Newport city official picked as Dartmouth’s next planning director
Dartmouth has found its new town planner: Christine O’Grady.
The current City Planner of Newport, Rhode Island was offered the job by the Planning Board and Select Board at its joint meeting on November 19. Following successful negotiations after the public meeting, O’Grady’s anticipated start date was set for January 7.
The decision ends a protracted search for a new development leader following the resignation of former Planning Director John Hansen in June.
O’Grady was one of two finalists interviewed by both boards, following an initial interview by a screening committee. During her interview, she highlighted skills she had picked up from working in both government and the private sector.
“I have a great deal of experience and a wide variety of planning skills I think I can bring to the job,” O’Grady said.
Planning Board member Joseph Toomey questioned O’Grady on what attracted her to Dartmouth, and why she wanted to leave her current job.
While she had only served as City Planner in Newport since 2015, she noted she spent 25 years as a senior planner at construction firm CDR Maguire.
“This particular community has everything I’m looking for,” O’Grady said. “It’s got the environment, it’s got industry, it’s got everything in between. It’s such a unique thing.”
With the potential to manage controversial projects or face conflicting thoughts on the direction of a project, Planning Board member Lorri-Ann Miller asked how O’Grady handles building consensus.
“I think you have to bring everyone to the table, and I think you also need to, without saying or educating people, you need to teach people about different sides and get them to listen,” O’Grady said. “The key to getting those types of things done is getting everybody in the same room and having them voice their concerns and also listen to each other’s concerns.”
Before interviewing O’Grady, both boards interviewed the other finalist, John J. Behan.
The Saratoga Spring, NY resident had worked as a senior planner in Fitchburg for four years between 1983 and 1987 before moving into the private sector. He had also taught at SUNY Albany for nearly 20 years.
During his interview, he touted his collaborative and team-based management style, diverse experience in both public and private sector development, and his Dartmouth roots – his wife is a UMass Dartmouth grad.
He noted his private sector experience could prove useful particularly as the town is faced with a changing retail landscape, with bankruptcies and closures putting Dartmouth’s large Route 6 retail corridor at risk.
“I bring a fair amount to the table for the town in diverse experience,” Behan said during his closing statement. “A mix of understanding of regulations, zoning, government, but also the private sector, how to make a payroll, how to grow a business, and those aspects of things. I think that’s really important from an experience point of view.”
Members of both boards appeared divided over who to pick for a time, with some members speaking highly of Behan’s leadership abilities and extensive private sector experience, while other members highlighted O’Grady’s consensus-building and technical skills, and balance between private and public sector experience.
“We seem to have a conundrum here,” said Select Board member Stanley Mickelson immediately following the last interview. “I felt at our last meeting together both candidates were very qualified. Very different styles but very qualified. I basically stated there’s no way we can lose here.”
Mickelson was among Select Board members initially supportive of Behan.
Town Administrator Shawn MacInnes was asked to weigh in and give his opinion of both candidates.
He noted Behan did present strong leadership with a broad range of experience, but his role in municipal government being quite some time ago was his concern.
He spoke highly of O’Grady’s broad range of experience and technical skills, noting that was what he himself was brought on board for – upping the town’s tech initiatives.
“We want people with a breadth of experience, but there is a lot to know about how municipal government works and boards work,” MacInnes said.
Hansen, Dartmouth’s former Town Planner, announced suddenly he was stepping down at the Planning Board’s June 26 meeting. He became the Town of Swansea’s Town Planner in July.
Since then, the Planning Department has been held down by its current staff. Hansen was also assisting in consulting work as needed.
A screening committee formed to narrow candidates down to a final selection had to re-advertise the job and conduct a second round of interviews after only two qualified candidates were advanced to the interview stage.
The second round netted a total of five interviews by the screening committee, of which O’Grady and Behan were chosen as finalists.