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SHIRLEY — On the second night of Annual Town Meeting (ATM), 392 voters cast secret ballots on a budget line item that became a referendum on the town administrator’s job.

An overwhelming majority — 304 — voted to retain the $76,296 line item for town administrator in the FY09 operating budget, as the Finance Committee recommended; 87 voters said no, siding with the two selectmen who had sought to zero it out.

The outcome drew enthusiastic response from the crowd. People stood, applauded, whooped and whistled, as if a candidate they’d campaigned for had won an election.

At the previous session, with 423 voters present, Selectman Chairman Leonardo “Chip” Guercio stated his dissent with the majority decision, which would have ousted town administrator and former selectman Kyle Keady, effective June 30.

Guercio warned that the move could result in litigation.

When the Board of Selectmen discussed the matter at a previous meeting, members Armand “Andy” Deveau and Enrico Cappucci said the proposal was an objective, impersonal cost-cutting measure aimed at the position, not the person in it.

Guercio argued against it. Unable to sway his colleagues, he suggested letting Town Meeting voters decide. The vote at that time didn’t offer that option; but as it turned out, voters had their say, loud and clear.

When the item came up at ATM, the FinCom forwarded its recommendation to fund it. Deveau then amended the amount to zero.

“When we talked about … cuts and where the money should be spent … ” the majority of selectmen voted to “zero out the administrator’s position,” rather than cut deeper into other departments, Deveau explained.

The administrator’s work would be parceled out to “a team” in the town offices, he said, including the assistant administrator, accountant, treasurer and the Finance Committee.

Discussion followed. Several residents spoke in favor of the position and for Keady. They cited issues the town administrator had helped them with and spotlighted key aspects of the job that they said make it indispensable.

Keady was called “responsive, knowledgeable and a valuable asset to the town,” among other endorsements.

The gist of it all was that in today’s sophisticated municipal environment, with its revolving roster of state regulations, legal complexities and mounds of paperwork, the town needs qualified people in dedicated positions and can’t afford to jettison its administrator.

Guercio quoted higher salaries paid in other towns for the position.

Without it, “things would fall through the cracks,” resident Robert Eramo said.

Resident Carl McKoon called for a secret ballot. He withdrew the request when Keady offered to leave the room for the vote, but about a dozen voters stood to back the motion.

Town moderator George Knittel cited “town meeting tradition” that states if seven voters stand to support it, a secret ballot may be held. He said the process would take 30-45 minutes.

After the votes were counted, Keady stood briefly at the podium. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you,” he said.

When the voting process wrapped up at around 10 p.m., the meeting was adjourned, to be continued the following night.