By Rod Lee
One subject that comes up early in any conversation with Webster Town Administrator Doug Willardson is the startling contrasts he has noticed in the communities in which he has spent his first years in municipal government.
Such was the case shortly after four o’clock on January 10th when Mr. Willardson, who exudes an animated, youthful, restive energy, welcomed a visitor to his small office on the first floor of Webster Town Hall. Almost immediately, the discussion turned to a career that has taken him from Lake Como, California to Somerville to Grafton and now Webster.
Mr. Willardson has traveled far in a short period of time. Born in California, he grew up in Utah and attended Brigham Young University in Provo, obtaining his undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science and public administration at BYU.
As an administrative analyst in Lake Como, north of Napa, he found a middle class to upscale environment; but “drive over the mountain range and it is trailer parks” and slummy, he said. This was nothing compared to the relocation from Somerville to Grafton after Mr. Willardson and his wife Lisa decided to move east. “She is from North Carolina and wanted to live in a big city on the east coast,” he said.
Somerville, where he served as a budget analyst, is densely populated. “We lived near Tufts on the Medford side, with two little kids in a tiny one-bedroom apartment” (they reside in Grafton, with three children). The change in his circumstances from Somerville to Grafton (which is more rural), upon taking a position as assistant town manager in Grafton in January of 2014, was “unbelievable,” he said. In being assigned to “procurement,” he thought “what? In Somerville we had entire departments to do that!
“I got a broad perspective on everything” in Grafton, Mr. Willardson said. “I got involved in a lot of areas of the town.” As the assistant town manager in Grafton, he helped passage of a Proposition 2 ½ override to fund road improvements and stabilize the school budget, worked closely with unions and was the town’s HR officer.
This bode well when he was chosen over Pamela A. Leduc (acting town administrator in Webster) and David Johnston (former city manager in Maple Valley, Washington) to become Webster TA—just over twelve months ago.
Again Mr. Willardson could not help but draw distinctions. Webster, he said, is seen by some as having “a rough reputation.” But, he added, “I have been impressed with how many people donate their time and energy to make Webster better.”
Recently, he said, he and Webster’s Board of Selectmen mapped out their “top ten proposed goals,” certain ones of which mesh with those he had indicated were priorities for him when he took the job. Including “improving downtown’s ambience” with streetscape betterments, seasonal decorations, planters, benches, barrels, etc.
Also on the list, at No. 1 in fact, is creation of a “substance abuse task force.” This has actually been in place since April, mostly thanks to the initiative of “our deputy chief” (Mike Shaw) in the police department, who has done “an amazing job,” Mr. Willardson said. “We’re taking a targeted intervention approach. When someone overdoses, we refer them to the sheriff’s office and a caseworker—Crystal Brown—if they are willing. It helps those who need it the most.”
Fiscal responsibility, economic development, maintenance of infrastructure, effective delivery of services/operations and a “transparent, informative, engaged and customer-friendly” government are other objectives in which Mr. Willardson is involved.
With a new Webster Public Library scheduled to come on line, hopefully by May, there is much to be excited about—downtown and throughout town—he said.
“We are starting construction on a water-filtration plant. Brown water,” he said, holding up a sample, “is probably townspeople’s biggest concern.”
Employee health insurance costs are a stickler in Webster, as elsewhere. “We are self-insured, which can lead to issues with a smaller population because there are fewer people to spread the risk over,” Mr. Willardson said. “We are looking at premium-based plans” with a couple of providers.
In the area of energy management, “we’ve done well” with monies obtained through the state’s “green communities” program; and “a few weeks ago we partnered with the Central Mass. Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC) to replace sodium streetlights with LEDs.”
Davis St. has been upgraded; Mass. DOT is planning “two roundabouts at Exit 2” off I-395 that will greatly aid traffic flow; and sidewalk improvements and bike paths will enhance the area around the high school.
It is obvious in talking with Mr. Willardson that he loves his work. He comes by it naturally, he said.
“My grandfather was a city manager and my dad is a public works director for a city in Utah. It’s kind of in my blood.”
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.