ORRINGTON, Maine — The new Orrington town manager has his marching orders from selectmen: “Keep us out of the media spotlight.”
Chris Backman said last week that he and selectmen want the healing that has taken place in the community after two years of controversy that drew reporters and TV cameras to contentious meetings to continue.
“The town went through a rough patch but the healing process is underway,” said Backman, 51, of Lamoine. “I give the board credit for taking a year off and working with an interim town manager. They were in a hole and they decided to stop digging.”
In June 2019, selectmen decided to put off hiring a new town manager for at least a year after three resigned or were fired over the previous 10 months. Instead, Joe Hayes, a former town manager in Stockton Springs and Veazie, served on an interim basis.
“The interim town manager gave the town and the select board time,” said Selectman Allan Elkin, who was elected last month. “Time to take a deep breath, and to heal. As a result, the town manager search was well done, and not hurried.”
The previous town manager, Joan Gibson of Levant, who had no experience in municipal government, was fired in May 2019 in a 3-2 vote two months into a six-month contract.
Gibson was the third person to leave the top job in Orrington in less than a year. Longtime Manager Paul White resigned in July 2018 and Interim Town Manager Andy Fish left in late January 2019 to take a job in neighboring Holden.
Orrington residents also were divided over a number of other issues in 2018 and 2019, including police coverage in town after the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office ended a decades-old community policing arrangement, the construction of a new public safety building and recall petitions targeting different selectmen.
Backman also has never been a town manager before but he has worked with municipal governments around Maine as an auditor and has also held private-sector jobs. He started the job in Orrington on July 7 at an annual salary of $65,000.
“I’ve crawled through numbers from little tiny towns to county governments, so there wasn’t a high learning curve starting here,” he said.
Board Chairman Allan Snell, who was reelected last month, said that all of Backman’s references said they would hire him as a town manager.
“I had conversations with five of his references and all were outstanding regarding character, work ethic and the ability to work with people,” Snell said last week.
Elkin described Backman as “friendly, responsive to townspeople, and confident in himself.”
Backman already has met with residents concerned about improving the intersection at Dow and Johnson Mill roads, where there have been 33 crashes since 2003, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety.
“Eight people came to talk about what might be done to improve the intersection,” he said. “The feedback I got was very supportive. They appreciated being able to talk to a town official about it and to offer solutions.”