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Watertown city manager hits the 100-day milestone

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Sharon A. Addison knew she would bring strong leadership skills and the ability to make improvements in the way Watertown does business when she was hired as city manager in May.

But Ms. Addison was not as sure about working with the public, because she never had that experience during her many years at the National Security Agency, first as a technician/analyst and the last 15 years as a division chief responsible for overseeing programs in intelligence.

But, as she hits her 100th day on the job today, Ms. Addison said, she has immensely enjoyed that part of her $120,000-a-year position.

“That’s been a real eye-opener and is really gratifying, because I am making a daily impact on the community,” she said.

Some critics of her hiring worried Ms. Addison had no municipal government experience and did not have any political contacts locally or in the state. Since coming on board in July, Ms. Addison said, she has focused on her strengths: providing good communication to council members and keeping them on top of even the smallest of issues.

She has spent a lot of that time getting acquainted with city issues and getting to know the players in and out of City Hall. At council meetings, she has kept somewhat of a low profile, frequently letting her department heads answer questions.

But when she has interacted with the council, she has offered good advice and recommendations, council members said.

To improve communication with council members, Ms. Addison has made some changes that have helped her dispense information to them, she said. She emails council members a weekly update about progress on a variety of issues and answers their questions.

In a change from the previous city manager, Mary M. Corriveau, all department heads attend council meetings to answer questions, Ms. Addison said. Council members also have more access to department heads to find out what is going on.

“I think I’ve empowered the staff more,” she said, and “placed more authority” with them to do their jobs.

For instance, she recently instructed City Engineer Kurt W. Hauk and Public Works Superintendent Eugene P. Hayes to work together on traffic problems in front of the North Country Children’s Clinic on Arsenal Street. Agency officials told her that motorists have problems getting out of the facility’s parking lot, so they are looking for ways to improve the situation, she said.

It seems simple enough, but her staff members seem to communicate more with one another than in the past, Ms. Addison said.

Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith said he likes the city manager’s management style. When he has a question, she gets back to him quickly, even when it deals with minor issues. Recently, he heard about a program through National Grid that could help with the city’s lighting expenses. Within a few days, Ms. Addison had arranged a meeting with the National Grid consultant about the program.

The city was not qualified to participate, but Mr. Smith was impressed by how quickly she tended to the issue. In the past, it might have taken a couple of months for him to get an answer, he said.

That management style has helped council members get along better; they are not bickering over trying to get an answer about something, Mr. Smith said. Instead, they get the information, deal with the issue and move on.

While council members acknowledged that Ms. Addison has been going through a learning curve to get acclimated to her position, they said they are satisfied with the job she’s doing.

“I think the transition has been going well,” Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso said. “She’s a quick learner.”

As for getting involved with the public, Ms. Addison has helped a group of people who have concerns about toxic chemicals dumped at the former New York Air Brake site on the city’s north side decades ago and claim they suffer from health problems caused by the contaminants.

She helped the group set up meetings with the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Health.

She also got involved in solving a dispute between the city and a family that wanted to recover furnishings inside a house at 259 Seymour St. after they had sat virtually untouched for 22 years. After Albert V. Stress died of cancer at age 86 on March 11, 1990, his furnishings and other belongings remained inside the house because of a disagreement between his two daughters.

Ms. Addison ended up working out an agreement with one of the daughters, Barbara S. Stress-Claytor, to get inside the house to retrieve the belongings. Ms. Stress-Claytor loaded them into a storage pod and drove them to her home in Arizona.

“As far as I’m concerned, the citizens of Watertown are very lucky to have her as a city manager,” Ms. Stress-Claytor said, adding she was impressed with the way Ms. Addison handled the situation.

As the calendar year winds down, Ms. Addison will tackle her first budget. In the coming weeks, she will begin meeting with department heads to talk about the fiscal 2013-14 spending plan. One of her priorities will be making improvements in the city’s Human Resources Department, she said.

Her first big hiring will be filling the vacant police chief position. Before her arrival in July, Capt. Gary R. Comins was appointed provisionally as police chief until a replacement could be named for Chief Joseph J. Goss, who retired at the end of June. A Civil Service exam will be given this spring for the position.

“I certainly hope that Gary stays on as chief,” she said.

Ms. Addison is still developing relationships with Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III; county Board of Legislators Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown; Chief Executive Officer Donald C. Alexander of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, and other county officials. She intends to meet quarterly with Mr. Hagemann to talk about city and county issues.

Jefferson Community College President Carole A. McCoy remembered how people introduced her to others in the community when she moved here about five years ago from Anne Arundel County, Md., the same county where Ms. Addison was living until she was appointed city manager. So Mrs. McCoy arranged a get-together for tea with about 25 women at her house a few weeks ago.

The college president and city manager hit it off; they got to talk about their Maryland connections.

“I’m still establishing my contacts and growing my network,” Ms. Addison said.

Ms. Addison — who bought a house on South Pleasant Street, where she lives with her two daughters, McKayla N., 11, and Kiara A., 8 — is still putting her own touches on her third-floor office in City Hall. On her newly painted teal wall, she put up a framed map of the city and has a couple of mementos from her days with “The Agency,” and a photo of the NSA’s building at Fort George G. Meade, Md. The photo is surrounded by goodbye notes from her NSA bosses and employees. A plaque commemorating her 17 years with the NSA will be on the wall underneath it.

“I’m still settling in,” she said.

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