AYER — Selectmen interviewed the four finalists for town administrator last Thursday. Six finalists were selected by the Screening Committee from the 66 applicants, but two withdrew before the final interviews.
While the selectmen were scheduled to make their final decision on Tuesday night, the absence of selectman Chairman Rick Gilles caused the board to postpone the vote until their next meeting on July 14.
Robert Pontbriand is a faculty researcher at Fitchburg State College’s Regional Economic Development Institute, a former director of economic development at North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation and former chief of staff for former Fitchburg Mayor Dan Mylott.
A Fitchburg resident, Pontbriand views the town administrator’s role as “the link between the board and the department heads.”
“You are the policy-setting board,” he said. “The buck ultimately always stops with the board of selectmen …. (but) it’s my role to implement those policy changes.”
On his tenure at Fitchburg City Hall, which he called a “baptism by fire” in a community of 41,000 people, a $137 million budget and 13 employee unions: “I spent sort of six years at that focal point and all this stuff coming at you. You have to prioritize, obviously.”
On the administrator’s job: “This is not an 8:30-to-5 job. It’s not a 40-hour-a-week position. This is probably 50 to 60 hours a week and Saturday. The one thing is, it’s got to get done. I don’t like to leave loose ends because loose ends become frayed.”
On tax-incentive financing, or TIFs: They may be judiciously used to draw businesses to town, “as long as it’s done right: fair and equitable.” Pontbriand said he participated in negotiating nine TIFs during his tenure in Fitchburg.
On Ayer’s relationship with MassDevelopment: “We know that it is frustrating in the way Devens is being run. In Ayer, I’d work to make sure we get our share of that investment. Ayer has a lot of opportunity to host things here that do not need to be on Devens.”
On salary: He said he would “see myself falling somewhere in the middle” of the $72,000 to $94,000 advertised salary range.
John Sanguinet is the assistant town administrator in Wareham, and before that was an assistant town manager in Billerica, assistant town administrator in Truro and town administrator in Abington.
The Plymouth resident provided examples of his experience managing personnel. He once had to terminate an employee for using a town-issued cell phone for his real-estate business, and said his counseling prevented a recurrence of an altercation between two DPW employees.
It’s imperative, he said, to “maintain credibility with the government at all levels. Any notion of impropriety is unacceptable. I live by that standard, and I expect employees in the community I’m in to do the same.”
On a plan to study possible changes to Ayer’s form of government, possibly replacing the weaker administrator with a stronger town manager: He said he would follow through on the collective wishes. “If that was the direction I saw the town needed to go, I’d help the town grow.”
On building a team atmosphere: He said he held a staff meeting in February, intentionally barring department heads from discussing budget cuts. The choices were unpaid furloughs or layoffs. “The staff was appreciative that I took the time to lay out a plan and show the problems. One union group chose layoffs, and the rest accepted furloughs, and we ended the year without a deficit. It was a team effort.”
On collective bargaining: He said he does so with an eye toward equitable treatment and pay for nonunion employees. “It’s important that the unions hear the same message.”
On sick-leave buybacks: “They’re a gimmick that unions were able to get into contracts years ago. It’s a substantial sum of money. If I can get those out of the contracts, that’s a step in the right direction.”
Jeff Ritter has been Ayer’s interim town administrator since April 12. He previously served as interim town administrator in Bridgewater and Groton and executive director of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, among several other government posts. Ritter is a finalist for town manager in Auburn.
A Medway resident, Ritter said of the administrator selection, “It’s essential that whoever is picked realize they are subordinate to the board. As an adviser to the board, it’s incumbent on me to repeatedly turn to the board for direction.”
On the mission of local government: “That’s where the rubber hits the road” in providing front-line services in education, public safety and more to citizens.
On his experience so far in Ayer: “I’m generally the first one in the building in the morning. I’m not last to leave.” He said he has discovered that selectmen have different priorities, and he relies on the board to establish the priorities.
On broadening the tax base through economic development: “It’s not only a challenge but an opportunity. The healthiest communities are diverse communities. Ayer’s got some diversity, and that’s healthy and good.”
Andrew Sheehan is the interim town administrator in Townsend. He previously served as assistant town manager in Westford, assistant to the city manager in Lowell and the community development director in Chelmsford.
An Acton resident, Sheehan’s half-hour interview was half as long as each of the other three candidates. When asked if he enjoyed more latitude as an assistant to a city or town manager than he’d experience as a town administrator, Sheehan said, “I don’t know how different it is. There’s always somebody higher up on the ladder, whether it’s the city manager or the town manager. There’s always a give-and-take between the elected officials and the administrators. I understand what the position allows and where the authority lies.”
On the temporary Townsend job: He said he hadn’t been made an offer there and noted that town is about a week behind Ayer’s timetable to hire a new administrator.
On his future: “As long as I’m challenged and enjoying the environment that I’m working in and engaged in the community I’m in, the position, the title, is less important.”
Interim Town Administrator Jeff Ritter is under contract with the selectmen through July 31.