BRUNSWICK — Two finalists hoping to fill the vacant town manager’s office were grilled at two public question-and-answer sessions in the last week.
Brunswick Finance Director and interim Town Manager John Eldridge, and Presque Isle City Manager Jim Bennett, were selected by the Town Council last month as the final candidates for the full-time job.
Both candidates have decades of experience in municipal government. Coincidentally, they have taught a finance class together for the Maine Municipal Association for several years.
Councilors will take time to digest the public input and are not expected to make an immediate hiring decision, Chairman Benet Pols said.
In a packed Sept. 4 meeting in the Town Council chambers, Bennett responded to questions about his management style, development and professional history, including the circumstances of his abrupt departure as Lewiston’s city manager in 2009.
A Lisbon native, Bennett started his career in municipal government in 1982, when he was elected to the board of selectmen in his hometown. He has been employed as manager in communities across Maine, including Dixfield, New Gloucester, Old Orchard Beach and Westbrook.
Bennett said he and his wife, who grew up in Brunswick, have close ties to the area and want to come back to their roots.
Pressed about his management style, Bennett said he is interested in finding ways to help Brunswick’s public officials accomplish their goals, rather than steering them into decisions he thinks are best.
That approach is a “monumental shift” from how he worked in his earlier career, and was a result of his experience in Lewiston, Bennett said.
He said he prefers to arrange plenty of time for due diligence and public input before making decisions, especially on controversial projects.
“If most of the people had the same information as the elected officials, they would make the same decisions,” Bennett said.
Responding to a question from resident Richard Fisco, Bennett denied there was anything improper about his departure from Lewiston.
“I didn’t do anything illegal, I didn’t do anything unethical,” Bennett said, adding that substantial changes in the city under his administration may have stirred up opposition to him.
“When you make changes, you end up inevitably having enemies,” Bennett said. “That’s part of the business.”
Town Councilor Jane Millett pressed Bennett about his involvement with Casella Waste Systems, which became embroiled in two controversial projects in Westbrook and Lewiston.
Bennett replied that he had no personal business dealings with Casella. The project in Westbrook threatened to cut into the revenue of a nearby facility owned by a collection of municipalities, which fought against the proposal, he said.
Throughout his career, he said, he has found that no business is more “cutthroat” than trash.
Public uproar over plans for Casella to expand Lewiston’s landfill were unexpected by the City Council and his office, Bennett said, leading him to recommend killing the project.
Jump-starting economic development has been one of his strengths, Bennett said, pointing to success he had in Lewiston and Westbrook.
Development tools like tax increment financing districts should be carefully analyzed to make sure they will be beneficial for the town, and must be weighed individually, he said.
Cutting costs and keeping taxes down requires inventive solutions to keep public services, Bennett said in response to a question about how he would deal with budget pressures and reduced financial aid from the state.
As an example, he pointed to a decision in Presque Isle to share the University of Maine’s in-ground pool, allowing the city to tear down its own pool and save around $100,000 a year.
“It was a hard thing to swallow for that community, but its an example of the things you have to do,” Bennett said.
The questions Eldridge faced in a Sept. 8 session focused on the same themes as Bennett’s, although his familiarity with the community tended to focus questions and responses on specific issues.
Formally the town manager of Bradley and South Berwick, Eldridge has been Brunswick’s finance director for the last 26 years.
He became interim town manager in February, replacing former Town Manager Gary Brown, who was dismissed by the council after announcing his resignation less than two months before.
His long experience as a department head in town should be taken into consideration, Eldridge suggested, particularly since over a 10-year period Brunswick has paid him close to $1 million, including benefits.
“That’s a heck of an investment,” Eldridge said. “You’d like to think you’d get your money’s worth at this point.”
Dealing with declining financial aid from the state and budget pressures required the town to consider more long-term planning, Eldridge said.
“I don’t think there’s an expectation at all that the state is all of a sudden going to have all kinds of money,” he said. “I think we all have to take a longer-term view on what is supportable and sustainable.”
Similarly, the town should look at long-term costs to prioritize new projects and start reserve funds for maintenance of town-owned buildings to avoid expensive emergency repairs or replacements, he told the crowd.
“These are massive investments and we have to maintain them,” Eldridge said.
Although it can plan better to reduce costs, Brunswick also needs new businesses to diversify its tax base, especially after the tough half-decade it has had, Eldridge said.
In terms of offering subsidies and TIFs to developers, Brunswick must consider their merit on a case-by-case basis, Eldridge said, adding there are more aspects to consider than property taxes.
“Unfortunately or fortunately, that’s the nature of the world we live in,” Eldridge said. “Capital seeks where it’s appreciated, and I think you have to judge it on the overall benefits to the community.”
Questioned about a property deal with a hotel developer on Noble Street, Eldridge said he was not directly involved in the project, but that there were parts of the project that town leadership could have handled better.
Asked by Deborah King of the Brunswick Downtown Association about the role her group should play, Eldridge said Brunswick is distinct because of its many active stakeholders outside of town government.
While that arrangement at times creates friction, Eldridge said he recognizes an opportunity for the town and local groups to work together and share resources.
“Everyone has different priorities, and I think that as long as everyone understands that, and comes to the table and agrees on a collaborative approach, I think that’s a great thing,” Eldridge said. “Government can’t be all things to all people in this town.”
Providing as much information as possible to the public is critical to keep people engaged with important decisions in front of the council, and it is important to do as much outreach as possible to sell decisions to the community, he said.
“Most people, when they get the full facts, the full story, feel like you’ve listened, feel like you’ve considered their point of view,” he said, “(and) are pretty open for what you want to do.”
Eldridge finished the session by defending the council’s decision to spend $5,000 on the town manager search. It was a big decision, and the council had to do its due diligence so it can be comfortable with the choice it ultimately makes.
“In the end,” he said, “I think it makes it a more credible decision.”