Skip to content




AYER — Selectman Jim Fay and Town Administrator Shaun Suhoski reported to the Ayer Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Dec. 15 that the 5-man search committee, on which they both served, had “unanimously” selected three finalists for Economic Development Director. The finalists now advance for public interviews before the Selectmen on Wednesday, Jan. 6, at 6 p.m.

The search committee also included Selectman Gary Luca and a representative each from the Ayer Business Alliance (ABA) and the Industrial Development Finance Agency (IDFA).

However, it’s since been confirmed that that “unanimous” vote meant agreement only between those subcommittee members present and voting. There was no meeting with all five men in attendance, confirmed search subcommittee Chairman Fay.

At the selectmen’s Dec. 15 meeting, Suhoski identified only Berry as being absent for the subcommittee’s votes. There was no mention of Laggis’ absence.

The ABA chose downtown businessman and property owner Philip Berry to serve on the subcommittee. However, due to medical issues, Berry was unable to sit-in for the weeklong 10 semifinalist interviews or the final three interviews. Furthermore, an anonymous source told The Public Spirit that Berry apparently withdrew from active ABA membership when he was selected to serve on the search committee, citing concerns over potential conflicts of interest regarding his present and future Town Hall business dealings.

Berry’s resignation was reportedly discussed, as he was originally to serve as the ABA representative to the subcommittee. The unnamed source states the subcommittee ultimately decided to press forward with Berry, and no ABA representative aboard the search committee. Berry did not respond when contacted about this story.

The IDFA tapped downtown men’s clothing storeowner Nick Laggis of PN Laggis to represent them on the search committee. This fall, the IDFA agreed to infuse the Ayer Planning Department with approximately $18,000 at a time that the selectmen were reviewing funding sources for the revived Economic Developer title.

However, Laggis’ attendance was also light as he reportedly only attended one of the three finalist interviews. Therefore, without Berry and Laggis present, 3-of-the-5 subcommittee members conducted two-of-the-three finalist interviews: Fay, Luca and Suhoski. Laggis, too, did not respond to a request for comment.

At a September selectmen’s meeting, members of the Ayer Business Alliance, of which both Berry and Laggis were/are members, lobbied the selectmen to hire former Planning Department Grants Administrator/Project Manger Margaret Scarsdale for the Economic Development Director position. Ultimately, Scarsdale made the semifinalist top 10 but not the final 3.

Fay thanked the newspaper for its Dec. 18 editorial, which publicly pondered if any Town Hall favoritism between the sole remaining Planning Department employee and Suhoski factored into the equation to knock Scarsdale out of the mix. Suhoski allegedly went light on counseling the holdout employee for using obscene language to describe Scarsdale. Meanwhile, Suhoski and the holdout employee have a decade long friendship — the extent of which was questioned in the editorial (see Suhoski’s response under headline “Editorial Fallout”).

“Kate (Walsh, Editor) points out, and rightly so, you need to address that suspicion,” said Fay. “Suspicion is good because it alerts someone to say ‘uh oh, let’s make sure we’re doing this right.'” Fay opted not to share further particulars on the matter publicly.

Regarding the term “unanimous,” Fay thanked The Public Spirit on Tuesday for the opportunity to elaborate. “I look forward to your assistance in clearing up any hint of impropriety during the interview process by the committee members,” said Fay. “When votes were taken, all committee members present at any given vote voted unanimously for the finalists,” explained Fay, confirming less-than-full attendance at the meetings. “There were times when a quorum (3 of 5 members) were the only committee members present.”

“The questions posed were uniformly posed to all candidates,” said Fay. “Nick Laggis asked Phil Berry’s questions” he cited, for example, during the earlier top-10 interviews.

Other than Fay, only Suhoski otherwise answered providing a broad comment on Monday. “The selection process was fair and thorough. Any of the finalists would be an asset to the town if appointed by the Board of Selectmen.”

At the Dec. 15 selectmen’s meeting, Selectman Rick Gilles asked for information about the matrix, or scoring grid, used to compare and track candidates’ scores against one another. Earlier this week, Suhoski released to The Public Spirit the uniform questions posed but not the candidates’ score cards. Suhoski cited the need for an additional search committee meeting to vote on whether to release the Executive Session minutes and votes of the subcommittee.

Fay stressed his emphasis was that a candidate must have the “established ability to hit the ground running. We need to fill this job yesterday. That was a strong discriminator. That quickly drove the (semifinal) 10.” On Tuesday, Fay clarified that the final 10 were culled from the crowd of 39 after each member ranked each resume based on a scale of 1-to-10, 10 being a perfect score.

“The resume gets you the interview,” said Fay. The finalists, though, were given a different interview, “the rest is how you feel about the candidate. What’s the electricity?” he said.

Fay said the six semifinalists that did not advance each had a “faux pas” that “brought them to the rear of the class, and, conversely, brought others forward.” Of the four finalists, one later dropped out of contention, citing a desire for part-time employment.

Fay said he referred to the 1995 Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) Personnel Handbook for guidance on running the interviews. He also cited his experience as an Employability Coordinator at the Shriver Job Corps Center on Devens. The uniform federal KSA guidelines (Knowledge, Skill and Ability), as well as experience, all factored into the decision making process, Fay said.

At the selectmen’s meeting, Luca praised the process, “I’ve been on many searches. Jim, you did a good job to make sure that everything was equal – giving the same information to the 10 of them. ‘This is what we’re looking for. These are your time limits.”

“I was looking for the economic development part. We need to develop that part of our business,” said Luca. “I’m confident the way we went through our interviews was good.”

Fay indicated that he was personally calling the references provided by the three finalists before their public interviews. Fay said the selectmen routinely turn to the Ayer Police Department to perform CORI Massachusetts criminal background checks. When asked about the fact that two of the three finalists reside out of state and therefore may have out of state, not Massachusetts, criminal histories, Fay said that would require further review. The issue of CORI checks was raised as recently as October, when a contractor before the town was found to have a sex offender conviction record.

Selectman Chairman Connie Sullivan noted that all three finalists live a distance away. One resides as close as Westminster, while the other two are in Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

“Are these candidates going to be moving?” asked Sullivan. Fay answered that the finalists’ responses varied but that the three expressed no issue with the commute, with one candidate indicating that an hour and a half commute is “reasonable” for them. When asked about each candidate’s ability to fulfill evening meetings, Fay reported the three stated they’d have “no issue” with night hours.

Sullivan asked if there was a “local option” preference given for the candidates. “No, we pretty much went with what we had,” said Luca.

Gilles asked if, following the withdrawal of a fourth finalist leaving the field of three, there was going to be an elevation of another semifinalist to advance four finalists. He said he understood the full Board of Selectmen would be presented with four finalists for consideration.

“If you really want four, I’m sure we can reach back into the pot to get another,” said Fay. “I think you have three excellent candidates” seconded Suhoski, “If you want a fourth, let us know.”

Selectman Carolyn McCreary nibbled again at the local-candidate issue, “My only concern – the distance of all of them to Ayer is significant. They may say an hour and a half commute is no problem until they start doing it.”

“What I’m saying is if number #5 (ranked candidate) was close to number #4, I’d like to open it to 4 candidates,” she said, “if not, then 3 is fine.”

Gilles restated his local preference, “having someone whom really understands our local economy.”

Luca stressed again that the candidates’ commute “didn’t seem to be an issue. They were all well versed. They’d all visited the area. They’d done their homework. They’re certainly qualified.”

Fay concurred, adding that unanimous subcommittee approval “was one of our requirements.”

Sullivan asked about what happened to former Planning Department employee Margaret Scarsdale’s candidacy. While she made it to the final 10 semifinalists, she did not make the final four.

Luca responded, “If I took the name off the top (of the resume) it wouldn’t have made it just because of the incompleteness of the resume.” There, Suhoski stepped in and advised Luca that such information was the subject of protected closed-door executive session deliberations and should not yet be disclosed publicly.

Gilles and McCreary withdrew their concerns about the subcommittee’s process. Fay praised Laggis and Berry, noting “time away from their businesses” to lend a hand in the selection process.

The public finalist interviews will be Wednesday, January 6 at 6 p.m. at Ayer Town Hall.