DPW chief Crombie to depart

NASHUA – Public Works Director George Crombie, who has been a lightning rod for both praise and criticism in his four years on the job, is stepping down next month.

Crombie told Mayor Bernie Streeter Wednesday that he planned to resign to take a job in Massachusetts.

“This is huge loss to our city,” Streeter said. “George has directed this division for the last four years with superb leadership and vision, and he and his dedicated staff have accomplished more in the past four years for our city and our residents than at any other period of time in our city’s history.”

Crombie submitted his resignation two days after his latest tangle with aldermen. The disagreement was over future plans for a park off Main Dunstable Road.

Crombie could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Streeter said Crombie is to take over as the director of public works in Plymouth, Mass., where he and his wife, Jackie, have a home. His last day is expected to be Jan. 16.

News of the departure caught some by surprise, but Crombie had looked elsewhere for a job. Earlier this year, he was being considered to be the next commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Services.

Crombie’s departure leaves another vacancy in the division. Three other senior staff members have left this fall: the city engineer, the deputy director of administration, and the traffic engineer.John Parolin, leader of the Park and Recreation Advisory Committee and chairman of the Broad Street Parkway task force, said Crombie had the best interests of the city in mind whenever he made decisions.

“It’s a tremendous loss to the city of Nashua. There’s no question about it,” Parolin said.

Under Crombie’s leadership, Ward 7 Alderman Lori Cardin said residents in her neighborhoods have enjoyed the renovation of “dustbowls” into family-friendly parks like never before.

“He’s out there doing a lot. He’s making a huge difference,” Cardin said.

The division racked up numerous awards with Crombie at the helm. Crombie also received the acclaim of his peers. The American Public Works Association recognized him in 2002 as one of the top 10 public works directors in the U.S. and Canada.

Streeter said his critics attacked Crombie in an effort to shoot arrows at Streeter’s administration.

“His severest critics were certainly not my closest friends,” Streeter said.

Earlier this year, the division was criticized for ignoring an emergency spending law when contractors encountered asbestos on Dartmouth Street, and the division gave the go-ahead for work to continue. Others questioned whether it was appropriate to use wastewater fees to buy picnic tables and other items for the new Sesquicentennial Park.

Increasingly, aldermen have put the brakes on division projects.

The aldermanic Finance Committee refused to pay for an engineering design contract for a multipurpose Southwest Park, off Main Dunstable Road. The division wants to design a park with an artificial-turf field and an emergency access road.

Crombie was unsuccessful at a Finance Committee meeting Monday night in gaining enough votes for the project. Instead, the committee approved a scaled down design for only the access road.

Parolin said he never understood why Crombie attracted so much controversy, except perhaps his success. Sometimes successful people bring out negative responses from others, Parolin said.

However, Ward 9 Alderman Scott Cote said the conflicts came down to Crombie overreaching his authority.

It’s the aldermen who direct the long-term goals of city government, Cote said, while it should be Crombie’s role to implement them. Instead, Cote said the division made decisions that it did not have the authority to make, and there were frequent conflicts between him and some of the aldermen because of that.

Cote agreed, though, that the division had accomplished much during Crombie’s tenure.

Alderman-at-Large David Deane said the division strayed too much from caring for the city’s infrastructure.

“Too much emphasis was put on the parks. Too much of the infrastructure was lacking,” he said.

A frequent critic now, Deane hired Crombie when Deane sat on the Board of Public Works.

“There’s been a lot of things done. But there are times to tighten up the belt,” Deane said.

But Ward 6 Alderman Robert Dion called Crombie the best public works director the city has ever had.

“The city of Nashua is losing a very valuable asset,” said Dion, the chairman of the aldermanic Infrastructure Committee.

Dion said the objections to Crombie from some aldermen were “completely uncalled for.”

“I hope the people who were taking shots at him are happy,” Dion said. “The attacks on his integrity and performance were uncalled for. They should have been applauding him.”

One of Crombie’s key efforts while overseeing the division was resurrecting city parks in a $5 million project.

Many were built over closed trash dumps. Long-buried rubbish worked its way to the surface.

The city overhauled nearly 20 parks to remove hazardous materials and upgrade facilities.

The division’s high-profile projects are many, some more successful than others. There’s the automation of the city’s trash program, and redesigning the long-planned Broad Street Parkway to make it a smaller, less invasive city road. Less successful has been the refurbishment of downtown parking, as the city has encountered problems with the new parking meters.

One of the biggest successes during Crombie’s watch was revising an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency regarding a sewer separation project. City administrators estimated the new agreement saved ratepayers $100 million and lowered the wastewater fees a little less than 20 percent.

“He brought resolution to a lot of issues and saved the city a lot of money,” Parolin said.

But other steps have been controversial.

Both Cote and Deane pointed to a disputed educational center in Mine Falls Park that Crombie wanted to build with part of the savings from the revised sewer separation project.

The aldermen never learned about the project until the division had already agreed to it, Cote said. The idea was met with so much criticism that Streeter took the project off the table.