DERRY | The Town Council's choice for the next town administrator left his last position in municipal government because he was no longer able to coexist with the council.

That track record has some wondering if Gary Stenhouse will be able to get along with the council here, which has had its own run-ins with town administrators.

Last week, the Derry Town Council chose the former Rochester city manager as the next town administrator. If contract negotiations are successful, it would mark Stenhouse's return to municipal government after a five-year absence.

Despite pulling Rochester out of an $8 million budget deficit, when Stenhouse left in 2002, it was not entirely on his own terms. Disagreements with councilors led them to buy out his contract. He left with a $115,442 severance package | big enough for him to buy a boat, appropriately named "Severance," according to Rochester City Councilor Charles Grassie.

"Gary's only conflict was the council," said former Rochester fire Chief Mark Dellner. "At the end, there were some people on that council that were headed in a different direction than Gary."

But Bruce Lindsay, one of the councilors who was on the board when Stenhouse left Rochester, had a different take, saying, "It's Gary's way or no way."

Stenhouse made that much clear last week when asked about the split on the Derry council, saying he wouldn't take kindly to councilors attempting to micromanage the town.

"The charter is the charter," he said. "There's a big difference between being hands-on and micromanaging."

Comments like these have some in Derry worried about the new town administrator's ability to coexist with a council that has had its share of run-ins with past town administrators.

"That obviously would be of concern to me," said Councilor Kevin Coyle, one of two councilors who voted against Stenhouse's appointment.

Especially when you take Derry's recent history into account. When he left in February for a job in Bedford, former Town Administrator Russ Marcoux said he was tired of playing peacemaker. And just this month, interim Town Administrator John Moody threatened to resign after Coyle accused him of violating the town charter.

'A bad situation'

Stenhouse, 53, who has 29 years of experience in municipal government, laughed when asked how he would deal with a divided council.

"I'm not a Pollyanna," Stenhouse said. "If there's an element, if there's a block on the council that will only be happy if they have things their way, that can be problematic. I don't care who the administrator is."

Stenhouse made no secret about the fact that he left Rochester because of the council. He said he left by mutual agreement, one that barred him from discussing the reasons.

According to published reports, among the issues that Stenhouse and the council butted heads over were his failure to immediately inform it of a $1.8 million bookkeeping error, and the unionization of library staff.

"There were some philosophical differences," Stenhouse said. "There was some feeling on the council that they would have preferred, some members, that they would have more of a direct input than the charter allowed them to have, including certain personnel matters and other issues.

"Good people can disagree after a period of years in government. There comes a time when it's best mutually for people to move on."

Derry Council Chairman Craig Bulkley, himself a former Derry town administrator, seconded Stenhouse's thoughts.

"I think you'll find if you were to research (why) any administrator left a particular town, I suspect that a lot of them leave because the political climate changed and things weren't going the way they want them to go," Bulkley said.

From Rochester, Stenhouse moved on to New Hampshire Public Risk Management Exchange, known as PRIMEX, a pooled insurance company that provides workers' compensation and unemployment insurance to school districts and municipalities. He has been there ever since.

Department heads and Rochester councilors interviewed confirmed Stenhouse's account of what went wrong in Rochester.

"It was a very, very bad situation," said Grassie, who served on the council during Stenhouse's tenure and has been a councilor for 24 years. "He had a very difficult council to work with, and he was not afraid to stand up and say, 'You guys are really screwing this up.'"

Rochester experience could prove helpful

Derry Councilor Brian Chirichiello, who supported the decision to hire Stenhouse, said that if anything, Stenhouse's experience in Rochester should make it easier for him to deal with a council that isn't in agreement all the time.

"He's come across a lot of different things," Chirichiello said. "Where he has that experience, I think that's going to help him. He was in Rochester for nine years. Right there, that stands out."

Councilor Brent Carney agreed.

"He's tough," Carney said. "I believe he will not just protect the status quo. He's going to move things forward."

Some interviewed in Rochester agreed that Stenhouse might be the perfect person for the Derry job.

"Gary's very sure of himself. He's a very good people handler, as well as unions and the like," Rochester Councilor Ray Lundborn said.

Dellner agreed. "Gary can be a calming influence," he said. "Gary can bring people together. Everyone was amazed he lasted 10 years in a city like Rochester."

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