The three finalists for Watertown City Manager met with the public, and answered questions on Monday night. They shared some of their philosophies and approach to leadership, as well as why they want to become the City’s chief executive.
Each of the finalists, John Curran, Norman Khumalo and George Proakis, spent an hour fielding questions from the public.
Proakis, the Executive Director of Somerville’s Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development, has worked in Somerville for 12 years, and before that he worked in Lowell for seven years. He said that Watertown is a unique and excellent place.
“As I told Mayor (Katjana) Ballantyne in Somerville, I have not been out job searching. I chose to apply to this job because there was something truly unique and interesting about this community,” Proakis said. “It has the fiscal stability I have spent the last 10 years to get in place in Somerville with the previous mayor. It has an involved community, very much like where I am now, and it has the opportunity and interest in doing many more things, whether in data and statistics, or being a more walkable community. Those are areas I have spent a lot of time and energy on over my career.”
Khumalo, the Town Manager of Hopkinton for the past 13 years, also served as Assistant Town Manager in Westford, and Town Planner in Walpole and Wellesley. He said Watertown shares many of his values.
“I celebrate your community. You are a community that has deliberately, thoughtfully chosen to lead. Here’s where you lead: a AAA (bond rating) community, a pension system that is fully funded – very few communities can say that,” Khumalo said. “Going through the website, clearly you are committed to planning and thinking about the future of this community… A community that prides itself in planning for its future. That’s why, as a planner, I looked to the City of Watertown when Massachusetts got really excited about mixed use development because you did it well. You have also chosen be a leader in DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), sustainability, green initiatives, and last but not least you are a leader because you support your staff, clearly demonstrate how committed your community is to your City Hall staff.”
Curran has experience leading a town with Town Meeting as Town Manager of Billerica for the past 12 years, and leading a city as the Mayor of Woburn for four years. He said he prefers city government because he believes it is more efficient and things get done more quickly. Watertown has much to offer, he said.
“What really attracts me to Watertown, there are definitely some similarities, and some things we don’t have that I’d like to do. Watertown is a community closer to Boston, much more diverse than Woburn or Billerica,” Curran said. “I have done some research on the community. Every community is facing change. Nobody likes change. What interested me about Watertown was, I’m not going to say embrace, but they take it head on and recognize and try to deal with it. The change is coming whether you like it or not. If you ignore it will come in some fashion. If you don’t ignore it, and instead take it on and try to turn it into an opportunity. That’s what I see with what Watertown is doing with all the community groups that are very active in town in addressing all of these social and climate issues very much in the forefront of Watertown’s public discussion.”
The candidates discussed how they stay on top of trends in local government and about how they deal with people with views that might be opposition to theirs.
Curran said he wants his staff to challenge him and his ideas, and said he considers a variety of perspectives.
“Surround yourself with people with different perspectives from yours: young people, people from different backgrounds so you can get perspectives from different people,” Curran said. “I am not a person that needs to be reinforced. I want someone to challenge me. That’s a way to stay fresh — have someone challenge you. My team in Billerica is a great team of colleagues. They challenge me all the time. I change my perspective quite often based on the information I get from department heads. I think that’s a great thing.”
Khumalo stays on top of the latest trends in municipal government by attending workshops and conferences for municipal managers, and he also has strong ties with colleges and universities in the area. As Town Planner in Wellesley he was invited to be a guest lecturer at Wellesley College. He also participates in organizations in and around the community. In Hopkinton he is a member of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, which includes leaders from business, municipalities and other groups. He also tries to take in a variety of perspectives.
“The other way I address it is reading. I find time, I do this intentionally, a block of time any given week to enrich my academic understanding of issues,” Khumalo said. “And last but not least, I listen to the radio. I am a fan of listening to different viewpoints. I deliberately expose myself to different perspectives.”
Proakis said he enjoys searching out and studying the latest best trends for managing communities. He added that he believes it is important to work collaboratively.
“One thing that I have had a great experience working on, and thrive on working on, is working with an active council and a feisty community. And I really appreciated having feedback from all of those roles …,” Proakis said. “I thrive on my own professional development as well — finding the best practices and bringing them to a community.”
Follow Watertown News for more coverage of the Monday’s Public Forum, and of the City Council’s interview of the finalists on Thursday. The meeting on May 12 begins at 6 p.m., and will be held in City Hall, 149 Main St. (Click here for info on how to participate remotely).
See the City Manager finalist’s resumes, cover letters and more by clicking here.