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From the Salem EveningNews, 04/17/04:


Howe handing over the reins after 27 years

By Steve Ladwehr
Staff writer

IPSWICH - George Howe sent a shock wave through Town Hall yesterday that will likely ripple for months. After 27 years as town manager, Howe announced he will retire this summer.

In a letter to selectmen yesterday, Howe cited personal reasons for his decision, particularly what he sees as personal attacks during a recent bitter contract dispute with the town's police union.

"There hasn't been a day that has gone by in the last two years when I haven't actively thought about, and longed for, retirement," Howe, 59, wrote in the 2<1/2> page letter.

As town manager, Howe crafts a budget that has grown to more than $10 million, negotiates union contracts and ultimately oversees all town employees. He is appointed to three-year terms by the selectmen, and earned $103,773 last year.

His current term expires July 31, but Howe indicated his last day of work would be July 10.

Howe did not return a call from the Salem News yesterday seeking comment.

Longtime Selectman Jim Engel, who himself surprised even insiders when he announced his decision not to seek a sixth term in January, said Howe had "the toughest job in Ipswich."

"He's been the guy who has been the focus of everything," he said. "It's kind of the nature of the job, but nonetheless, he put in an incredible amount of hours."

Stability

Howe was hired as town manager in 1976, after his predecessor, Joseph Mitchell, resigned after only a few months in office. He was the first town manager to be hired for a second term.

During his tenure, the town built a water treatment plant, moved out of its historic offices in the old Town Hall and learned to cope with the constraints of Proposition 2<1/2>. A new middle and high school were built, and the creation of the Great Estates Bylaw saw several large pieces of property kept out of the hands of developers.

Howe nearly retired once before in the mid-1990s, when he suddenly discovered the town had $1 million less than it thought it did. Howe told Engel at the time he was "prepared to fall on my sword if the board felt it necessary," but Engel convinced him his help was needed digging out of the hole.

In his letter, Howe notably pointed to successive years of tough budgets as a strain he no longer chooses to bear. In particular, he said contract negotiations are "no longer an argumentative challenge; rather it's degenerated into a thankless task in which my integrity has been questioned and I have become a target of what I have regarded as tasteless vitriol."

Howe has privately chafed over the ongoing contract dispute with the police union, which staged a protest at a recent selectmen's meeting during which Police Association spokesman Patrolman Peter Nikas charged Howe with "divisive manipulation, and sullen obstructionism."

Howe bit his tongue during the protest, but later said there was a proper place and time for such exchanges -- "at the bargaining table."

Howe said he is truly retiring, not looking for employment elsewhere, and intends to live in town "for the indefinite future." He opened the letter by writing his decision should not be viewed as any reflection on the current selectmen or his relationship with them.

Howe also cited his mother's death in the past year and his approaching 60th birthday as factors in his decision.

Future challenges

Howe, who can be brusque when challenged, was frequently a lightning rod for town employees with complaints. In their yearly evaluations of the town manager, selectmen have in the past pointed to communication and interpersonal skills as areas Howe could improve upon.

But former Selectman Harry Lampropoulos, who just stepped down after his first term, said Howe grew on him.

"He was always very professional and did a good job running the town," he said. "People who are not George Howe fans would become George Howe fans if they worked with him."

Although he said it was a shock when he found out, Selectmen Chairman Jim Foley said he's known of Howe's plans for a while, but at his request kept it quiet. Foley said Howe's lengthy service was unusual.

"In today's times, town managers aren't there that long," Foley said. "I'll miss him, I have a lot of respect for him."

Selectman Ingrid Miles was just elected to her first term Tuesday. She said that with Engel and Howe both departing, a good bit of institutional memory is going with them. Nonetheless, Miles said she feels the policies in place will help the board through the transition.

"As selectmen, we'll have our work cut out for us," Miles said.

Although Lampropoulos said he didn't think the manager's job had gotten too big for one person, Engel said he thinks it has.

"When someone has to work five days a week and four nights a week, something is wrong," Engel said.

With 27 years of service, Selectman Pat McNally believes Howe is the dean of town managers in the state. McNally said Howe has many interests outside Town Hall and he's happy he'll be pursuing them while he can.

"I'm very pleased for him," McNally said. "He's served the town fantastically."
 
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