During the Board of Selectmen’s meeting last week, Annemarie Fagan sat quietly behind her laptop and took notes as about a dozen Milton residents spoke against a housing proposal.
Then when recess was called, the new town administrator sprang to life.
As the nearly 150 residents who had gathered in opposition to the Milton Mews residential development made their way to the door, Fagan talked with several of them. She also spoke briefly with a lawyer who had offered the town advice on how to fight the proposal.
After patting several of her fellow town residents reassuringly on the shoulder, Fagan returned to the main hall and corralled the selectmen so the meeting could resume, then took her place behind her laptop.
It was her first selectmen’s meeting since being named Milton’s town administrator, but she was in familiar territory. As the assistant town administrator for 13 years, including three stints in the top job on an interim basis, Fagan has been a ubiquitous — though often quiet — presence in public forums. Behind the scenes, however, her knowledge of town issues and effective communication helped her land the top job, and is serving her well during her first few weeks as town administrator, officials say.
Communication within town government was a major issue when selectmen voted 2-1 last summer against retaining Fagan’s predecessor, Kevin Mearn. Since choosing Fagan for the position, the selectmen all have pointed to her strength in this regard.
“She’s coming in being a proven communicator,” said Selectman Robert Sweeney, who voted against Mearn. “With the former town administrator, there were communication problems with various department heads, and that’s now a thing of the past.”
Selectman Thomas Hurley, who voted to renew Mearn’s contract, said he believed Mearn had been doing a good job and there was no reason to replace him. However, Hurley also said he believes that Fagan will be a good town administrator.
In an interview last Friday, Mearn denied that poor communication was the reason his contract was not renewed. He declined to elaborate, except to say that he is planning a report about “irregularities by a department head.”
He also praised Fagan, saying, “She was an excellent candidate and selectmen made a good choice.”
To try to make town government more effective, Fagan has been holding “core team’’ meetings of about 10 officials, including the police chief, fire chief, the Board of Selectmen chairman, and the Department of Public Works director.
Created by one of her predecessors and former mentors, Fagan said, the sessions supplement the more infrequent department head meetings, which involve all 30 or so town leaders.
While the larger gatherings are important, the core team meetings allow for greater communication and creative problem solving, she said. “We get to talk about the hot-button issues of the time and collaborate together, and everyone has some input.”
According to DPW director Joseph Lynch, these meetings have solidified interdepartmental goals.
The meetings were also welcomed by Police Chief Richard Wells, whose relationship with Mearn had deteriorated to the point that they met only a few times a year to discuss the department’s budget.
Wells, who declined to comment about his relationship with Mearn, praised the selectmen’s decision to hire Fagan, the first woman to be town administrator. But he said he didn’t think her gender was a determining factor.
“Annemarie in these last eight months has shown the leader she is,” Wells said.
Looking ahead, Fagan said in an interview that her plans include attracting more commercial development and consolidating town government, though both endeavors will require delicacy.
“We need to work on our structural deficit problem; Milton is basically a residential community, and the tax burden does need to find that balance between commercial and residential,” Fagan said.
The ideal locations to expand development would be in East Milton Square, Milton Village, and the Central Avenue area, where there is already commercial use, she said.
Streamlining personnel at Town Hall also will require caution, said Fagan, who said she preferred to trim the payroll through attrition rather than layoffs.
One position that she has no intention of eliminating is her former job of assistant administrator. Experience has taught her that the work requires well beyond the 37.5 hours allotted for the position.
One of the attributes selectmen praised about Fagan is that she often worked late into the evening to keep up with work, a situation exacerbated by her filling two roles over the past eight months.
Her diligence was a big reason that Selectman Denis Keohane, who voted not to renew Mearn’s contract, wanted to give Fagan a chance in the top job. “She was always good enough to be interim administrator, but she was never appointed, and that bothered me,” Keohane said.
Fagan said her children and her mother grew up in Milton, and she is fully invested in the town. She also said she appreciates the chance to serve in her new role after years as assistant town administrator.
“It’s nice when you are valued and people recognize the work you’ve been doing,” Fagan said. “It’s very humbling.”