The stakes from such high turnover among town managers are particularly high for Limestone, whose population plummet from 10,000 to 1,500 since 1994.
Limestone Chamber of Commerce President Michelle Albert (right) addresses virtual attendees of a recent town manager-themed community meeting, while Selectperson Jesse Philbrick looks on. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican & News

LIMESTONE, Maine — Limestone has seen 11 town managers come and go in the past seven years. Most have been temporary fill-ins during a search for a permanent replacement.

In the midst of yet another search, elected officials and leaders remain puzzled about why so many promising managers have left. Most agree the town needs a consistent leader to build trust with local leaders and collaborate on more substantial economic development. Some who left cited burnout and conflicts with the select board.

“We need to look at ourselves and why we haven’t been able to maintain these town managers,” Limestone resident Jim Butler said. “A town manager a year is not sustainable.”

The town’s experience mirrors a larger trend in which municipal managers don’t generally stay on as long as they used to. But in a community like Limestone, the stakes are especially high.

After the 1994 shuttering of the town’s former Air Force base, Limestone’s population plummeted from nearly 10,000 to 2,300 by 2010. Since then, Limestone has seen the highest rate of population loss of any community in Maine — from 2,300 to 1,500.

Employers have left after struggling to retain workers and grow businesses. Though a 3,800-acre industrial park took the base’s place, officials there are only now starting to see renewed interest from potential employers.

In August, Tara Henderson resigned as town manager after just less than a year. Though she did not have municipal experience, Henderson had hoped to get the town “back on track” after not having a permanent manager since 2019.

But in her letter of resignation, Henderson cited burnout among staff, including herself, as reasons why she could not come close to making a difference.

“I’m ultimately not able to sacrifice my personal goals and compromise my core values in order to meet your expectations and serve the town of Limestone,” Henderson wrote in her letter.

Area business owners say a consistent town leader could help.

Limestone Chamber of Commerce President Michelle Albert co-owned and operated Al-Bear’s, a longtime establishment in town, with her husband Jamie Albert. The Alberts closed the restaurant in 2017.

So far the only restaurant that took Al-Bear’s place — B-52 Pizza & Subs — has closed.

“We’ve got great things in this community that could be developed more if we had [a town manager] with community development and leadership experience,” Albert said. “Someone who can listen to the people who have been here all their lives.”

Recent efforts to find such a person have not been successful.

In 2017, the select board fired former manager Matthew Pineo after only 10 weeks on the job, despite Pineo having gained a positive reputation in the community.

Though board members did not specify their reasons for firing Pineo, they had expressed frustrations over changes he was making to administrative duties, office locations and delegating meeting minutes to a staff member.

Pineo had replaced former manager Fred Ventresco, who served nearly two years starting in 2015 and had eight years of municipal management experience. Pineo formerly served as town manager in Bradford, Brownville, Jackman and Sangerville.

After Pineo was fired, Limestone went through three interim managers, which included the police chief, before hiring Elizabeth Dickerson a year later. Dickerson had experience as a Rockland city councilor and state legislator, but she stayed in Limestone only eight months, after which she expressed desire to move closer to family.

Then-Town Clerk Vicki Page stepped in to fill the manager role until Maine Municipal Association helped Limestone recruit George Finch, a former Eastport town manager, in May 2020. But Finch told the town that he intended to fill the role temporarily before retiring, which he did in 2021 before Henderson was hired.

Now former select board chair Walt Elliot is serving as interim manager while Limestone tries to replace Henderson. Elliot stepped up after formally appointed interim manager Jim Risner left due to medical issues. That makes Elliot the sixth interim manager since Pineo was fired.

Elliot is now working with Bangor-based law firm Eaton Peabody to hire a new town manager by Feb. 1, 2023.

If Limestone’s experience and the post-COVID-19 employment climate are any indication, finding that person could be harder than ever, Eaton Peabody municipal consultant Don Gerrish said.

“I’ve been doing these searches for the past 12 years. The average life of a town manager is three to five years, but it used to be much longer,” Gerrish said. “[That’s why] it’s crucial to have communication between elected officials and the town manager and for everyone to understand their roles.”