BURRILLVILLE – When Town Manager Michael Wood was first appointed to the role in 1996, Burrillville had a structural deficit of more than $1 million.
Town schools, public buildings and infrastructure were in need of major improvements, and the former Stillwater Mill complex was in a state of deterioration. Morale was low among municipal employees, many of whom had been holding the jobs for many years and showed little interest in changing the status quo.
Now, 22 years later, Wood very well may be the state’s longest-serving municipal leader, and some might argue, one of its most successful as well.
A Pennsylvania native and graduate of the University of Rhode Island, Wood was the second appointed leader in the small town’s history, coming into office after manager Tom Bercher. He had previously served in municipal management positions in both Massachusetts and New Jersey.
“I’ve been a town manager for pretty much my whole career,” Wood told NRI NOW this week.
Few would dispute that Burrillville was in a very different place in 1996. Wood notes that like so many New England towns, it had failed to discover a new identity when manufacturing operations – at the heart of the local economy – had closed or moved away.
“The town was trying to find its way,” Wood said. “We had to find a new direction. I think I’m a pretty forward thinking person and that’s why I was here.”
One of Wood’s, and the council’s, primary goals from the start was to change the culture in town government.
“When you come on you have a lot of political appointments and people that really shouldn’t have been here,” Wood said. “There were a lot of employees who were just kind of lounging around.”
To address the issue, Wood said, the town significantly raised the requirements for most major positions.
“We made a conscious decision to improve the quality of people we brought into the organization,” he said.
The town was also facing a structural deficit of more than $1 million, a looming cloud left by a tax agreement with Ocean State Power that was set to expire.
“That was a huge obstacle to overcome, and it took us literally 15 years to do it,” Wood said.
Another major success of Wood’s tenure has been the redevelopment plans targeting first blighted areas in the village of Harrisville, then Pascoag. At the former Stillwater Mill Complex, buildings were repurposed to create a new library, 47-units of affordable housing and a pavilion. The project has been widely recognized as an innovative approach to economic development and won a Grow Smart Award in 2012.
Improvements in Pascoag, meanwhile, are ongoing, as is the effort to fill up the recently built Commerce Park on Broncos Highway.
“We’re looking for areas to expand the commercial and industrial base of the community,” said Wood. “That will be a help to our tax base. We have a big wide open community. There are areas you can target, as long as it’s done the right way. You don’t wait until something happens.”
With varying forms of leadership across the state, from elected mayors and administrators to appointed managers, no one seems quite certain if Wood’s 22-year tenure makes him the state’s longest-serving municipal leader. But Historian Laureate Patrick Conley noted that his tenure rivals that of former Providence Mayor Vincent Cianci’s, Rhode Island’s longest-serving mayor.
Wood credits his staff and the various Town Councils he’s worked with throughout the years with his relative success, noting that it’s often hard for elected officials to have the political wherewithal to do what’s needed, like the tax increases that ultimately brought the town’s budget back in check.
“We had to push that back onto taxpayers over time,” Wood said. “The leadership of the Town Council throughout the years has kept their eye of the ball. Sometimes when you have political turnover, you can change directions. Here, the vision has stayed the same.”
And he says the staff he’s hired is the best in the state.
“Our people are capable and they’ve really made a difference,” said the town manager. “The better quality your staff is, the better you can serve your public.”
Others credit Wood’s leadership with Burrillville’s positive changes. In a 2016 editorial in the Providence Journal former Town Council President Kevin Menard wrote, “Wood has left Burrillville on solid financial ground including properly funded pensions and capital programs that are funded by revenues rather than borrowing.”
When Wood was among those accused of not being up front with residents about negotiations with Invenergy Thermal Inc., the company that aims to built a 1,000-megawatt power plant off of Wallum Lake Road, many stepped forward to defend his record.
“When residents look at about just any part of Burrillville, they will see Wood’s hand: in improved schools, parks and recreation areas, and affordable housing,” said Menard.
Menard was among some 30 residents to sign a letter pointing not only to Wood’s achievements, but to the fact that he acts at the will of the council.
“The next time you take a book out at the Jesse Smith Library, go to the farmer’s market, ride your bike on the Harrisville/Pascoag bike path, or cheer for our teams at the renovated hockey rink – pause for a moment to consider all of these improvements didn’t happen in a vacuum,” the letter stated. “The are the result of dedicated, intentional public servants – including Town Manager Mike Wood.”
Known for his serious demeanor and no-frills approach to town management, Wood seems to have little in common with politicians dependent on voters to keep them in office. Stacks of files from 22 years in government surround the desk in his corner office at Town Hall, and shelves hold various awards received over the years, along with collections of baseball caps and coffee mugs. A Burrillville resident for the past several decades who says he “wouldn’t have it any other way,” Wood is not married, and smiles when asked if he has time for hobbies.
“It is time consuming,” said the town manager. “What I don’t do here, I do at home.”
Still, he says, he enjoys football, and “golfs – but not as much as I want to,” and fishing, “not as much as I want to.”
The town manager has served under both Democrats and Republicans in council leadership and says he’s ambivalent about which party is in power, “as long as everybody stays focused on the big picture.”
“I’m about long term planning. That’s what I think is missing from most governments,” he said. “Most everything I do is looking what we can so to set the course for the future.
He notes that under all circumstances, his role is to implement the council’s will.
“I learned a long time ago, I give them my best recommendations, and I carry out the mission,” Wood said. “There have been times when things have been done that I question. When your working together there’s going to be different thoughts and ideas. You have to trust that the majority of people will make the right decision. As long as you’re doing the best you can, I can’t fault it. I use my best judgement. Sometimes you’re not right.”
On the subject of the controversial proposed power plant currently in review by the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board, Wood said, “I’ve always looked at my role in the Invenergy thing to provide information to people,” pointing to strides the town has made in educating the public.
Asked if he believes the plant’s approval is inevitable, he remained largely optimistic.
“Based on what we’ve done, I think we’ve made a case for why the project shouldn’t be approved,” he said. “You have to have people who are neutral and willing to listen.”
“Rhode Island is Rhode Island and what goes on at the state level, behind closed doors, is fascinating, and I think some of that is going on with the power plant,” Wood continued. “Two years ago you would have thought it was a done deal but we’ve been able to make our case. It’s just a matter of whether or not you have receptive ears and eyes on the other side.”
He’s been appointed for varying lengths of time, including terms of up to five years and is currently at end of a three year term. If appointed in November, he says he will continue.
“It’s the town council’s decision,” Wood said, noting his fondness for the people he’s met over the past two decades.
“I find people here to be incredible people. They’re grounded and they work hard – and I mean everybody you meet,” Wood said. “They give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“I think Burrillville is it’s own little niche,” he added. “I think it’s a unique place and i’m really proud of the fact that we’ve cleaned it up and kept its rural character.”