TOWNSEND — It would be a bit strange to describe James Kreidler as the “new” town administrator in Townsend since he served as the interim town administrator for more than five months.
But in that time, Kreidler said he saw something in Townsend that made him want to stay, and on June 14, the Board of Selectmen signed a three-year contract to make him the full-time town administrator. Now, he looks forward to getting (back) to work.
“I got to realize how much I did like it and that there are really, really good people here,” he said. “I’m very excited to have been offered the full-time gig.”
Kreidler grew up in Fitchburg, and he recalls visiting Townsend a number of times (including on his first date with his wife). He has spent virtually all of his adult life in public service: after graduating from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in government, he quickly began working with the Boston Housing Authority.
He spent five years as assistant to the mayor of Gardner before taking over as Ayer’s Town Administrator for another five years. Following that, he served as town manager in Winchendon for 15 years.
And despite his Ivy League education and those years of experience, Kreidler said he has always wanted to stay at the small-town municipal level, not move up to a state or federal job.
“I like being at the local level,” he said. “I like the fact that you’re face-to-face with people who are realizing the impacts — ideally positively, but sometimes negatively — of the decisions that are being made. It’s not like the opportunity to work at the state or federal level where you’re that much more removed from people who are feeling the decisions that are being made.”
Kreidler left his post in Winchendon under tense circumstances. In the fall of 2014, the town hit a financial crisis that came about from a “perfect storm” of circumstances, as the town’s auditors described it at the time.
At the November 2014 Town Meeting, residents successfully petitioned to remove Kreidler even though the Board of Selectmen had expressed unanimous support and indicated there was no “just cause” to terminate him. Kreidler stayed in Winchendon for about six months to help navigate the town through the crisis, and then at a special Town Meeting in April, residents voted to buy out the remainder of his recently signed contract for about $300,000.
Kreidler acknowledges that mistakes were made in Winchendon, but he said the truth is more complicated than some who pin the whole issue on him might believe. And in Townsend, he wants to move forward.
“All told, I think there’s a narrative that’s easy to tell and sexy to sell that isn’t rooted in all of the facts,” he said.
In December, Kreidler took over in an interim role following former Town Administrator Andrew Sheehan’s departure for Middleton. At the time, Kreidler did not yet know if he intended to stay in Townsend long-term, but the interim position was a good test drive.
Once he got settled in, he said, he realized how much he likes Townsend, from its government policies to the town’s character, a blend of agriculture and small businesses. And that was enough to make him want to stay, despite what he described as a “fractured” political climate.
“Probably around the time of Town Meeting (in May), when I saw how things were operating, was when I started seriously considering putting in (for the job),” he said. “Building a Town Meeting warrant, building a budget … there’s a lot of moving parts there, and I was just very impressed how everybody, from the (Board of Selectmen) to the Finance Committee to the moderator to the staff across the board, did their respective part and pulled it all off.”
Kreidler outlined several goals now that he is in a permanent position. He wants to revive the town’s former fiscal sustainability committee, which he said has not been active at least since he became interim town administrator.
A $35,000 Community Compact grant that the town recently received from the state will fund a financial policy review. Also as part of the grant, the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management at UMass Boston will develop a five-year plan for Townsend.
He said the town is on stable financial footing at least through next year, although education is always a “wild card.” (For example, look at Groton and Dunstable, where a large increase in the school district’s request, designed to address performance and service gaps in the district, prompted override votes.)
The town administrator also expressed support for some form of public comment period at meetings, a practice that he said is “not uncommon” in other towns. The trick, he said, is finding the right way to balance that: if a town openly allows for comments at, say, the Board of Selectmen meetings, it does not have much ability to limit the content of such comments.
A June 4 Worcester Telegram article indicated that the Worcester City Council has been facing some challenges, including coarse language and personal attacks, since implementing a public comment period at its meetings.
“If you allow speech generally, you can’t pick and choose as the select board or as the government,” Kreidler said. “You can’t censor speech based on content.”
So Kreidler said he hopes to see some sort of policy become official in Townsend, so long as it is one that carefully delineates what is appropriate.
“The advice I’ve been giving to the (Board of Selectmen) is that whatever steps are made toward opening up that public comment space, the rules be clearly defined, and things be kept appropriately loose to allow people to communicate, but appropriately tight so that things don’t get out of hand,” he said. “It’s something that there’s a great deal of interest in but also a great deal of caution. But that will definitely be one of the policies (I target) going forward.”
More generally, he hopes to see Townsend come together after almost a year of splintered, almost tribal local politics, full of personal insults during meetings and numerous barbs delivered subversively on Facebook.
“My sense of the pulse of the community right now is that it’s fractured,” Kreidler said. “When I started, I was aware of that. I walked into it with my eyes wide open … Some derision was thrown my way, when I talked about wanting to broker a peace between the two obvious factions. That hasn’t happened, and I’m hopeful it can happen.”
And despite all of that, Kreidler wants the town to see him as committed.
“This isn’t something that I wake up dreading. This is a passion of mine, and it’s something that I’ve chosen. God willing, it’s something I’ll finish my career doing. I want people to know I care.”
Follow Chris Lisinski on Twitter and Tout @ChrisLisinski.