Two communities are facing transitions because of the departures of longtime leaders.
Robert E. Mercier retired as Burlington’s town administrator effective June 15, and was succeeded this week by John D. Petrin, former Ashland town manager. Reading Town Manager Peter I. Hechenbleikner announced he is retiring next June 1.
Mercier had been Burlington's town administrator since 1999 after having previously held the post from 1980-1986. Hechenbleikner has been Reading’s only town manager since the town established the job in 1986.
“It’s a little bit bittersweet,” said Mercier, 62. “I really enjoy what I do and it's been a very interesting time. . . . A lot of people go to work and it’s drudgery, but I go to work and I love it.”
But while acknowledging it will take some getting used to, Mercier — who has no immediate plans for his retirement — said he looks forward to the leisure time.
“I want to enjoy life,” said Mercier, a Tyngsborough resident. In particular, he said, he plans to spend more time with his family, which includes his wife, Rosemary, two adult daughters, and a granddaughter who turns 2 this month.
Mercier initially came to Burlington in 1980 when he was hired as the town’s first administrator. In 1986, he left the job after being recruited to be president and chief executive of the North Suburban Chamber of Commerce. A contributing reason for his departure, he recalled, was a desire to spend more time with his family after six grueling years helping Burlington convert to a new form of government and absorb the fiscal impacts of Proposition 2½, the 1980 property tax limitation law.
In 1991, Mercier left the chamber job to become town manager in Billerica. He served until 1998, and after several months as interim executive secretary in Boxborough, he returned to his old job in Burlington.
Looking back at his Burlington years, Mercier said some of his greatest satisfaction comes from knowing his work helped ensure residents enjoyed the basic services a municipality provides, from paving streets to collecting trash.
“This job is where the rubber meets the road, it’s where you directly impact peoples’ everyday lives,” he said.
Mercier said he also takes pride in the town’s financial stability, calling Burlington “very solvent now. We’ve got very good cash reserves.”
He said he is also proud of the role he played in some major construction and renovation, including two recent school building projects, the upgrade of the Mill Pond water treatment plant, and the ongoing restoration of the historic Marion Tavern at Grand View Farm.
Walter Zenkin, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said Mercier brought an ability “to work with people and get things accomplished. . . . If we’re all on the same page and want to get it done, he’s the man to get it done.”
Zenkin said a testament to Mercier’s able job performance is that he is not worried about Burlington’s future prospects.
“He’s put in such a great foundation for us that we will be fine moving forward,” Zenkin said.
Hechenbleikner, who turns 65 this fall, said “It just seems like a good time personally and from the town’s perspective to make a change.
“I've enjoyed every day that I’ve gone to work; there may have been a couple of exceptions, but not that many. But people need to retire at some point. I just thought this was a reasonable time for me to retire,” said Hechenbleikner, a Reading resident.
Hechenbleikner said he plans to continue working after he leaves Reading next June, with the goal of spending about half of every year serving as interim manager for towns that are in the process of hiring permanent managers.
Hechenbleikner came to Reading from New Jersey, where he spent the first part of his career as a municipal administrator. Reflecting on his tenure in Reading, he said he takes pride in the caliber of the people he has hired.
“The quality of employees in Reading is outstanding,” he said, “particularly the department heads, the senior staff. . . . I feel very comfortable in leaving that group for a new town manager to work with.”
Another source of satisfaction, Hechenbleikner said, is the economic development activities in town, including the sale and development of the former Reading landfill, an effort he said provided Reading with $3 million in initial revenue and $1 million in annual property taxes, and allowed the town to avoid nearly $6 million in landfill closure costs.
The downtown improvement project completed in 2009 was also a major economic initiative, which Hechenbleikner said has been “a huge catalyst to rezoning in the downtown and some of the smart-growth development that is taking place there.”
Stephen Goldy, chairman of Reading's Board of Selectmen, said Hechenbleikner will be difficult to replace.
“Peter is well respected throughout the state as well as by ours and all of the past boards of selectmen. . . . The town is run very well. We are in great fiscal shape, and a lot of that is due to policies he helped shape over the past 26 years,” Goldy said.
Both Mercier and Hechenbleikner have ideas about the secret to longevity for a municipal manager.
“Not taking yourself too seriously,” Mercier said, “and simply understanding that other people in the community that hired you to manage have points of view. It’s very important [to] listen.”
“To be hired in the right community,” Hechenbleikner said, observing that the selectmen with whom he has served “understand and respect their role and the town manager’s role. Their role is basically to serve as the board of directors, and my role is to run the ship.”