SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — When Jim Manni talks about living and working in South Kingstown, it’s akin to someone describing the discovery of rare treasure.
“South County as a whole is a beautiful place to live and work, but South Kingstown in my opinion is really the jewel in the crown,” Manni said Friday during a conversation with the Independent.
“We have a beautiful Main Street that was never lost, some beautiful open space and gorgeous beaches. I love South Kingstown, I’ll be here forever.”
In his first two weeks Manni, a Cranston native who graduated from URI and spent 40 years in public service — including as a Secret Service agent and 25 years with the state police — has jumped into his new role as South Kingstown’s new town manager.
He’s experienced a “blur” of an orientation period, meeting with almost all town staff, local business leaders, educators and residents.
“One of the first priorities I had was meeting individually with council members to find out what their goals and objectives and expectations are, and then meeting with the entire staff. I’ve met most of the employees in the town,” he said.
It’s a shift that the former Rhode Island State Police superintendent said he relishes, and it’s one with similarities to and differences from his previous life in law enforcement.
Public works, finances, education, economic development, personnel issues — Manni used to be a police officer, but now he’s also a bit of a firefighter, tasked with putting out fires large and small that flare up in the day-to-day operation of town government.
The job opening in South Kingstown, he said, was too good to pass up.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have several jobs in my life that I’m excited about and love doing. This job falls right in that category. I really like being town manager, and really like doing it in the town I live in,” he said.
Manni finished his career in law enforcement in April on a high note, after three years as the state’s top police officer. It was a difficult time both locally and nationally, with COVID-related restrictions taxing police, who also faced criticism and protests from a racial justice movement that grew out of the police killing of George Floyd.
South Kingstown also was in a period of transition, looking for a new manager after the sudden and somewhat controversial departure of Rob Zarnetske, who was forced out for balking at some town council members’ demand for an extra $1 million in school funding last year and for criticizing approaches to funding school improvements.
There are comparisons to be made between Manni’s new role and his tenure with the state police.
“The organizational skills are the same, whether you’re a high-level police administrator or as a town manager,” he said. “You need to know budgeting, have to show leadership.”
The manager, like a superintendent, must also stay on top of staffing decisions.
Manni reported to the council that he’s making progress on filling four key town positions – for public works director, chief of police, tax assessor and finance director.
“We have tremendous applicants,” for chief and finance director, he said. The others will come later, and Manni will ultimately make the final hires in the form of a recommendation to the council.
“I think it’s very important to keep the Town Council informed on the high-level decisions of the town,” Manni said.
That ability to transfer skills is one reason why Manni wanted to be a town manager. It propelled him to become manager in Narragansett several years ago after his first, long tenure with the state police.
But he’s also glad there are some big differences as well.
“The volatility of being in police work, especially right now, is extremely high,” he said. “It’s almost like you’re a coiled spring all the time in police work, because at any moment almost anything can happen, whether it’s a high-speed pursuit going through three states, or if it’s calls in the middle of the night that a trooper was injured in a vehicle accident.”
Manni said he often received calls about such emergencies, “and you just have to pause for a second before answering it, and just hope everyone’s alright.”
As manager, the calls he gets are mostly from residents or entities with concerns, questions or suggestions about how to run the town.
It’s actually another part of the job Manni likes – the lack of “layers” in communicating with constituents.
“Here I get e-mails right from the residents, asking questions,” he said. “That’s the real nice part of being a manager. You have a direct impact on the residents you serve.”
Manni is far from a “desk pilot,” and is out and about in town more often than in his office, he said.
“I get out of the building a lot,” he said. “I met with some of the big players in town, people that have the biggest impacts like the Land Trust, the Chamber of Commerce, I have meetings scheduled with DOT regarding road work, URI, South County Hospital.”
It’s helped Manni that he and his family, including wife Tracey, have lived here in town for 22 years.
The Land Trust is just about a mile from his home, and Manni used to rent equipment from Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joe Viele’s business.
“Most of these people I’ve known from living here the last couple of decades. That’s the part I really enjoy about the job,” he said.
He also plans to regularly meet with new Superintendent of Schools Mark Prince. It’s another priority for Manni.
“I want a real direct and good level of correspondence and conversation, so that the town and school department can run parallel on what’s best for the town,” he said. Both men began their new jobs on the same day.
“It will be a very close relationship, he and I, not only for the goals of the council and school committee, but for the residents,” Manni said.
He’s also checked out several public works projects, such as the sea wall going up in Matunuck, and in-progress residential developments.
“The Route 138/Route 108 reconstruction has been in the DOT’s planning for decades now,” he said. “I’m meeting with them next week to see what the plan is, what the hold-up is.”
Manni will be “100 percent” involved in budget matters for the town as well. He earned an MBA and had extensive experience managing budgets while in law enforcement, and describes himself as a fiscally conservative person that tries to keep budgets realistic.
“Every decision that’s made will impact the taxpayers and residents,” he said.
As he settles in more in his new job, Manni realizes it’s a unique point in history – not just worldwide, but all the way down to South Kingstown.
“With COVID, civil unrest, and now a war in Europe, inflation” he said. “South Kingstown is not exempt from the issues facing the world right now, and it’s having an impact on the residents.”
Manni said he enjoys traveling with his wife – actually Tracey likes it more, he confessed. They’ve recently been to South Carolina and to England.
“She likes antiquing. But quite honestly, the more I travel, the more I just want to come back and stay in my yard in South Kingstown. It’s tough to beat.”