Q&A with new Town Manager Bob Peabody

GETTING COMFORTABLE Monday in Mitch Berkowitz’s former office was new Bridgton Town Manager Bob Peabody. (Geraghty Photo)

GETTING COMFORTABLE Monday in Mitch Berkowitz’s former office was new Bridgton Town Manager Bob Peabody. (Geraghty Photo)

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Two weeks into his new job, Bridgton Town Manager Bob Peabody sits in an office that former Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz has yet to clear out.

But Peabody considers himself lucky that he’ll be able to learn from Berkowitz, who won’t officially retire until Oct. 2. The Bridgton News met with Peabody Monday for an initial interview. What follows are questions we asked, and his answers:

BN: What led you to apply for the Bridgton job?

Peabody: I’ve known Mitch for a very long time, back since about 1980 when I started in Berlin, N.H. He was the Recreation Director and I was City Assessor. And when I heard he was retiring, I reached out to him, because I’d been over this way quite a bit visiting, and I think the area is extremely beautiful, and I really very much liked your downtown, too, being a former downtown merchant and growing up in a downtown merchant family. I thought the downtown was very appealing, so I reached out to him, and here I am. Only for information, because you want some background before you apply.

BN: Wife? Children?

Peabody: My wife’s name is Karla. Three children: Shaunacy, mid-30s, Alexander, 21, and Emma, 19, and one grandchild, who will be three in August.

BN: You’ve spent a great deal of your professional and personal life in the Rockland-Rockport area, you grew up in Bath. As beautiful as this area is, it’s quite a change to be away from the coast.

Peabody: It’s still water.

BN: Are you going to be able to make that transition? I’ve heard once you’ve lived on the coast long enough, you’re kind of wed to it.

Peabody: I don’t see that as an issue.

BN: Are you going to move here?

Peabody: Yes, I am. There’s a lot of similarities too. If you look at Bridgton’s year-round population of 5,500 and then you go up to 12,000 in the summer months, that’s very similar to the coast, where you have that kind of seasonality, the returning of your summer residents. So I’m used to that sort of cyclical nature.

BN: What’s the population of Rockport?

Peabody: Rockport (where he was town manager for nine years) is 3,400. Rockland (where he was a city councilor eight years, mayor three years) is about 7,300. Rockland appears bigger, because it’s a service center, and its infrastructure is built around 30,000 people working there during the day. And it’s also a service center that has the county seat. So it seems bigger than it is.

BN: Do you consider Bridgton as a service center for the Lake Region?

Peabody: Most certainly, with the downtown, because if you look at the surrounding towns, we have the downtown.

BN: What is your impression of the Bridgton community, now that you’ve been here for a while?

Peabody: Well, I’ve been here all of two weeks. I’m very impressed by the staff, the quality of the staff and their dedication to the town. And I’m very much looking forward to working with them.

BN: How about (Deputy Town Manager) Georgiann (Fleck)? I bet you’re happy to have her working with you.

Peabody: I am — she’s a powerhouse. And also, a lot of the staff have been here quite a while, so you have an institutional knowledge, which sometimes you just don’t have because there’s vast turnover.

BN: Did the selectmen give you a list of priorities that they’d like you to focus on?

Peabody: We haven’t had what I would call our goal-setting session yet. I think we’re taking the opportunity to transition. This is an unusual situation. You rarely have a manager being able to work with the leaving manager. I think it’s going to be very beneficial to the town. Typically you come into these situations cold. The other manager’s left, the seat may have already turned cold by the time you sit in it. It’s given me the opportunity to learn from Mitch, as well as being brought up to speed on any of the issues. When I look at an agenda, I can say, Mitch, what’s this agenda item for, instead of having to run around and try to learn it, and maybe learn it wrong.

BN: When you went to Old Orchard Beach (interim town manager, 3/13–9/13), you had to jump into a fire (former Town Manager Mark Pearson had just been fired). Can you talk about how you dealt with that crisis?

Peabody: It was interesting. It was a matter of not becoming embroiled, myself, in it. It was a matter of working with staff, trying to keep the boat going forward, instead of hitting a sandbar or sinking. I tried to keep up with all of the things that were falling between the cracks. I was negotiating three labor union contracts at the same time, and was able to actually bring to the council, when I left, a package for the public works department for ratification. I had to put a budget together in a very short period of time — thank goodness I had a good staff for that. So it was a matter of focusing on keeping staff’s morale up in the middle of a firestorm.

BN: Did you have hopes of staying there?

Peabody: That was one of the things we had discussed, that possibility. They were always going to go through the search process, and then when the six (selectmen) were voted out and only one remained, and we had six new councilors, they picked up the process once again. And they chose a very good gentleman who actually lived in Old Orchard Beach and had really strong credentials, Larry Mead, who was (town manager) in Kennebunkport, so I helped work with him to transition.

BN: You mentioned the downtown, and your attraction to it. There are so many people in town that have such great hope for the future for downtown. What would you like to see happen?

Peabody: Well, when I look at the downtown I see what’s happened to the Magic Lantern and that area, which is great. What we’re doing for Depot Street — that is going to make, in my mind, a huge difference. When you look at the amount of traffic flowing through downtown during the summer, it’s huge. And what you want people to do is not just drive through it, but to stop. So things like streetscape are incredibly important to creating an atmosphere that beckons a motorist to stop. When I look at all our summer cottages, I think are we doing enough to draw those folks from the cottages, not just to go to the grocery store, but to come into the downtown on a rainy day and hang out.

BN: You have some considerable economic development experience, right?

Peabody: Well, I was on the board of directors for Eastern Midcoast (Development Corporation), and then when our area left Eastern Midcoast, I helped them transition into the Midcoast Economic Development District. We joined up with the Brunswick-Bath area. I’ve always worked with community/economic development directors. And I think coming from a business background, I sort of have an understanding of that world.

BN: I assume you’ll work with the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation.

Peabody: Yes, I haven’t met them yet, but I look forward to developing that relationship.

BN: Other than the downtown, what do you see as the needs or concerns?

Peabody: I think when you look at the economics, we obviously have a high level of people who are in the poverty range, which needs to be addressed. There’s a number of issues, and I don’t mean to assume that I’m well-versed on what all your issues are. I think having a strong commercial base, a strong economic base, helps to mitigate those things, but that’s going to take some time. I need to learn more.

BN: You have some experience with Comprehensive Plans. Tell me about that.

Peabody: Well, I think that what a Comprehensive Plan does is it sets up a roadmap for the community. You get a sense of what the community feels is important. My job as manager is to make sure that we’re aligned with the desires, the goals, and that when we do things, we think about them in the context of the plan.

BN: Could I ask your age?

Peabody: Let’s just say I’m in my early 60s.

BN: What are some of the terms of your contract? Your salary?

Peabody: The first six months is at $75,000, plus benefits, and then after the six-month probationary period it goes to $78,000. It’s a one-year renewable contract.

BN: What were you making in Rockport?

Peabody: I was making $93,000.

BN: What was Mitch making?

Peabody: With his longevity, he was at, I think, $86,326 (the actual number was $85, 326).

BN: Were there any issues in negotiation? Because I got signals that there was a protracted period before agreement.

Peabody:  I would say, I think your selectboard negotiated well on behalf of the town. Neither one of us got exactly what we wanted; we found a workable place in the middle.

BN: The circumstances of when you left Rockport (he was placed on administrative leave in January 2013, and resigned two weeks later) — could you speak to that?

Peabody: I can’t comment on that. Our agreement is such that the town can’t comment and I can’t comment. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to, but I’m just not able to.

BN: You must wish you could, because it remains an unknown.

Peabody: Yeah, which isn’t uncommon, but that’s the way it is.

BN: When do you think you’ll move here?

Peabody: I’m already working with a broker, plus doing some research on my own. For me, it’s a two-hour and 15-minute commute each way (he lives in Rockland), although I am staying part of the week with my oldest daughter, who lives in Farmingdale, which is only an hour and 15 minutes away. I’m anxious to integrate into the community. I’m one of those people that in my public life, I go to the store, I want people to recognize me, and if they have a concern, stop me and talk to me. I’m not one of those that hides in a cave.

BN: What is your impression of the people of Bridgton?

Peabody: They’ve been nice to me so far, but then again I haven’t said ‘no’ to anybody so far. The nature of the work is, you’re not going to make everybody happy. When I was on the (Rockland) City Council, I figured for every decision I made, probably 49% of the people were going to be angry with me, 51% were happy with me, and it would fluctuate back and forth.

BN: How do you deal with crisis? When you have 100 people in a room, all of them upset about one issue or another?

Peabody: Well, I like to think I’m fairly even-keeled. I don’t take it personally, because you can’t. They’re upset about issues, so I try to maintain that demeanor and not take it personally. That’s not always easy to do. I’ve been through four property tax revaluations, so I know what angry taxpayers look like.

BN: You have a fair amount of expertise in assessing.

Peabody:  I used to be a certified Maine assessor, a certified New Hampshire assessor and a certified appraiser. I didn’t keep my licenses, because of the educational requirements. I didn’t want to give up that much time. I also taught real estate valuation for the University of Maine for awhile, too. I oversaw Rockport’s revaluation and Berlin, New Hampshire’s revaluation. I was also involved with Auburn’s. Maybe there was another. Anyway, that was enough.

 

 

 

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