Succession Planning: A True Story of Transition in Local Government

By Ted Fafinski, Retired Town Supervisor and former Chair of the Ontario County Board of Supervisors
I would like to share with you this unique process of succession planning when you don't have any control over the final outcome. This succession process is to let the town board feel comfortable in appointing someone to assist in the transition to maintain continuity of the local government, while minimizing change for town staff. The process took over one year and a lot of planning, (and things falling into place). I played the role of the consultant as well as the person being replaced. Marshall Goldsmith's book “Succession... Are you ready?” played a significant role in my mindset as I worked through the process.
Succession Planning for an Elective Office
This is my story of succession planning as I retired from the position of Town Supervisor, a position I have held for over 16 years. Succession planning usually revolves around a consultant helping a retiring executive plan for the continuity of the business in an organization. In this case, the job being vacated is an elected position chosen by the voters. The election cannot take place until the position is actually vacant, and then only if the governor of the state declares a special election or when the position is automatically placed on the ballot at the next general election. The latter is the case in this situation.
So if I do not have control over who fills the position and two town board members (there were four town board members plus the town supervisor, for a total of five members) have said they want to run for the position when it became vacant; how can succession planning play a role under these circumstances? Knowing the sequence of events in this situation changes the paradigm slightly and the focus of “the succession” changes to “the continuity of government” until the voters can elect a new Town Supervisor. Providing for transitional leadership that will enable the local government to function effectively until an elected leader is chosen.
I began in my role as a “client” when I decided I was ready to retire. The next question was timing, when will I actually retire? I decided on mid-May. Why then? Because the process of filling vacancies in elected offices would coincide with the regular election process, people wishing to run for this office would typically pass nominating petitions in early June and file them with the local Board of Elections in early July. Once accepted by the Board of Elections, they would appear on their particular political party ballot in the November election.
This planning process began in the summer of 2014, when I concluded who would be a strong candidate for this transitional leadership role. The leading contender was a person with over 30 years of leadership experience in county government, who had retired from the County Administrator position about 4 years ago. I wondered, had he gotten tired of playing golf? I approached him with a proposition of being my Deputy Town Supervisor. He thought about it and said yes. It was at this point I advised him of my plans to retire the following year, probably in May, and asked if he had any interest in running for the position, which he briefly considered and said no. I then asked if he was interested in serving as the Deputy Town Supervisor after I vacated my office upon retirement. He was interested in that option. The next question was, if you were appointed Town Supervisor by the Board, would you serve in that capacity until a supervisor could be elected to take office on January 1st of the year (2016)? He said yes to that possibility. I had a candidate! Now how to announce to the board my intention to retire?
In December of 2014, I met with my current Deputy Town Supervisor (who was a board member and a friend) and thanked him for serving in that capacity and advised him that I would be appointing a new deputy town supervisor who could immediately step in should I decide to retire in 2015. He understood that we needed someone to do that on a daily basis and he knew that he could not due to his current career.
I then met with the two Town Board members (separately) who wanted to run for the Town Supervisor position (should it become vacant) and advised them that I would be appointing a new Deputy Town Supervisor who was not on the town board, but experienced in local government. I further acknowledged that they had indicated they wanted to run for this position and at this point I wanted to leave my option open to retire in 2015. I proposed that a neutral person with government experience and success who would not be interested in running for the position would be an ideal candidate as Deputy Supervisor to keep the playing field even and yet maintain the continuity of our local government while the election process continued to play out.
The other consideration was to provide a stable leadership situation for our department heads and staff so they can function during this organizational leadership change process. Both Town SUCCESSION PLANNING Board members agreed that was important. I advised them that I would keep them posted once I made any decisions on my future. I also provided the same information the other remaining board member who could not consider running for my former position at the current time because of his job responsibilities.
Later in December I informed the board members of my choice for Deputy Supervisor and his background as a former County Administrator and Planning Director in county government. I made the appointment of the new Deputy Town Supervisor effective January 1, 2015. He had been attending Town Board meetings since late October.
During January 2015, he began attending Town Board Advisory Committee meetings (Public Works, Finance, Personnel and Town Operations) on a regular basis, providing input on occasion or when asked for an opinion. In addition he attended all Town Board meetings on a regular basis. I observed the comfort level of the board members in accepting the new deputy, in the third month I sensed a respect for his knowledge and demeanor. Some of the meetings he attended I deliberately did not, or came in at or near the end of the meetings. It was in March that I announced my intention to retire on May 16, 2015. I sensed a general acceptance and an almost a relief from some of the board members and town staff that we had a qualified deputy supervisor.
The deputy and I began meeting several times during the week to discuss processes and procedures, we met with my staff, the bookkeeper and my Confidential Secretary and they provided him with an overview of their responsibilities and how they carried them out. We met specifically with the bookkeeper on our current 2015 budget and the steps we took in putting it together, and then we measured how we were doing financially and furnished him with monthly financial reports and measurements. At one point I was out of the office and invited the deputy to come in that day and work with staff in my absence, which he did. They interacted comfortably based on the feedback from staff.
One of the Town Board members publically announced that he was going to seek the position; the other Town Board member announced to the County Republican Committee that he would be seeking the position. The Town Board member who publically announced his candidacy, in a surprise move a few weeks later, withdrew from the race because he could not complete the sale of his business before the election and indicated he would seek re-election to his current Town Board seat in November. In withdrawing, he endorsed the other Town Board member and pledged his support. We were far enough in the succession planning process for transition that the plan was still on track.
I retired on May 16, 2015 and the Board Held a Special meeting on May 19th and appointed the Deputy Town Supervisor to the position of Town Supervisor for a term ending December 31, 2015, thus allowing the elective process in November to elect a permanent Town Supervisor to serve out the remainder of my term. The newly appointed Supervisor took office immediately on September 19th and also represented the town on the County Board of Supervisors. The Chairman of the Board of Supervisors was kept in the loop on the process and appointed the new Supervisor to be a member of my former County Board of Supervisors committees.
While this narrative seems smooth and logical, I needed a lot of coaching and I turned to the book “Succession… Are you ready?” by my old acquaintance Marshall Goldsmith (who I met and learned from in another life). I used his book to condition myself into passing the baton appropriately and letting go of things. I re-read the first few chapters of his book several times because I struggled at times in these dual roles. I continued to use it to aid in my mindset as the person being replaced and that of the consultant in making this happen. There were conflicts in my mind as I was transitioning my role and yet trying to be the professional consultant in a process of succession that I truly believed in. It worked successfully in this instance because of the circumstances, the planning, the execution, the right candidate and the focus on transitioning the local government until an election could be held.
The board member was successful in becoming the Town Supervisor Elect and worked closely with the appointed Town Supervisor in completing the transition, including being involved with the budget process in his current role as a board member. He took office on January 1, 2016.