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COHASSET

New town manager is drawing friends, foes in Cohasset

Town manager is shaking things up

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / November 24, 2011

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This Thanksgiving Day, some in town will offer thanks that Michael Coughlin took over as town manager almost four months ago. Others, though, are far from grateful.

“He is polarizing; you either appreciate what he’s doing or you don’t,’’ said Police Chief Mark DeLuca. “I think he’s energetic, intelligent, a true leader. . . . He’s really created a team atmosphere with the department heads [including the schools]. I love working with him.’’

Coral Grande, director of the town’s Office of Elder Affairs, said Coughlin takes the needs of seniors more seriously than they had been in the past. “I just think Mike Coughlin has been really good for the town,’’ she said.

But Jack Keniley, vice chairman of the town’s Capital Budget Committee, is less enthusiastic. So are other members of appointed committees, many of whom have been embroiled in a steady, e-mail-fueled conflict with Coughlin over their role in town government.

“I like the guy,’’ Keniley said. “But he’s causing lots of friction among everybody actively involved in local government operational issues. He gets a lot of really smart, dedicated people really angry at him.

“It’s almost like he’s saying to us, ‘You’re a volunteer committee; how dare you counsel a town manager about how to do his job.’ The thing is, there are a lot of very smart people on those committees and some pretty sophisticated managers who know how to get things done. I think he underestimates how much they could be of help to him,’’ he said.

Coughlin, 53, said criticism was not unexpected, considering his directive to be an assertive town manager, but he said residents are “great people and I look forward to working with them.’’

“I’ve been in this ballgame a long time and you have to develop a thick skin,’’ he added. “You keep yourself going by the small accomplishments you have made, and you don’t focus on the problems.’’

Keniley was on the committee that screened town manager candidates for selectmen - Coughlin wasn’t his first choice - and he said he understands the board wanted someone “who could take charge and be a manager.’’

An independent audit had revealed serious shortcomings in Cohasset’s financial record-keeping, problems that led to large deficits in the water department and abrupt resignations of the town manager and finance director. Selectmen chose Coughlin from more than 80 applicants.

“They wanted somebody to shake things up a little bit,’’ Keniley said. “And, oh, he has.’’

Selectmen said they picked Coughlin for his “take-charge’’ approach and ability to build a team with employees. They liked his law degree and experience in private practice and as an Army lawyer and assistant district attorney in Worcester.

Coughlin had also been a town manager in Northbridge, Southbridge, and most recently in Westport, although he’d been fired from the first two towns. Thomas Groux, the consultant advising the board on the selection process, said it wasn’t uncommon for town managers to lose their jobs - calling it an “occupational hazard.’’

“We were looking for a go-getter with experience in government and outside government, with skills the town hadn’t had,’’ said selectmen chairman Edwin Carr. “We were looking for someone who could come in and change the way the town operates, in a positive way.’’

He said those qualities were apparent almost immediately when - just weeks after Coughlin’s arrival - Hurricane Irene hit in late August and knocked out power in much of the town.

Coughlin “got everybody working together,’’ including himself. When town workers handed out water to residents whose electric pumps had failed, for example, Coughlin helped load the bottles on the trucks.

But Carr acknowledged Coughlin has ruffled feathers, as well; Carr said that’s mostly the inevitable fallout of change. “It brings in a lot of discomfort,’’ Carr said. “We’re asking departments to do things differently.’’

“Mike has come in and he has been consistent to what we thought he would be. . . . He’s an unusual person, strong-willed. But his intentions are very good, and he’s working very hard to get us back on track,’’ Carr said.

Some on the Advisory and Capital Budget committees aren’t convinced. They worry that Coughlin doesn’t understand their role, or provide the information they need to advise Town Meeting on financial issues.

Some committee members also object to what Capital Budget Committee veteran Stephen Gaumer described as “management by intimidation.’’ Gaumer and others were offended by Coughlin’s refusal to answer questions at recent selectmen’s meetings, and his accusation that Open Meeting rules were broken when board members met to look into a financial matter involving the water department, at selectmen’s request.

“Three previous towns had issues with him,’’ said Peter DeCaprio, an elected water commissioner and member of the Capital Budget Committee who has clashed with Coughlin over the new “joint management’’ of the town-owned utility.

For his part, Coughlin said he’s mainly concerned with boards allowing staff to do their work, and to “have the courtesy’’ to wait to discuss that work until department heads are present.

He also takes umbrage at comments that some problems can be resolved with a few minutes of discussion at a meeting.

If municipal finance “was so simple, why does Cohasset have so many problems?’’ he asked.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.