DRACUT -- Before his job interview with selectmen concluded Tuesday, Gloucester Chief Administrative Officer James Duggan, one of three finalists for the Dracut town manager job, took a moment to heed his late father's advice.
"My dad always said, 'Before you go, you need to let them know you really want the job.' So here you go, Dad," Duggan said with a glance skyward, knocking his pen on the table for emphasis. "Madam chairwoman, members of this committee: I want this job. This job is right for me. I want to finish my career here in Dracut.
Duggan's pen-pounding statement proved to be the passionate peak of what otherwise was a low-key, but highly informative four-hour session, with Selectmen Joe DiRocco, Bob Cox, Tony Archinski, John Zimini and Chairwoman Cathy Richardson posing questions to finalists Duggan, Salem, N.H., Town Manager Keith Hickey and North Reading Town Administrator Greg Balukonis for 90 minutes each.
The prepared questions board members asked each finalist -- including, what's the strongest asset you bring to the job? How would you spur Dracut's economic development? And, what was your biggest career challenge? -- were uniform, with one exception. Cox put Balukonis on the spot about his simultaneously interviewing for the city manager job in Lowell.
"If offered both jobs, I'd choose this one," Balukonis told the board. "This is a better fit for me."
Balukonis, a Shrewsbury resident who has been North Reading's town administrator since 2005, said his greatest strengths include "numbers crunching," putting together "very detailed" and balanced budgets annually, and negotiating contracts with unions.
His greatest career challenge, Balukonis said, came in "replacing a retiring, senior staff and building a team" after he first came aboard in North Reading 10 years ago.
Balukonis promised to take a lead role in Dracut's economic-development efforts.
"North Reading is similar to Dracut in that, although it's located along I-93, it's not the easiest town to get to," Balukonis said. "North Reading made a number of changes in its zoning bylaws to encourage economic development, and I would suggest (Dracut) also take a look at the zoning laws."
Prompted by DiRocco, in his concluding remarks Balukonis addressed a July online news story that reported his latest performance review by North Reading selectmen gave him grades of "low satisfactory" and "needs improvement" across the board.
Balukonis attributed the latest review to a "chemistry" problem with the current North Reading board. It also deserves to be noted that the one negative, "21-page" review was preceded by "seven commendable job performance reviews before that," he said.
Hickey presented himself to selectmen as a town manager who possesses dual strengths in dealing with numbers and people.
"I'm a bean-counter at heart. I know what it takes to put together a budget that is financially sound, not just for the coming year but for the financial long-term needs of a community," Hickey said. "My approach is team-oriented -- more of a coach. My belief is, we have very capable department heads in place who can do their jobs and manage their departments far better than I can. But to make sure they're not operating in silos, I meet with them frequently."
Through his career, Hickey said he has been blessed to work in several New Hampshire towns rich in commercial tax base, including Salem, Bedford and Merrimack, where he was instrumental in getting the retail-outlets project on Exit 10 off Route 3 project approved by the town's Planning Board while acting as both "a referee and cheerleader."
As for Salem's believed good fortune to have $3.8 billion in total assessed property value, such a huge commercial base brings with it "many public-safety and crime challenges that need to be addressed," Hickey said.
Similar to Balukonis, Hickey responded to Richardson's "Would you relocate?" question by responding that, if hired, he'd likely stay at his current residence in Greenfield, N.H.
Only Duggan, a Lowell High School graduate, responded that, if hired, he has already obtained his wife's blessing to move from their current home in Beverly to Dracut, or someplace closer to his childhood home in the Centralville section of Lowell.
If hired, Duggan said, he would use his first 100 days to contact top officials of local chambers of commerce and economic-development committees, UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College; meet with town and school department heads, including individual School Committee members; and comb through previous board meeting minutes and auditors reports, and find out what goals were set by the previous town manager. He'd also reach out to the state legislative delegation.
"So that would be my first hundred days -- or at least first five," Duggan told the board, drawing laughter.
Among his accomplishments as Gloucester's chief administrator, Duggan helped drive the development of the city's open-air mall; negotiated a power-grid deal that "saved the city $19 million"; and sold renaming rights to the city's sports stadium (formerly Newell Stadium) to New Balance for $500,000, he said.
Also, Duggan said, in the wake of Gloucester's 2008 financial crisis created by drastic cuts in state aid, he and other city officials teamed up to create what Department of Revenue officials later called "the most amazing financial turnaround they'd ever seen any municipality do," he said. "It was a turnaround accomplished through discipline, sacrifice and living within our means."
As for his skill with numbers, "I could do Gloucester's budget in my sleep," Duggan said.
The three finalists were presented to the board by the Dracut Town Manager Screening Committee from an initial pool of 22 applicants supplied by the Collins Center recruitment firm, which advertised the position at an annual salary of $135,000.
At the conclusion of the interviews, Richardson complimented the finalists.
"All three of you were incredibly impressive, and very well qualified for the position," Richardson said, addressing Hickey, who interviewed last.
The board is expected to announce its top choice sometime within the next two weeks, Richardson said.
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