Falmouth Town Administrator Steps Down

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By: Christopher Kazarian
Published: 11/09/10

Amidst a year filled with controversy and speculation that selectmen were set to vote him out at least twice during the past nine months, Falmouth Town Manager Robert L. Whritenour Jr. stepped down quietly, submitting a letter of resignation to the board on Friday.

Last night the board accepted his resignation, ending his nine-and-a-half-year run as Falmouth’s chief leader.

Outside of a vote in which board Chairman Brent V.W. Putnam, Selectman Mary (Pat) Flynn and Selectman Melissa C. Freitag voted to accept Mr. Whritenour’s request, little else was divulged by the board.

Both Selectmen David Braga and Ahmed A. Mustafa abstained from the vote.

The board then appointed Assistant Town Manager Heather B. Harper to acting town manager effective immediately, with only Mr. Braga abstaining from the vote.

Her initial term will be for 90 days, although Ms. Flynn said the board can extend that another 90 days, should it so desire.

The terms of his package were not released, but, in his contract, Mr. Whritenour’s severance would equal six months’ salary in addition to being entitled to receive payment for any unused vacation, sick, and personal days.

His last official day will be December 1, but he will take unused vacation time until that point.

His current salary is $139,049.84.

A long history in Falmouth

When Mr. Whritenour was hired in May 2001, at the age of 39, his starting salary was $101,000, representing a $24,000 increase from his previous job as the Mashpee town administrator which he had held since 1992. Just a year earlier, in 1991, Mr. Whritenour had unsuccessfully applied for the town administrator position in Falmouth.

During his second attempt at landing the job, he told selectmen at the time that it was one of his life’s desires to be Falmouth’s town administrator.

He fulfilled that goal and now, nearly 10 years later, Mr. Whritenour wanted to reflect on his contributions to the town as opposed to the ugliness that marred his last year in office. It was during that time, he said yesterday, that he seriously considered stepping down from his position.

But the town nearly lost him two years ago when he applied for the town administrator position in Dennis before he bowed out after being named one of four finalists for the job.

Over the past year his relationship with selectmen soured, highlighted by an unsuccessful attempt by the board to place him on paid administrative following accusations by a former town employee that Mr. Whritenour had sexually harassed her.

Those harassment claims were later ruled to be unfounded following an investigation by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

But Mr. Whritenour’s troubles with the board did not end there. In February selectmen were said to have initiated steps to remove him, although that attempt went nowhere. And again, in September, selectmen held a vote regarding Mr. Whritenour’s future and had been negotiating over the past month the terms of his settlement.

Focusing on the positive

In assessing his time in Falmouth, Mr. Whritenour said he is focusing on the positive rather than the negative. Holding a badge he received during last month’s International City Management Association Annual Conference for 25 years of municipal service, Mr. Whritenour touted his overall commitment to “helping build communities and increase the quality of life in those communities.”

As to how he did that here, Mr. Whritenour rattled off a slew of accomplishments he said he rarely took credit for, but was instrumental in helping the town achieve.

This included helping the town withstand two recessions, one in 2004 and another in 2009, without having to reduce services or push through an override.

He has tackled health insurance reform in Falmouth and is actively working on another round of reforms that could save the town $1 million in costs.

Before arriving here, he said, town employees “were paying health insurance premiums that were like mortgage payments... I remember I introduced HMOs to the town.”

He also highlighted his work on the Falmouth Retirement Board, noting that due to his efforts it is one of the stronger boards in the region, with a strong return on its investments.

Prior to arriving in Falmouth, he said, there were never independent audits conducted of the board, something that happens now on an annual basis.

And he also mentioned his efforts to not only meet the town’s Climate Action Plan goals for 2020, but exceeding them in 2010.

Other achievements that occurred during his tenure include strengthening the town’s ties with the business community as well as the town’s acquisition of the Falmouth Country Club property in 2004 without incurring any debt to cover the $15.8 million purchase.

And he was proud of the growth Ms. Harper has shown professionally with his support.

“I have worked hard with Heather Harper to enhance her position and professional development, making that one of my top priorities,” he said.

The next step

As to where he will go from here, Mr. Whritenour said, “I intend to take some time to spend with my family and recharge a little.”

He plans on remaining in Falmouth, but has already secured a consulting position with the University of Massachusetts Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management, where he plans on helping other communities that may be in financial disarray, facing problems of housing and homelessness.

In Falmouth, those situations, are by and large nonexistent.

“We are extremely fortunate here in Falmouth in that we have a wonderful community,” he said. “I feel strongly that Falmouth is in very good shape financially and has weathered this recession.”

As to where Falmouth goes from here, Mr. Putnam is unsure. As a vocal critic of Mr. Whritenour—he has told him previously he should seek employment elsewhere—Mr. Putnam refused to comment specifically on the town manager or his performance during his time here.

But he did focus on the direction the town is headed.

“Falmouth is really a town in transition,” he said. “It is grappling right now with its identity. We’ve always thought of Falmouth as a small town, but in reality it is closer to a small city these days.”

This realization, he said, needs to guide future decisions, both in terms of shaping Falmouth’s form of government and finding the right person to lead the town in the future.

“I don’t know if I have a list of criteria or things I’d like to see in a town manager or mayor, but I would want them to look at the landscape and what it is Falmouth needs,” he said.

“They should start to look at what Falmouth is today and what it will be in five, 10, or 20 years.”

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