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Sharon

Retiring town administrator oversaw big changes in Sharon

Benjamin Puritz of Sharon.Handout

In the nearly 33 years that Benjamin Puritz has been town administrator in Sharon, the world has gone from analog to digital, from the days when cable television was beginning to hit its stride to the age of streaming town meetings online.

The 63-year-old Puritz plans to retire from his post in February, closing a long career in local government and a chapter in Sharon’s history.

He does not intend to stop working, but rather to “change tracks,” he said. He has been talking with his contacts in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors about positions that would allow him to be more directly accountable for what he does. Town government is so decentralized, he said, that getting anything done requires swaying a broad spectrum of interests.

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Although he seems like part of the fabric of Sharon now — dancing joyfully and memorably with his small granddaughter at last summer’s Square Jam festival, according to the Council on Aging’s executive director, Norma Simons Fitzgerald — Puritz moved to Sharon for the job.

He was born in Manhattan, lived in Brooklyn and the Virgin Islands, and went to Syracuse University, where he earned a master’s in public administration, he said. He took the Sharon job after serving as town administrator in Blackstone for two years.

Puritz said he got into the field out of a desire to do social good. Municipal government may sometimes be mundane and easy to “zone out,” he said, but the immediacy appeals to him; people use town water, for example, from the moment they get up in the morning.

Efforts large and small have transformed Sharon over the decades that Puritz has been at the wheel. He was deeply involved in the revitalization of the downtown, according to Roni Thaler, who worked with him as a selectman and later as the projects and office manager to the Board of Selectmen.

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The work included miles of repaving on North Main Street and South Main Street, brick sidewalks in the town center, decorative lighting, benches, trash receptacles, flower boxes, trees, and shrubs.

Puritz said he is proud of that project and of fostering a team approach among department heads.

When he started in February 1981, three months after the Proposition 2½ tax-limit law succeeded on the statewide ballot, budget-cutting was in the air. Sharon’s department heads made their cases to town boards for funding, but without the coordination of today. “They were just independent budgets. There was very little financial forecasting,” he said.

When he is not working on the budget, Puritz becomes one of the main organizers of Sharon’s annual downtown festival, Square Jam. Colleagues said he works hard each year to book the right band. He plans to continue working on the festival for at least one more summer, especially because Sharon will celebrate its 20th Square Jam next year.

“The Square Jam was definitely Ben,” Thaler said. “You knew it was Square Jam when Ben wore his tie-dyed shirt.”

He has worked with many selectmen, including Norman Katz, who claims to be the longest-serving selectman in town history — 32 years — and who was part of the board that hired Puritz.

On several occasions, when the town has taken votes to limit industrialization, signage, and “creeping commercialism,” Katz said, Puritz helped shepherd those decisions and softened conflicts that could have derailed them.

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The town tried in recent years to attract more retail stores, including Target and BJ’s Wholesale Club, but the proposed shopping center near Interstate 95 called Sharon Commons has not been built.

In August, Sharon was named America’s best place to live by Money magazine in a ranking of towns with populations between 10,000 and 50,000.

Katz said Puritz made decisions he felt were best for the community, without any politics, and employees respected him. “In all truth and sincerity, I never heard anybody say a bad word about Ben,” he said. “He was just one hell of a great guy.”

Another longtime town administrator, Norwood’s general manager, John J. Carroll, said he has always admired Puritz and considered him thoughtful and apolitical.

Puritz is known by some for his odd hours, coming in late and working late into the night, or showing up at Town Hall on weekends.

Selectman William Heitin, who met Puritz more than 20 years ago when Heitin was a summer lifeguard for the town, said one of the reasons he ran for reelection last spring was to make sure Sharon would get someone good to replace Puritz.

When he announced his retirement at a selectmen’s meeting Sept. 19, Puritz advised the board to consider appointing a search committee in October. He said the effective date of his retirement will probably be toward the end of February.

In an interview, he said he hopes the town finds an administrator who has a participatory management style and will encourage cooperation across departments. The structure of municipal government, with all its boards and committees, demands consensus-building, he said.

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He has tried to do the same. “I don’t want to paint this as a utopia . . . but it’s something that we work at,” he said.


Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.