After consecutive public interviews with the two finalists for town manager on Aug. 14, some members of the Bedford Select Board commented that either would be a good selection.
But it only took about eight minutes for the board to agree to offer the position to Matthew Hanson, town manager in Tyngsborough.
Although there weren’t specific comments, board members indicated they felt that Hanson was in a better position to make the transition to a larger town with specific priorities.
Hanson has a little more experience in municipal management. He began as Tyngsborough Assistant Town Administrator in November 2015 and was named administrator in April 2017, about a year before Gregory Johnson accepted a similar position in Maynard. Hanson also was elected to two terms on the Chelmsford Board of Selectmen, served on the Finance Committee, and was an elected town meeting representative for 13 years.
Indeed, when asked how he would reconcile a difference of opinion between the town manager and Select Board, Hanson said, “Having been on both sides of the table, my job is to bring the best information, the best advice.”
When asked why they applied for the position, both candidates’ replies indicated familiarity with the town and major issues. Hanson added that he conversed with former Town Manager Sarah Stanton, who confirmed “the strong cohesion on your board and strong staff.”
He also cited the prospects of a new fire station and said he has experience with municipal construction projects, adding that “communication, collaboration, and consensus building are something I always felt was a strong suit of mine.”
Asked about long-term goals, Hanson said he collaborates with his Select Board and “I tend to bring as many goals to the table as they do. I do have a vision for the community,” he said, based on his daily exposure.
Johnson defined his role as asking the board, “What are you trying to accomplish?” He defers to
Budget preparation was central to both candidates’ experience, but there were differences in range and approach.
“During my entire time, I have been the lead architect of the budget,” Hanson said of his Tyngsborough years. “I have been through every aspect of the budget process,” and participated in bond rating calls, increasing reserve balances, developing short- and long-range capital plans, and a townwide facility assessment.
Hanson said he assembled financial analyses for major projects and came up with a plan that made a $10 million sewer expansion palatable, based on the projected growth it would engender. Hanson said he also brought financial policies and procedures to Tyngsborough.
Johnson stressed how much more he has had to do with less in Maynard.
“We are conservative by demand,” he said. “We really need to be sensitive and conservative in our budgeting. That has always been my approach.”
He said he especially enjoys capital planning, which is also limited by available resources. The town’s financial policies regarding issues like use of surplus funds “more often than not are aspirational,” he added.
Both candidates emphasized their accessibility and transparency.
“I love being able to connect with people who are engaged and interested. I would rather put information out there than have to have people ask for it,” Hanson said.
“I am an extrovert. I’m happy to meet with everybody,” Johnson said.
Hanson cited his experience with Middlesex 3, the regional economic collaborative first envisioned by former Town Manager Rick Reed.
“You need your large businesses and institutions to be on board to succeed” when applying for MassWorks and other large state grants, he said. Bedford has prioritized those grants for infrastructure improvements in the Middlesex Turnpike corridor.
Johnson cited his success with the local economic development committee and his communication with local business.
Asked about leadership style, Hanson said, “Most important is leading by example.” He stressed “equitable treatment of everyone,” and added, “It’s great to be liked but often the town manager has to wear the hat of a disciplinarian or enforcer. But if your staff know you’re fair across the board, it goes much easier.”
Johnson, who said he employs “a lot of patience, a lot of listening,” added, “I do want people to like me, but ultimately, I am many people’s boss.”
Another question included relations with members of volunteer committees. In Tyngsborough, “we created a board and committee code of conduct, including relations with staff members,” Hanson said.
Johnson stressed Maynard’s reliance on volunteers. “I would meet with as many boards and committees as I could and be responsive to what they do.”
Each candidate was asked about ways he tries to bring people together.
“What creates a lot of animosity is that feeling of not being heard,” Hanson said. “I do like to try to make as many people happy as possible. There are often ways when you can work a little harder to get some sort of compromise.” He added, “You don’t want someone to say, ‘You didn’t care what I said.’”
Johnson said he tries to defuse a disagreement “even before it becomes public. I’m not necessarily dissuading anyone but I want to hear them out. People are really looking out for what they think is best for the community. With that in mind we can usually come to some common ground – but not every time.”
Both finalists were strong advocates of local government’s role in adapting to climate change.
“If everybody thinks you’re too small to have an impact, then you won’t get anywhere,” said Hanson. “You can’t wait for other people to fix your problems. I think I would be a strong leader to help lead some of those efforts.”
Regarding the position of energy and sustainability manager, which has been vacant for more than a year, Hanson said perhaps the educational requirements in the job description are too stringent. Someone with experience in marketing could be effective as well, if a high level of support is implicit, he suggested.
Johnson said that government sets the tone but needs to be consistent with the “pace of the community. There has to be collaboration between the various interests.”
Hanson said diversity, equity, and inclusion collectively are “a topic that encompasses everything that we touch.”
Beyond hiring, he said, all the town’s services should be equitable. “Every decision that I or the board make should be put through the lens of: Is this fair? Is this working for everyone?”
In Tyngsborough, he noted, televised government meetings now feature closed captions, and there is special seating at town meeting for people with impaired vision or hearing.
Johnson said he recognizes DEI from multiple perspectives, “and you need to seek those out.” He acknowledged that diversity in hiring has been a challenge in Maynard, where “we try to hire as inclusively as possible.” The local disability commission has been a positive resource, he added.
Both finalists also detailed extensive experience negotiating with municipal collective bargaining units.
“I’m a real numbers guy – I love spreadsheets and forecasting,” Hanson told the board.