HAMPDEN — Three candidates interviewed with the Hampden Board of Selectmen on Jan. 18, seeking to fill the position of town administrator being vacated by Bob Markel.

The first candidate was Christopher Caputo, a Springfield native with a background in finance. He worked under the Springfield comptroller and managed grants through the city’s Health Department. He became the assistant finance director in Longmeadow, before moving on to Westfield, where he advised three mayors that he described as having “very different personalities.” Caputo said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno reached out personally to recruit him as the city’s finance director.

He is currently the treasurer/collector in Agawam but said many of his tasks are typically those of the finance director. He said he likes Hampden for the “scenic, small-town feel.”

Brian Domina has been the town administrator in Whately since 2016. “I wear a lot of hats because it’s a small town,” he said of the 1,500 residents he serves. After graduating law school, Domina worked for the Berkshire County Planning Commission. He became town administrator in Whately to gain experience. “I’m more comfortable in smaller towns,” he said.

The final candidate was Ryan McNutt, who was town manager in Palmer until October 2023. McNutt began his career campaigning for and then working in the office of a Fitchburg mayor. Over the years since then he has worked in several towns in Massachusetts, as well as New Hampshire. “I enjoy this work,” McNutt said of municipal administration. After working in locations with what he called “high town administrator turnover,” McNutt said he finds the “quiet” nature of Hampden “attractive.”

The board members took turns asking the candidates a series of questions. Board of Selectmen member John Flynn asked how the candidates see the role of town administrator. Caputo said a town administrator sees “the whole picture” and has a hand in all parts of municipal operations. As a leader, he said he would be visible to employees and conduct monthly department head meetings. “I try to be hands-off and let people work,” he said but noted he can step in when needed. Another part of the town administrator’s role is to be seen at events and visible to residents, Caputo said.

Domina prefers day-to-day check-ins with departments, but like Caputo, he said he did not like to micromanage. He said his door is always open. He added that he would send out a letter to residents introducing himself and look to experienced people to help get his bearings.

“The town administrator is a resource for all in town,” Domina said. “I take that role seriously.”

Both Domina and McNutt said they prefer a collaborative environment.

“I have a lot of experience working with a decentralized government,” McNutt said. Palmer is a town of four villages, with different fire and water departments. He said to build a relationship with the community, he finds and fills gaps in how to reach people, whether that is through social media, in person or public access television.

Caputo said the key to balancing budgets is making sure salary lines are accurate. From there, he said, he must “thread the line” between what is needed and what municipal leadership wants to accomplish.

Domina said he meets with department heads and board chairs to start preparing the budget in June of the previous fiscal year, while the capital budget begins to come together at the beginning of January. In his current position, he works with a 10-year capital plan and consults with the Finance Committee and Select Board to determine available funds.

McNutt said the process for creating a budget depends on the community. He said he has taken a leadership role with a finance team and been a town administrator in which he acted as a one voice in the process. One important aspect is to “refine and refine” the budget until it is balanced, McNutt said. He added that financial forecasting to find trends over a five-year span is necessary when building a budget and capital plan.

Board of Selectmen member Craig Rivest asked Caputo how he would suggest handling some of the large and expensive projects the town is beginning to tackle. Caputo said he would pursue a debt exclusion for big-ticket undertakings, specifically the fire station, and pay “in cash” for smaller projects. He said he works with a five-year capital plan and said that includes balancing department needs with project schedules and lead times.

Agawam is in the process of several projects, including a high school worth more than $200 million. He said staying on top of finances is the best way to avoid having to go back to the town for more money. Caputo talked about his experience with grants working with Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and working with legislators for Agawam’s procurement office.

Domina said he is used to cobbling funding together from a variety of sources while saving money where possible. He had a lot of experience administering grants when working with Berkshire County Planning Commission. He has also worked on bridges and Complete Streets projects using state grants. He explained that the town office building in Whately is deteriorating, and a study is currently underway to determine the town’s space requirements. He is exploring grants for this project, as well.

McNutt said he has overseen a town hall expansion, which involved moving departments out of the town hall and finding room for them in other buildings. He was also involved in a major bridge project. When in Fitchburg, he said, he administered housing grants and secured grants for sewer and water line projects. “I easily got $3 or $4 million in grants in New Hampshire,” he attested.
Collective bargaining is something both Caputo and McNutt have done in their professional roles. Whether part of a union or not, Caputo said, “You just have to treat everyone the same.”

Domina said there are no union positions in Whately. He joked, “And we don’t want one.” Domina said he would rely on his team and work to educate himself about the process, as well as research bargaining results in nearby towns.

McNutt said he had over a decade’s experience with collective bargaining and “can do it without counsel.”

When it comes to encouraging civic participation, Caputo said advertising for positions can attract people. People attend Town Meeting based on their interest in the articles, he said.

Domina said defining start and end dates and charging committees with “discrete tasks” helps people not feel as though they are signing on to overwhelming time commitments. He acknowledged that some roles are particularly hard to fill.

McNutt said participation is a “perennial challenge,” but added, “You’ve got to dial down into what people are looking for … and then you’ve got to make it easy for them.”

When Rivest asked Caputo how he would handle people not following procedures, Caputo responded by asking, “Like with the Cemetery Commission?” He referred to a recent incident in which the Cemetery Commission hired an administrative assistant without running a background check and adhering to the town’s compensation schedule. The issue led to the commissioners quitting their positions.

Caputo said that “99% of the time,” the problem is an ignorance of the requirements and state statutes that can be solved by educating the employee or board. In other situations, he said he would sit down with the person. If he still received pushback, he said he would bring the issue to the Board of Selectmen. When it comes to conflict between employees, Caputo said he obtains all the facts and, if needed, figures out what consequences fit the circumstances.

Domina shared a situation he experienced in which an employee was again out of their job and would need to retire but was not happy about it. The person replacing them received a pay raise, and the employee felt slighted. Domina said he did a lot of listening to resolve the situation. He said that employees sometimes disagree with boards, but while it is important to talk with all parties, “at the end of the day, the boards have the authority.”

McNutt said he has worked with many independent boards that have not felt “beholden” to the Board of Selectmen. His role in those cases is to be a mediator, he said.

Each candidate stood out in their own way. Caputo spoke from his finance experience and told the board that, regarding employee health insurance and retirement plans, the state has not been performing as well as private companies. As the president of his neighborhood council in Springfield, Caputo handled matters such as rezoning, liquor licenses and business expansions.

Developments and challenges in Whately mirror Hampden in many ways. The town is largely dependent on residential property tax revenue with a small business community. Domina has experience with multi-town shared services and a regional school district.

McNutt brings his experience with different forms of municipal management. He has worked on a master plan and helped to revitalize a community’s downtown.

Rivest asked McNutt about his recent departure from Palmer. McNutt responded, “I did a lot of amazing things for them,” but he was “uncomfortable” with “political things” and felt the need to move on.

“What towns expect from their town managers and town administrators, the conclaves don’t even want from their future pope,” McNutt remarked.

The Board of Selectmen will decide between the three candidates at its Jan. 29 meeting.

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