Brandon selectman hired to serve as town manager

BRANDON — Selectman Dave Atherton is Brandon’s new town manager.
The Brandon selectboard announced its decision to hire Atherton at a busy selectboard meeting Monday night.
Heeding input from voters over the last month, the selectboard chose a local candidate to fill the position that became open when Town Manager Robin Bennett resigned last month.
Atherton will have to resign from the selectboard before taking the new job. His town manager contract will take effect April 20, after two other board members return from vacation.
Brandon selectboard Chair Doug Bailey said that the board has heard from several community members in recent weeks, urging the town to hire a Vermonter, or better yet, someone local.
Atherton was the first candidate to apply, Bailey said. There were 13 applicants for the position, and while Bailey acknowledged that many of them had prior town management experience, he said they were unknown quantities.
“It was a unanimous decision by the board,” Bailey said. “Dave is the best person to get the job done and we know his pedigree. We feel really good about this choice.”
The move comes just a month after Bennett was put on administrative leave by the board following a performance review. The board, town attorney, Bennett and her legal counsel came to a resignation agreement two weeks later. The town agreed to pay Bennett $12,578 as a settlement in return for her resignation, which was effective March 9, the day she was put on leave.
Bennett, 44, a native of Maine, was hired in August 2013 following the resignation of former town manager Keith Arlund in March of that year.
Atherton, 43, is a self-employed paralegal. Originally from Bristol, he is married to Heather Norton, owner/operator of the Village Spa in Brandon. They have two children, Benjamin, 11, and Elizabeth, 8. The family resides in Forest Dale.
Atherton graduated from Woodbury College in 1996, but chose to turn his pre-law degree into a paralegal career. He and his wife owned West Street Market in Proctor for two years before moving back to Brandon in 2007.
Bailey said the fact that Atherton has been self-employed for so long spoke volumes to the board.
“Dave has a strong work ethic,” Bailey said. “He has strong ties to the community and we’re sure he’ll impress us all. He comes knowing what goes on in our town, our problems, and he knows our staff.”
In an interview Monday, Atherton said he applied for the job of town manager based on his experience as a selectman over the last three years. He was unopposed in March when he ran for re-election to another three-year term.
“After being so active in town projects over the last two and a half years, the board knew we had to keep the ball rolling,” he said. “When the ad for town manager went out, I thought, ‘Jeez, I could do this.’”
At Monday’s board meeting Bailey made a point of saying that Atherton was removed from the board’s town manager selection process the moment his résumé was received.
For Atherton, the new job is bittersweet. He said he has enjoyed being on the current selectboard and will miss it.
“I really like our board,” he said. “I really wish I could find someone like me to go on in my place.”
And it’s good that Atherton is so fond of this board, because they will soon be his collective boss, which he pointed out.
“I think we’ve got really level-headed folks on the board,” he said. “There’s no agenda, they just want what’s best for the town. I don’t have to worry about the direction the board is going in because we’ve set that course.”
Bennett was chosen after a six-month search via the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, for which the town paid $5,000. There were 65 applications, and the local search committee named Bennett the top candidate.
But concerns from townspeople and board members alike grew over Bennett’s job performance and her ability to achieve results regarding the myriad projects facing the town.
There also were questions about Bennett’s previous work with the city of Barre, where she was the city manager for one year, and the town of Southwest Harbor, Maine. In both cases, Bennett left those positions with a settlement and a non-disclosure clause, preventing her from discussing the details of her departure.
Some also questioned Bennett’s $85,000 salary, although it is in line with what town managers around Vermont are making in towns of comparable size to Brandon.
Atherton has been contracted at a lower salary, $69,000 a year, plus an up-to-$5,000 incentive plan based on performance.
Brandon is facing a host of large-scale infrastructure projects over the next three years, including the upgrade of Route 7/Segment 6 through downtown Brandon; ongoing flood repair projects; the renovation of the town office building; the rehabilitation of Bridge 114 in the downtown; the design and construction of the overflow culvert under Center Street; and road upgrades on Union Street, Wheeler Road and others. Atherton said he is prepared for the long haul.
“I’ve got a lot ahead of me,” he said. “I can see five years of being pretty busy.”
Atherton said he is anxious to get started and is looking forward to working with the town staff members, all of whom he knows well.
“One of my biggest decisions in doing this is that I do know the staff, and they are great,” he said. “They are so dedicated to the town, but you still have to treat them like your neighbors and not just like employees of the town, because they are your neighbors.”
Atherton said he is certain that the town of Brandon will be able to accomplish much in the years to come.
“With the quality of people in the town office, we can get it done,” he said.

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