Keiser reflects on his tenure as town administrator
Over the course of his career, he had, in most cases, downgraded – in population, budget, facilities and staff. From Pawtucket, a 9-square-mile urban melting pot with more than 70,000 residents, to South Kingstown, a town nine times larger with less than half the population, Keiser was now coming to the island of Jamestown – just 1 square mile wide, with about 5,400 residents – to finish his career in tranquility.
Or so he thought.
Keiser’s first meeting in January
2006 was a public hearing on where to locate the highway barn, a contentious issue that had dragged on for years. The council chambers was standing room only, and according to Keiser, “They were not there to applaud.”
Residents, armed with expert testimony to challenge the town’s consultants, testified one by one to why the landfill was a hazardous site to locate the barn. They were uneasy that the town’s environmental engineering study concerning groundwater contamination was inaccurate.
“It was as raucous a public meeting I have ever attended,” said Keiser, who’s spent 37 years in public service. “And that was my very first meeting. I thought I was coming to a sleepy little town. Boy, was that a glass of cold water in my face.”
Keiser laughed. “This was not going to be smooth sailing.”
Keiser, who retires on Sept. 1, said his time as town administrator has been gratifying. What stands out most, he says, is the face-toface dialogue with the community. Keiser said it’s more hands-on than anywhere he’s worked.
Before coming to Jamestown, Keiser was the senior planner then executive assistant to the mayor in Pawtucket, director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, and finally director of administrative services in his hometown of South Kingstown.
A Pottsville, Penn., native, Keiser graduated cum laude from Boston University before completing his graduate studies in public administration at the University of Virginia. He’s worked in Rhode Island’s public sector since 1978.
Keiser says working in a bigger city has “very different problems” than working in a small town. The fact that Jamestown’s an island, he added, makes the differences more significant. He talked in length about what makes Jamestown so great.
“What I discovered is the smaller the community, the more involved the citizenry is in local government,” he said. “There’s a lot of give and take on the issues. It can be boisterous at times. That’s the nature of a small town. Residents care so much about their community that they express their passions.”
Just look at Fort Getty, he said.
“People feel alienated as the institutions get larger,” Keiser continued. “But in Jamestown, issues resonate with the local people, and sometimes in a volatile way. That’s because there are real passions.”
One of the reasons, Keiser said, is the uniqueness of Conanicut Island. “It’s so extraordinarily beautiful: the landscape, the seascape, the village, the sense of place. People are willing to come forward to preserve and protect that. I don’t think you will find many places where people have so much gratitude towards where they live.”
Looking back, Keiser points to the farmland acquisition as one of his proudest moments. Although it had been in the works prior to his tenure, Keiser was settled in his post for nearly two years when it became official.
“The ball was halfway down the road when I was hired,” he said, “but I was lucky enough to bring it across the finish line.”
He said Jamestown voters unanimously approved the acquisition at a special town meeting, and residents took on a debt of $3 million without a debate.
“There was barely a word uttered,” he said. “It was an issue that never ran into any opposition. It was a unified effort. Had it not succeeded and the vast open acreage was converted to housing, it would have radically altered the community in an adverse way.”
Keiser doesn’t take full credit for the deal, but still cites it as the most important accomplishment of his tenure. “Sometimes timing is everything,” he said. “I was just one of the players in the process, and I hope I contributed something positive to the outcome.”
Along the same lines, Keiser was the first person to occupy the chief executive’s office in the new Town Hall. Although the architect was already hired, he was town administrator during construction.
“I was just fortunate to be hired when all these things were happening,” he said. “It’s nice to say they happened on my watch.”
Going forward, Keiser says the town is in an enviable fiscal position. “The community is in as strong a financial shape as any other town or city in the state,” he said.
Over his tenure, Keiser said, the town has committed itself to investing in infrastructure. With the new highway barn and Town Hall, along with renovations to the library and police station, Keiser said taxpayers won’t have to worry about any major projects for the foreseeable future.
“All the facilities have been upgraded and improved, and there is no need to do anything in the next 10 years aside from general maintenance,” he said. “About $23 million worth of bonds have been approved and issued in the last 10 years. In a small community, that’s a significant debt burden to take on, but it was done in a gradual way.”
He says in the future, taxpayers have the option to take on more debt for discretionary purposes, instead of necessary ones. According to Keiser, with expiring school bonds, the town could, for example, take out a $2 million bond for a new clubhouse at the golf course with little or no impact to the taxpayer.
“As town administrator, I know what the books look like,” he said. “With an undesignated fund balance of $3.8 million on the town side and more than $2 million on the school side, this community is healthy. Voters can be assured there won’t be any financial shocks facing them in the future. They have a tremendous amount of discretion.”
If Keiser were to stay on as town administrator for the next five years, he said the next project he would look into is the old highway barn at Fort Wetherill. The 4-acre parcel is doing nothing but housing recreation vehicles in the winter, including the 2-acre parking lot across that street that currently serves no purpose.
Keiser isn’t sure whether he would consider selling the lot – a percolation test determined a four-bedroom house could be constructed there – or keep it for town use.
“It begs for a solution,” he said. “We never identified what that solution might be, but certainty the potential is significant. But again, it’s completely discretionary, which is the beauty of it.”
Keiser doesn’t think he has left any unfinished business. He expects to work again, maybe as a consultant with flexible hours, he says, but plans to take the next year off. He also wants to volunteer in the future.
“I want to allow myself some time to travel, visit family and pursue my interests. I want to read all those books that I’ve never had time to. I’m keeping my options open. Fortunately, I’m healthy and adventurous.”
Keiser plans to spend time bicycling, trekking, golfing, skiing, surfing and doing yoga in his retirement. He is also excited to spend time with his 4- and 2-yearold granddaughters. “They’re the apples of my eye,” he said. “I can’t wait until they get a little bit older so I can take them on trips and do the things I love. Maybe teach them fly-fishing. The outdoors will be my primary focus because I’ve been sitting behind a desk for the last 37 years.”
This isn’t the last of the island for Keiser, he says. “It’s by no means the end of Jamestown. I’ve made lifelong friends. The island means a lot to me. Even though I never moved here, it will always feel like home in some way.”
As for the next town administrator, Keiser’s advice is clear-cut.
“You’re part of a team. Simple as that. You may be the point person, but it’s a mutually respectful environment. If you approach the job that way, you’ll have an absolutely wonderful experience, just like I did.”