It is unlikely the city of South Portland will fill the city manager position by the end of the 45-day notice period that the longtime head administrator, Jim Gailey, gave last week.

Gailey submitted his letter of resignation on June 8. He will be leaving his city manager job to become the new assistant manager for Cumberland County. His last day on the job is slated to be in late July.

The City Council met in executive session on Monday to discuss the search process for a new city manager, but reached no consensus and will reconvene behind closed doors again on June 20, when Councilor Patti Smith can be present, Mayor Tom Blake told the Current this week.

He said the biggest decision to be made first in the search for a new manager is whether to have an outside, professional headhunting firm manage the process or to conduct the search using in-house resources and staff.

All those the Current spoke with regarding Gailey’s departure were united in saying it is a big loss for South Portland.

Gailey has been the city manager for the past nine years. He is the latest department head to depart South Portland in the past year. In addition to a city manager, the city is also still looking for a new fire chief to replace Kevin Guimond, who resigned this past fall.

Gailey refused a request for an interview from the Current, but in his letter of resignation he said, “I want to thank the City Council for the opportunity to serve this great city. I worked with a number of excellent city councilors over the years and I am truly grateful.”

He added, “I especially want to thank the 295 city employees who make this community a terrific place to work. They are the deliverers of service and are the faces of our community. We had a lot of fun doing a lot of great things here in South Portland and this will not change because one person is gone.”

Gailey, a life-long resident of South Portland, first started working for the city nearly 30 years ago as a high school student refereeing recreation soccer games.

In 1995 he joined the city full time and along the way to becoming city manager worked in six different departments. In his letter of resignation he said, “I now find it’s time for a change, as I want to explore other opportunities and career goals.”

He also told the Current’s sister newspaper, the Forecaster,  last week that the position of assistant county manager appeals to him because he will have a more direct role over a broader area.

As municipal positions are increasingly harder to fill because of a lack of applicants, and as local resources dwindle, Gailey said he believes county government will be more involved on both the local and regional levels.

“I want to get in on the ground floor,” he said

Blake said that replacing Gailey would be the highest priority for the City Council in the coming months.

“In my opinion this is a tremendous loss to the community and the council,” Blake said. “Jim Gailey will be hard to replace, but I don’t expect us to miss a step” because of the staff Gailey has put into place.

He added that residents should be assured that the council will do everything possible to “find the best person and to continue to move forward in a positive fashion.”

In addition to praising Gailey for his administrative and personnel management attributes, those the Current spoke with this week also noted that his institutional knowledge of city affairs would be sorely missed.

“He’s a bright man. Growing up in South Portland also gives him an historical perspective not found in many municipal managers,” said City Councilor Linda Cohen, who also worked as a South Portland city clerk. “I will miss his humor and his love of South Portland. He is well respected by the employees and they will miss him.”

She added that Gailey is such a good city manager, in part, because he’s “done the job from the ground up. He has worked in many departments, so he knows a lot about the inner workings of our government. I still remember when he first came to work in City Hall.”

Longtime City Councilor Claude Morgan said this week that Gailey’s “performance as city manager has been absolutely stellar. He’s a superstar among city managers and is also a budgeting wizard. He has so many strengths and lots of institutional knowledge. He will be difficult to replace.”

Morgan also said that the City Council re-instated the post of assistant city manager several years ago in part to keep Gailey on the staff.

“He showed great promise as a rising star,” Morgan said.

There is some speculation about why Gailey has left South Portland for a lower-paying position with Cumberland County, and several have suggested that he’s seeking quieter pastures. According to public records, Gailey is now earning $123,000 in South Portland, but at the county his annual salary will be $106,000.

Morgan said this week that Gailey has had “a monstrously difficult year managing a divided council.”

Blake acknowledged that since the controversial tar sands debate and subsequent lawsuit, “there’s been a division in the community, no question.”

Mary-Jane Ferrier, spokeswoman for the citizen-led Protect South Portland advocacy group that’s largely credited with the implementation of the city’s  ban on tar sands oil, said this week that her organization has “always found a fair and listening ear in Jim Gailey.”

She said, “The past few years have been a time of enormous change in our city, indeed in our country. Some of the turmoil surrounding this has turned up at Jim’s doorstep (and) we at Protect South Portland commend him for the steady and fair way he has handled himself throughout.”

Morgan said that “many of the resolutions to the most vexing problems in the city were devised by Jim Gailey. He’s great at thinking outside the box and ignoring the rhetoric. We will sorely miss him.”

Even the newest councilor, Eben Rose, who was elected to the City Council last fall, and who has spent much of his time on the governing board questioning the status quo and how business is done, had nothing but praise for Gailey.

“I’ve gotten to work with Jim closely over the past year and I find him to be a very affable man with a good heart and a good organizational sense, particularly over budgetary matters,” Rose said this week.

He said one of Gailey’s “greatest strengths as a manager is his support of staff for the good work they do for the city. I suspect that the council will be in agreement that this quality will be a high priority in our search for a new city manager.”

Dick Matthews, chairman of the South Portland Board of Education, also called Gailey’s resignation “a huge loss to the city,” and said, “I do wish Jim the best, I personally thank him for all he has done for our city and his long dedication in working his way up the ranks.”

Ed Googins, South Portland’s police chief and now the longest-serving department head, said, “I cannot think of anyone that has better knowledge or a better understanding of the community, its residents and its employees than Jim does.”

He said that Gailey “has spent his entire career not just serving the community, but improving (it) for the benefit of all that reside, work or visit. He has been committed to high quality services and facilities, which make this community such a desirable place to live.”

Googins added, “I have worked with Jim for almost 22 years and one thing that has impressed me the most is his ability to get things done through thoughtful planning and implementation. (With him) it has (always) been about how can we do something, not why we can’t do it. He is going to be a tremendous loss for the city.”

Steve Gorden, chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, said the county received “many applications from as far away as California” for the assistant county manager post, but that Gailey “rated highly above the rest with his many attributes and skill and knowledge of local government operations. In addition, he has developed a phenomenal network of peers and legislators, not only locally, but also statewide and nationally.”

Gorden added that Gailey’s “experience, reputation and abilities to coalesce groups and successfully complete projects are apparent and were some of the necessary prerequisites for the position we wished filled. With Jim on board, I believe the Cumberland County region, its municipal governments and our citizens will be well served. We welcome Jim into the Cumberland County family and feel very fortunate to have him on our leadership team.”

The Cumberland County website states that the job duties of the assistant county manager include serving as the legislative liaison at the State House, serving as the public relations coordinator and representing the county in local, regional and statewide meetings.

Sun Media Wire staff writer Alex Acquisto contributed to this report.

Long-time South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey is leaving to become the assistant county manager for Cumberland County.