After a month without a town administrator, Oak Bluffs selectmen voted Tuesday night to sign a contract with former Falmouth town manager Robert Whritenour, who will serve in an interim role. The position will last for 13 weeks or until the town finds a permanent replacement for Michael Dutton, who resigned in July.
On Tuesday selectman and board chairman Kathy Burton said she did not think the town had suffered as a result of its August stretch without an administrator and yesterday she said she welcomed the addition of Mr. Whritenour to town hall.
“I’m looking forward to working with Bob,” she said. “I’ve been trying to fill in as the interim town administrator and while I have a lot of corporate experience I don’t have a lot of municipal experience other than the two years I’ve been here, so for sure we’re looking for help determining budget cuts.”
Mr. Whritenour will be paid a salary of $1,730.77 per week and will join the town’s ranks on Tuesday when he will attend a finance committee meeting. He will commute to the Island from Falmouth; Ms. Burton said a town vehicle will be made available for his use.
Selectmen have been negotiating with Mr. Whritenour since selecting him for the temporary post on August 9. The plan calls for hiring a permanent replacement for Mr. Dutton by this fall; Mr. Whritenour has expressed interest in that position as well.
He inherits a town saddled with financial problems and a recent history of running afoul of state competitive bidding laws. Ms. Burton said the town is looking to cut roughly $300,000 from its 2012 budget.
“Our finances are clearly the biggest challenge facing Oak Bluffs right now and he has extensive experience as a town manager in all the areas we need assistance,” she said.
In a telephone conversation on Thursday, Mr. Whritenour, who calls himself a “student of municipal government,” said his experience in Falmouth will be an asset as he takes the top senior management post in Oak Bluffs. In fiscal year 2010 Mr. Whritenour had the job of trimming over $3 million from Falmouth’s $100 million-plus budget.
“It was an extremely difficult process, similar to the difficult process that’s going on in Oak Bluffs,” he said. “I’m here to say that there’s no magic wand, there are no easy answers but it really does involve working very closely with all the various department heads. Any reductions you make are really confined to make the government more sustainable and poised so that service levels can rebound very quickly when the economy turns around, but it’s not an easy process.”
In Falmouth Mr. Whritenour managed to make the necessary reductions while avoiding layoffs.
“My philosophy of municipal finance is that you can’t put your eggs in one basket and say one department is expendable over another,” he said. “What we really had to do was reexamine operations from the ground up from every single cost center in the entire town. We went across the board and there were a lot of positions that we had to eliminate through attrition, but to me the most creative cuts came from working with department heads to examine ways of getting the job done for less money.”
Selectmen went into a half-hour executive session on Tuesday at the close of their regularly scheduled selectmen’s meeting and reconvened to vote to approve Mr. Whritenour’s contract. The vote was not unanimous.
“I oppose and I oppose specifically for the reason that I just can’t accept in good conscience a temporary employment contract for 13 weeks that allows for somebody to get up to 13 days of paid sick, vacation or other time,” said selectman Gail Barmakian. “Otherwise I’m for it.”
Mr. Whritenour’s contract provides for five days of paid vacation, three days of paid sick leave and one day of paid personal leave. In addition the contract includes five paid holidays: Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day and two days for Thanksgiving.
Mr. Whritenour graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in urban policy formation and received a graduate degree in public administration from the University of Maine at Orono in 1985. He served as Falmouth town manager for 10 years, and was the Mashpee town administrator for a decade before that. He was also recently a finalist for the position of Chatham town administrator and finance director of Quincy.
Mr. Whritenour’s track record in Falmouth was uneven. While he managed Falmouth’s $100 million budget and oversaw alternative energy and redevelopment projects in town, he also publicly clashed with town officials and resigned under pressure last November.
Selectmen acknowledged that history during their deliberations last month.
“Like any candidate you will find some criticisms, and without getting into the details, there are criticisms about Mr. Whritenour,” said selectman Walter Vail at the time. “He has the strong financial background that we need right now. We need somebody that can step into the interim role right now with the kind of skills that he has. . . Despite anything anybody might want to say about his background this will be something good for us.”
On Thursday Mr. Whritenour emphasized the positive, spelling out the reasons for his interest in the position and sounding a note of optimism for the troubled town.
“I think I’m a good fit because I have 25 years experience as a municipal manager and 20 years of experience as a town manager here on the Cape,” he said. “I’m very familiar with the Vineyard. I’ve met with the board of selectmen and discussed some of the issues they’re confronting which involve still dealing with the lingering after-effects of the 2009 recession and structural deficit issues. One of my strengths is in the area of financial planning and the board of selectmen is extremely energized so I think the town really is in a good position to respond to their challenges.”