without those two things, if I don’t have money to do it, it’s not happening.” 

Last year’s budget process ended with a number of layoffs in Auburn. 

LaBonte said the city staff’s capacity for new projects will “shape what we prioritize.” He said officials should be looking at larger objectives, rather than specific projects. 

“What levers can we pull in each department to create big-picture stuff?” he said.

Councilors also commented on what they’d like to see during the upcoming budget cycle. Many agreed that they’d like the process to start earlier, allowing councilors to discuss the budget conceptually before talking about details. 

Crichton said he is open to setting an earlier meeting to discuss overall budget goals. 

Councilor Grady Burns said the council hasn’t been able to evaluate previous budgets before addressing the next one. He also said that creating “stability” is the most important goal of the city. 

“It’s tough to know what to do with the budget,” Councilor Leroy Walker said, referring to often not seeing the budget until it’s nearly complete. 

Many in attendance said workshops like Monday’s should be held more frequently, perhaps earlier in the fiscal year to allow for more discussion on budget goals. 

Burns said the meeting represented starting off on good footing with the new manager. 

One of the final written goals read by Freshley was, “Give our new manager the best chance for success.” 

arice@sunjournal.com 

Peter Crichton, Auburn’s new city manager.

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