EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 31, 2008

Town leader trades Atkinson for Iraq

By Meghan Carey , Staff writer

ATKINSON - Town Administrator Russell McAllister will leave his job, family and country in less than two weeks, bound for Iraq to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

McAllister, who has spent the last four years answering questions and making wisecracks behind the Dutch door to the selectmen's office, gave his notice Monday and leaves for Iraq Feb. 11.

McAllister, 49, said the agency began contacting him in December. Since he isn't under contract in Atkinson, he accepted the position and will leave almost immediately. He will work as a local government adviser through the Research Triangle Institute's Local Government Project.

"It's just another aspect of my career," he said. "I have a graduate certificate in planning. It's what I wanted to be when I grew up."

Although McAllister hasn't received his exact assignment yet, he knows he will travel through Iraq to help local government and provincial councils rebuild infrastructure. That will include all planning, from cost estimates to encouraging citizen participation, he said.

"Folks there haven't had a say in a long time," he said. "I guess they are trying to instill that democratic feel."

McAllister first came to Atkinson in July 2004 as interim town administrator, and was hired permanently later that year. He made $62,004 in 2006, the last year for which salary figures are available.

He will make a lot more money to send his 17-year-old daughter to college with his new job, and will return home twice a year to visit her, he said. McAllister said he plans to stay "till I come back."

He said he has no hesitation about going to Iraq. In fact, he expects to have fun.

"I bet there'll be lots of local feel, not that Atkinson doesn't have that," McAllister said, with a laugh.

But he's also not nervous because he said it's territory that is somewhat familiar to him.

As a merchant mariner, McAllister was stationed in the Persian Gulf during the war between Iraq and Iran. On his ship were bags of cornmeal and rice, courtesy of USAID.

"The world has a funny symmetry," McAllister said.

The night he accepted the offer, McAllister said, he dug around his house and found the cover of a sack of grain that he took in 1983 when he stepped back on land from the ship.

"I pulled it out the other day and the (USAID symbol) handshake is right there," he said. "I said, 'Holy smolies!'"

Prior to McAllister's last day, he'll attend the deliberative session Saturday. There, people are expected to debate a citizens petition aimed at getting rid of the town administrator position and replacing it with a selectmen's clerk.

Although petitioner Leon Artus said he submitted the article because McAllister doesn't do his job, that isn't what chased the town administrator out of town.

"Nothing works that way," McAllister said. "Give me a break."

Selectmen received the town administrator's resignation in nonpublic session Monday night and haven't met again to discuss how they will fill the vacancy, selectmen's Chairman Jack Sapia said.

Selectmen have used outside agencies to search for town administrators in the past, including the New Hampshire Municipal Association and New Hampshire Municipal Resources.