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AYER — Selectmen, in a 3-2 decision, voted to offer Economic and Development Director Shaun Suhoski the position of town administrator at a salary of $68,089.68.

Suhoski was one of three candidates recommended by a search committee. The others were Terri Ackerman, former town manager of Braintree, and Timothy Goddard, town administrator of Littleton. A fourth candidate, Christopher Clark of Sturbridge, dropped out of consideration to work in the private sector.

Discussion of the appointment had been continued from a Jan. 3 meeting. Selectmen Pauline Conley and Frank Maxant voted in the negative.

Maxant, calling Suhoski a “superior” economic development director and “the finest grant writer I’ve seen,” said he prefers Ackerman because changing Suhoski’s job would be “complicating” the position. He stated a preference for a female approach to the job, which he described as more oriented toward service where a male might be more concerned about a career.

Noting that Ackerman had been looking for a salary in the $80,000 range and Goddard was in the $70,000 range, Maxant said, “If one were to demand a higher salary I’d go for a woman” because the person would be “cost effective.”

Selectman Chairman Faye Morrison, looking at a potential vacancy in the development role, noted the “very competent” Suhoski would still be “in the building,” and available for consultation.

Morrison was concerned that Ackerman might not take less than her current salary even though she had said she would consider it during interviews.

“With the overwhelming challenges for Ayer, to walk into a new term having some familiarity is important to me,” Morrison said. “It’s Devens, Devens, Devens. This town not only needs it but deserves to have someone to protect us from day one. With the other candidates the transition time concerns me.”

Morrison, shuffling through a half dozen letters of support for Suhoski, said she is “also trying to service the people of Ayer.”

Conley said Ackerman had been the search committee’s first choice. Conley had spent two hours talking with Suhoski, she said.

“He said some things that were disturbing and didn’t have answers I thought an administrator should have, particularly in money matters,” Conley said. “One of the most disturbing was he mentioned making staffing changes. I told him that’s not his decision to make and for that alone, I vote no.”

Conley said she asked each candidate questions prompted by the job description and rated their answers.

Ackerman and Goddard have considerable municipal finance experience, all three are experienced with personnel and intra-governmental relations, she said.

Goddard has considerable collective bargaining experience and all three candidates have a “decent knowledge” of local laws, Conley said. Ackerman has a master’s degree in public policy, 18 years experience, and her job of eight years was eliminated. Goddard has 20 years experience and has been on the job for eight years.

“Mr. Suhoski has no experience, has asked for three jobs in five years and I’ve been told he’s looking for a fourth job in another town,” Conley said. “He (told me) it’s time to move on. I’m not confident his best interest is in the town.

“He’s been here since 1999 and has done a good job,” Conley added, “but I’m hesitant to have an administrator not in town during business hours. He’s often here at 10 or 11 p.m.

She questioned whether Ackerman was aware of Ayer’s budget constraints and a $68,000 starting salary for the job. She noted there could only be two pay increases without going before the personnel board, which “we don’t have.”

Selectman Cornelius Sullivan qualified all the candidates highly and said he is looking for the “best fit.” He was concerned about Ackerman’s $80,000 salary request because it is “rare,” he said, for an employee to take a step downward. He said Goddard and Suhoski are both looking for careers.

To Sullivan, Suhoski is the best fit because he works here and “no one’s opinion that I respect said he is not less than 110 percent.

“Years ago I worked in probate court from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,” Sullivan said. “I had trouble getting there at 8:30 but I often stayed until 7 or 8 p.m. Ms. Scheipers (former town administrator Anita Scheipers) who I respect was here at 7:30 a.m. to get her work done.”

Although Goddard and Ackerman have a “leg up” over Suhoski as town administrators, Sullivan said, “experience is a factor but not necessarily a controlling factor. Normal ability and intellect can do a lot.”

He also said work hours can be addressed in a contract and that no one can surpass Suhoski’s successes.

Sullivan said that an administrator’s familiarity with the law is a topic near and dear to him and while all three candidates seem sufficiently aware of potential liability issues, he’s been “haunted” for years about the town’s “default position” regarding liability.

“Mr. Suhoski has a law degree and if there is a liability he wouldn’t be intimidated,” Sullivan said. “The ability to jump in without a ramp up is critical. Ms. Morrison mentioned Devens, Devens, Devens. We have a six-month period to address that. We don’t have time for a town administrator to ramp up, get to know personnel or personalities on boards and commissions.”

Sullivan felt Suhoski has been in Ayer long enough to be familiar with personalities and that a $20 million budget is due in four months. He said he prefers to work with an administrator he is familiar with and that he takes to heart the “overwhelming” community support for Suhoski.

“I was concerned that the search committee spoke their preference to Pauline (Conley),” Sullivan said. “I’ve worked with search committees before and they shouldn’t state their preference.”

Selectman Paul Bresnahan said when he looks at the “breadth and depth” of the candidates, he ends up choosing Ackerman.

“I spoke with her tonight and she told me Pauline (Conley) had invited her tonight,” Bresnahan began to say.

“I told her about the meeting,” Conley corrected.

“She was very honest,” Bresnahan said. “She admitted making $80 to $95,000 and when I asked her if she really wants the job she said maybe. She wants to meet with department heads to see if she would want the job. Her concern is working with a board that doesn’t seem to be in great tandem.”

Bresnahan said Suhoski can do a good job and there would have to be a specific probation requirement if he were hired.

“I have concerns about time management and we’d have to be right up front with him (about working) roughly 9 to 5.”

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