Oak Bluffs administrator balances politics and performance

Oak Bluffs town administrator Bob Whritenour oversees town affairs. — File photo by Steve Myrick

This is the first in a series of profiles of town administrators on Martha’s Vineyard, illuminating what they do, and how they work with selectmen, town employees, and taxpayers.

Oak Bluffs town administrator Bob Whritenour sits in his town hall office, swiveling back and forth between two desks. Within reach is a bookcase that holds reams of regulations that govern what he can and cannot do.

By his own account, he has about “50 balls in the air at any one time.” He makes dozens of decisions, large and small, each day.

Mr. Whritenour put his degrees in public administration from the University of Rhode Island and the University of Maine to work in Newburyport, Mashpee, and Falmouth before Oak Bluffs selectmen hired him as an interim town administrator in September 2011. They appointed him to the position three months later.

Mr. Whritenour inherited the job when town finances were in disarray. He is credited by the board of selectmen with turning the financial crisis around and putting the town on track to erase its deficits.

He is fond of a quote that equates efficient government with dictatorships.

“We have the opposite of that,” Mr. Whritenour said. “It’s more than just performing like a business and having positive financial results. It’s achieving a consensus in a community in the direction you’re going, that resources are being spent wisely.”

Private vs. public

Mr. Whritenour chafes a bit when detractors say town government should operate like a business. He points out that if the town were a restaurant, it would have closed under its current financial deficit, but he can’t simply close the town.

“You are providing services, and the idea that you don’t have to provide them efficiently is a misnomer,” Mr. Whritenour said. “People put up a ton of money to take care of these things that they can’t do themselves, and you can’t depend on a corporation. The job has to be done right and it has to be kind of a bargain, and people have to be satisfied.”

The structure of local government is similar to the private sector, where a chief executive officer manages department heads. But Mr. Whritenour says it differs, in a big way, because taxpayers pay his salary, and fund the town’s $24.7 million operating budget.

“The pressure on local governments to perform well as a business is very, very high,” Mr. Whritenour said. “But it is extraordinarily more difficult than running a private business. In the small business world, there is nowhere near the accountability for every single decision as there is in local government. If you’re a CEO, you just do it.”

Striking a balance

In any small town, the town administrator’s job is a balancing act. Mr. Whritenour serves at the will of the town’s five-member board of selectmen, who could vote him out of a job at any time.

“That’s what makes this business interesting, and also very difficult,” Mr. Whritenour said. “You have to have the confidence of the elected leadership and the town, that the decision you’re going to make is going to be in the best interests of the town, not for personal interests, not to try to curry favor. That is real hard. That’s the key piece. It’s easier to get in trouble trying to manipulate political favor. Hopefully in the long run, people will see that.”

Almost every day, someone comes into Mr. Whritenour’s office demanding that he make some decision they view as critically important. If the person making the demand is a selectman, he sometimes has to say no, though the selectman’s vote might cost him his job.

“You can’t shy away from it, you have to be decisive,” Mr. Whritenour said. “You have to be gracious but strong. You develop a sense of confidence after a while where you don’t necessarily feel threatened. It’s always difficult.”

That process has not always gone smoothly for Mr. Whritenour. His relationship with the Falmouth board of selectmen deteriorated at the end of his nine-year tenure as town administrator there. Several selectmen worked publicly and privately to remove him from the job over a six-month period in 2010, and they eventually negotiated his departure. He resigned in November of that year.

Good and bad

The load of mundane administrative tasks is not Mr. Whritenour’s favorite part of the job. He motions to the thick binder of regulations within reach of his desk that govern procurement. The laws are designed to make sure the town gets the best price for goods and services, and everyone has a fair chance to bid on the work. The town ran afoul of those rules in 2010, and wound up under investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office.

“It’s not fun, it’s difficult,” Mr. Whritenour said. “But everything you do, you have to cross every “T” and dot every “I.” Some of those details seem mundane because we are so over-regulated, but it’s for a reason, and we’ve seen what happens when you don’t follow all that stuff.”

The most rewarding part of his job, he says, is getting a lot of disparate factions pulling in the same direction. “When you can see the specific improvements that you can touch, you can feel,” Mr. Whritenour said. “To be able to have a positive impact on how the services are delivered, on how the government functions, is thrilling to me. Working in a community like this, where people are starting to pull together, that’s the best part of the job. I love to see that.”