The Derry Town Council held a Community Forum to introduce its top two candidates for Town Administrator to the community, where they could field questions from the audience.
The finalists are Stephen Eldridge, whose most recent job was as town manager of Lisbon, Maine, and Richard Brown, currently town manager of Freetown, Mass.
Both candidates met with staff and department heads in the afternoon, then took questions from community members in the evening.
Richard Brown has spent his 38-year career in local government. “It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he told a group of Derry residents gathered for a “stakeholders’ forum” Thursday night, June 19. “The local level is where things happen. You get to view the consequences of what you do. It’s terrifying, but also gratifying.”
Brown took his first city manager job in 1984, he told the group. “I thought I knew the answers,” he said. “Now I have a better sense of the responsibility and trust vested in me. I am a steward of the community.”
Brown and his wife are native New Englanders, and he’s been working his way “home” for several years, from jobs in the Deep South to Massachusetts. He’s been interested in New Hampshire since he met a former colleague at a conference, who had left New Jersey for a manager’s job in the Granite State. The man told him about New Hampshire’s larger towns and smaller cities, which were “economic engines” for their region and had a vitality not seen in communities that size in other states. When the Derry job came open, he was immediately interested.
His interest grew as he studied the town, he said. He likes the “defined downtown,” the topnotch staff and the fact that “this town is large enough to get things done, but small enough so you feel a part of things.”
State Rep. Brian Chirichiello asked Brown’s opinion on tax caps. Brown said when he worked in East Providence, R.I., they had a state tax cap and the town adopted one too, which is even more restrictive. Massachusetts also has a tax cap, though it allows an override, he said. When told Derry doesn’t allow for an override, Brown said he had no problem with that.
“The fewer variations there are, the less confusion there is,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s easier to manage.”
He’s dealt with several communities in “fiscal stress,” including Jefferson City, Ala.; Petersburg, Va.; and New London, Conn., where he found a fund balance of only $180,000. “We were able to increase it to $3 to 4 million,” he said. “For 12 of my 14 years there, we were also able to hold the line on taxes.”
Resident Mary Eisner asked his opinion of the Town Council/Manager form of government.
It’s the system he’s most familiar with, and in his opinion, the most effective form of government, Brown said, adding, “It’s local knowledge and control coupled with professional expertise.” New London went from a council/manager format to a “strong mayor” format, and the effects were “disastrous,” Brown said. The mayor made decisions tied to the election cycle instead of those with long-term benefits, he said.
Resident John Burtis said, “We need an administrator that’s not afraid to examine union contracts.” Burtis said in his opinion, some town employee contracts have too many “perks,” adding, “But once you give a union something, the perception is that it can never be taken away.”
“I am actively involved in unions and negotiations, and am not afraid to make the tough calls,” Brown said.
Burtis also mentioned duplication of services, noting that Police, Fire and Public Works each has its own maintenance department.
That is a concern, Brown said, but one that requires research instead of across-the-board cuts. “If all you do is put them under one roof and then increase the manpower, you haven’t accomplished anything,” he said. “I’m concerned about effectively allocating resources to get a job done.”
Resident Walter Deyo asked Brown why he wanted to leave his current job.
“Freetown and I,” he said, “are not a good fit.” The town is run by three selectmen and has no charter, he said, noting, “You can’t go to a document and say, ‘This is what you do.’
Used to more autonomy, he said it’s been difficult for him to have to ask, “May I?” Also, he said, there is talk in Freetown about changing to a “strong mayor” form of government, a format where he didn’t think he could fit in.
Community member Joel Olbricht asked how he deals with conflict.
“It can be like herding cats,” Brown said. “There has to be a process for resolving differences.” In a couple of his communities, he was able to sit down with the dissenting board members and bring them back “on task,” he said. He’s also a fan of processes such as board retreats, which build trust, he said.
For economic development, Brown advocated having a conversation. “You need to know, ‘Here’s our tolerance for change, here’s what we’re willing to pay for it.’”
Stephen Eldridge came to Derry Thursday night prepared to field questions about his last job.
Eldridge, one of the two finalists for Town Administrator, took the offensive position after media reports noted that he had resigned from his most recent job of Town Manager for Lisbon, Maine.
Eldridge was in Lisbon for six years, he told a gathering of townspeople in the community stakeholders’ forum June 19. “I was hired to do clean-up, manage operations, in a contentious environment,” he said. “As people retired, I was able to fill their positions with more qualified professionals. When a new Council came in, there was a shift in attitude - they wanted their own manager.”
Eldridge didn’t stay idle after resigning the job in January. He is currently interim Town Manager for Bethel, Maine. With his children grown and moving out of Maine, he and his wife also decided to seek a move south.
Eldridge has always worked in smaller towns, starting out in Etna, Maine, with 1,000 people and one other employee. He worked in Greene, Maine, a small town next to Lewiston, before a state tax crunch threatened his job. He resigned and went to Rumford, a larger town with a complete police department, sewer, water and public works operation. From there he went to the Lewiston/Auburn area to spend a year managing a state grant on how to consolidate city services. He’s also experienced government from the other side, as a selectman in his town of Monmouth, Maine.
Chairman Mark Osborne introduced Eldridge and opened the floor for questions. Former Councilor Joel Olbricht was first. “You’ve worked a lot with town councils,” he told Eldridge. “How do you get them all going in the same direction?”
To bring consensus, Eldridge said, he tries to provide councilors with as much information as he can. In Lisbon, that meant dealing with a “blight” situation that included burned and abandoned mills. “My task was, ‘How do I move the community forward and effect change?’” he said.
That town wasn’t good at planning, Eldridge said, adding, “You have to know what you want.” They contracted with a town planner who worked with the Planning Board and Council to change the mindset, and ended up with a community development thrust involving the whole community.
“My style of management is inclusive, with a focus on communication,” Eldridge said. In Lisbon he crafted a memo for the Council most Fridays, so no news of town operations would take them by surprise.
Eldridge told residents it’s important to have a Master Plan and to work with the School Department to control expenses.
In one town he created efficiencies by moving payroll to every other week, reducing the time spent on processing checks. He also eliminated paper time cards, instead using a computer program that monitored when employees logged on and off – and how much time they spent surfing the Net when work was slow.
Community member and state representative Brian Chirichiello asked Eldridge what was the largest town he’d worked in and what were the challenges.
Lisbon had 9,400 people when he was hired, Eldridge said, and dropped to 9,004 in 2010 when a Naval base nearby closed. In the matter of size, he said, “Derry will definitely be a challenge to me.” But big and little towns have the same responsibilities, he said, including supervising employees and holding them accountable.
“Bigger doesn’t always mean different,” Eldridge said.
Resident John Burtis asked how he would handle citizen input, in particular if a resident or group of residents did an independent study based on the town’s own facts and figures.
“I would take advantage of it,” Eldridge said. “I’d review it, and present it to the Council. We don’t have all the answers.” But it also depended on how the study was presented, Eldridge added: “If someone drops it on my desk and says, ‘Read this’…”
Atty. Gordon Graham asked how Eldridge dealt with unions in his previous positions.
When he came to Lisbon, Eldridge said, “The unions were all over the place. And the previous Council had treated non-union employees differently than union employees.” After a talk with elected officials, Eldridge cleaned house with the unions, standardizing their contracts. And for the first three years, the only increases were small wage increases, with one year with no raises. “I am not afraid to tell unions what we can afford,” Eldridge said.
He also headed up a change in the benefit packages, he said. The town previously had the Maine Municipal Association health insurance program, which was “very rich,” he said. Lisbon went to a self-funding program and made the employees more responsible, instituting a wellness program to help them be proactive about their health.
Though he had to be firm, the negotiations were never contentious, Eldridge said, explaining, “We had good working relationships. We were civil.”
Resident Mary Eisner asked what Eldridge would do to attract businesses.
In Maine, he said, he took advantage of Community Development Block Grants. One, with a 50-50 match, allowed the town of Rumford to update the facades on its downtown buildings. He’s noticed the vacant storefronts in Derry’s downtown and said communication with owners was the key. “You can throw money at them, or make them part of the process,” he said.
State Rep. Betsy Burtis asked how he deals with “challenging human dynamics.”
Eldridge responded, “I’ve managed some of the most difficult towns in Maine.” Many of these are old mill towns, he said. And some of his Mainers are resistant to change, particularly where technology is concerned.
“You have to have a thick skin,” Eldridge said. “It’s not about you – it’s about them getting hurt.” And it’s all about getting people to listen to each other, Eldridge said.
State Rep. Mary Till asked his opinion on the proposed Exit 4-A. Eldridge said he would have to see the drawings; his concerns include traffic impact, the manageability of the project, “lots of conversation” and the fact that the Department of Transportation “doesn’t always take things into consideration.”
Graham asked how he would deal with Derry’s tax cap.
“I’m not crazy about tax caps,” Eldridge responded. “If you’re a responsible manager and run a tight ship, I don’t think you have to worry about tax caps.” He prefers to talk about budgets with his Council before the process, sit down with department heads one-on-one to discuss their equipment and personnel needs, and “learn to live within our means.”
In Lisbon he established several efficiencies, including reducing the police force by two officers and promoting the town engineer to head Public Works. When he got to the town he found four people working the front counter, doing car, dog and boat registrations; and inexplicably, “the Sewer Department was part of that, so there were actually five people at the counter.” In spite of the plethora of employees, customer service was terrible, he said. When some employees retired he didn’t replace them, he said, but instead worked on efficiencies and was able to cut the counter staff to two effective people.
“This community offers great challenges,” Eldridge concluded. “The job would be a nice challenge for me, and I look forward to learning more about Derry.”