RI: Rich Kerbel, Town of North Kingstown, Former Town Manager

Posted on April 16, 2014

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Resetting the 50 Nifty Project 



Fifty Nifty Takeaways

What do we hope to learn from this series? We hope you will gain a better understanding of the unique characteristics of local government in each state, we hope you will learn that there are others like you who are motivated to make a difference through the public sector, and we hope you will learn that it is best to learn from others’ mistakes than yours.

Our Take on Rhode Island

download (3)Rhode Island – it may be a tiny state but it is a powerful one. It’s nicknamed ‘Little Rhody” which is one of the best state nicknames that we have heard.  The 50 Nifty visits Rhode Island to meet Rich Kerbel, former North Kingstown town manager. ELGL has a number of members from Rhode Island including future ELGL columnist Graham Sheridan. Rich, who is an adjunct professor at Brown University, and his students have become messengers for spreading ELGL to the Northeast. Before we dive into “The Ocean State”, here’s what you should know.

Rhode Island is the smallest in area, the eighth least populous, but the second most densely populated of the 50 US states. The capital of Rhode Island is Providence. Rhode Island is one of a few states that do not have an official Governor’s residence. Rhode Island has abolished capital punishment, making it one of 15 states that have done so.

Rhode Island is divided into five counties, but it has no county government. The entire state is divided into municipalities, which handle all local government affairs. There are 39 cities and towns in Rhode Island. Major population centers today result from historical factors—with the advent of the water-powered mill development took place predominantly along the BlackstoneSeekonk, and Providence Rivers. Providence is the base of a large metropolitan area.

“Interesting” laws are no stranger in Rhode Island. Here are a few examples: download (4)

  • Newport: You cannot smoke a pipe after sunset.
  • Providence: You may not sell toothpaste and a toothbrush to the same customer on a Sunday.
  • Scituate: It is illegal to drive down any street with beer in your car, even if it is unopened.


Rich Kerbel


Education: Tufts University, Bachelor of Science, Civil Engineering and University of Colorado, Master, Public Administration, and Texas A&M University, Doctor of Engineering, Civil Engineering

Experience: Town Manager, Town of North Kingstown, Town Manager, Town of Fallsburg, and Senior Advisor /Interim Finance Director, City of Providence Mayor’s Office

Connect: LinkedIn

Background Check

downloadRichard Kerbel is a local government consultant and adjunct professor at Brown University. During his thirty-five-year career in local government, Kerbel has served as interim finance director/senior advisor to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and director of administration for Mayor David Cicilline. Kerbel has also been town manager for Bridgewater, Massachusetts; Coventry, Rhode Island; North Kingstown, Rhode Island; and Fallsburg, New York.

Kerbel earned a Doctor of Engineering from Texas A & M University, an MPA from University of Colorado at Boulder; and a BS from Tufts University. In 2002, Kerbel received the Robert M. Goodrich Distinguished Public Service Award from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Lighting Round


Best piece of advice from your parents.

Family is most important.

In a dream world, which bands would headline your retirement party?

Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airman



(Complete the sentence) Before I die I want to…….

Keep enjoying Myself, I do want to ride my bicycle cross country but that isn’t crucial.

Three most influential books in your life.

  • Catch 22
  • Profiles in Courage
  • Modern Public Administration – Nigro and Nigro

If you could FaceTime with three people (dead or alive and not including family members), who would be on the list?tumblr_n0891qQqUE1s5e5bko1_400

  • Mickey Mantle
  • Bill Clinton
  • Jerry Seinfeld

Describe the inside of your car. Too Complicated

What’s the meaning of life? If I knew that, I would be doing something else other than answering these questions.

Q & A with Rich


Give us three bullet points that best describe local government in your state.

  • Blamed for problems created by the State Legislature.
  • Not enough freedom to develop revenue sources
  • Well run and efficient

We’ll assume you didn’t grow up dreaming about a career in local government. What was your dream job as a 12-year old? What was your first local government job? How did you end up in local government?

download (1)I don’t remember having a dream job when I was 12 years old.  I know I always assumed I would be successful but wasn’t sure as what.  Reading Profiles in Courage made government service one of my career goals.

My first job in local government, if you don’t consider being Village Mayor in Student Takeover Day for my hometown during high school, was being a garbage man in my hometown.  We preferred to be called garbologists.  It remains one of my favorite jobs of all time.

I was looking for a job as an engineer in the Denver area when someone at one of the engineering firms mentioned that Boulder County was looking for an Assistant County Engineer.  I went to Boulder, filled out the job application, met the County Engineer and was offered the job all in one afternoon.

Give us your top three career accomplishments.5260_100468893298535_7831250_n

  • Owner’s Representative for Construction of the Boulder County Justice Center.  At 23 or 24 I was given responsibility to coordinate the largest public works project in the County’s history at the time.
  • Home Expo – Rochester, NY. –  A project which developed neighborhood architecturally compatible single family houses on vacant inner city lots.
  • Land Preservation – North Kingstown, RI.  During my tenure as Town Manager, we preserved farm land and coastal properties that were under development pressure.
  • If you gave me a fourth, I would say developing the department head team in North Kingstown.  We really worked well together.

We often learn from our mistakes. Name one or two career mistakes that you have made that you think we could learn from.

I have been inpatient at times and too patient at other times.  Sometimes I have been inpatient with my own position and started looking for other opportunities without realizing what a good situation I was in. I have been too patient at times with personnel. I should have made some personnel moves sooner.

At one point in my career, I was on the verge of being offered several jobs. My wife and I had a miscommunication about what was the best one for us as a family. I blew it.

imagesOur experience has been many of our friends, family, and neighbors are not well versed in what it is we do in local government, many think we are a “planner” or “mayor”. Has this been your experience?

Yes.  I don’t like being called a “planner.”  This is a source of amusement to a former planner and a friend I worked with.  I would always tell people that I am an engineer and manager, we get things done, as opposed to planners who just think about what they want to do. In answering this question, I realize that most of the people I keep in touch with from former jurisdictions are planners.   So I do like and respect them but I prefer being called a Town Manager.

How can local governments better communicate their role in the everyday lives of the community?

Now that I am not working for a local government, I realize how little I know about what is going on in my town.  Yet the things that are in local government newsletters don’t really interest me.

Would you encourage your family and friends to consider a career in local government?

Yes.  I had a great ride.

download (5)Hypothetically, if we find ourselves interviewing for a job in front of you, talk about three steps we can take to make a good impression.

  • Eye contact
  • Self assured but not cocky
  • Don’t ramble. Answer the question and make sure you include “keep my boss informed” in an answer.

Mentoring is such an important part of local government. Name three of your mentors.hansellA_article

  • My father ( I can’t leave him off)
  • Bing Barstow – former Boulder County Engineer
  • Peter Korn – former City Manager of Rochester (and many other positions)

(Complete the sentence) In 2018, local government will be …………Just as much fun as it is today.

What question(s) should we have asked you? What is your favorite joke about City Management?

Supplemental Reading

50 Nifty Profiles

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