Candidate profile: Landry: From website watchdog to political player

Selectman Candidate Bob Landry at the Candidates Forum hosted by the Service Club of Andover.

Bob Landry got off to an inauspicious start in local politics.

Several years after moving to Andover, Landry decided he wanted to get more involved in civic affairs, reaching out to the late Greg Rigby after seeing a letter by him in The Townsman about runaway pension and retiree health care costs.

The duo teamed up with a third, like-minded resident, Bob Pokress, and together they launched www.townofandover.com, which was dedicated to municipal transparency — with a twist.

The twist, Landry said, is that they offered “Jon Stewart-style news, so residents would get more engaged.”

Instead, the attempt at humor came off as mean-spirited and “snarky,” Landry said. He added, “it didn’t work. It was a failed attempt at humor.”

The result was that the website was labeled as negative, its backers as “bomb-throwers” who would toss a grenade in a room and then leave.

“When you make a mistake, you own up to it,” he said. “It was not meant to be malicious.”

In 2013, the tone of the website changed. It became more Tom Brokaw than Jon Stewart — a straight recitation of events as they saw them in Andover. They posted salary lists of town employees. They filed public records requests for health insurance information and other documents showing wasteful spending by the town.

But Rigby died last February and Pokress left the website, leaving it to Landry to carry on.

That almost didn’t happen.

Town Meeting amendment

After Rigby’s sudden death, Landry thought about “folding up the tent” and shutting down the website, he said.

“Nobody would have blamed me,” he said. “But the other part of me said, ‘Greg and I put a lot into this, at a minimum I should play out the string through Town Meeting.’”

“I’m glad I did,” he said.

Landry had a significant, though in the end mostly symbolic, impact on last year’s Town Meeting. He proposed an amendment to the budget that would have slashed $680,000 from the employee health insurance account — the same amount of money that would have been saved if the town’s unions had voted to go with Tufts Health Care instead of staying with an existing plan offered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

The amendment failed by just nine votes after Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski read a prepared legal opinion from town counsel Tom Urbelis saying that the amendment, for all intents and purposes, was illegal.

“We should not have to lawyer up to go to Town Meeting,” Landry said. “That tainted the vote.”

Public information

While the legal opinion may have swayed enough voters to kill Landry’s amendment, it’s not the first time town officials had tried to block Landry.

Ever since getting involved with townofandover.com, he said, he has been put off by various officials in his attempts at gathering public documents.

The first time he asked for an employee salary list, he said, “the reaction I got was foot-dragging. They charged me $60 or $70. Then they sent me a PDF file. It was unusable. You can’t do any analysis on it. I had to keep pushing. I got antagonized. This is information we should be able to get easily. The town should be cooperative. In a passive-aggressive way, they fought me.”

Eventually, he got electronic Excel spreadsheets, which he was able to analyze and post on his website so the information was readable and easily digestible for residents interested in finding out how much town employees earn.

He also asked for retirement information, specifically a list of pension recipients. The staff in the retirement office sent him a print-out of Excel spreadsheets in the mail. “It was a hard copy and it was completely useless,” he said. “I called the secretary of state and was told that if it’s in electronic form, they have to send it to me.” 

He passed that information along to the Retirement Board and received an email 15 minutes later with the information he had requested.

“This is the culture I want to be part of changing,” Landry said. “It’s a close-to-the-vest culture versus full transparency.”

If elected, he said, that information “would be coming straight from the town. So people don’t have to put in FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to get basic information. The town should be pushing this information out.”

Long-term liabilities

Once the information is out, however, the next question is what to do with it.

Landry said his experience in the health care industry would be critical in helping the town get a bigger bang for its buck when it comes to employee health insurance contracts.

Until recently, he said, selectmen supported the town manager in nearly every financial decision he made, which is why the town is currently in a bind with skyrocketing property taxes to pay for projects and salaries and benefits that it can no longer afford.

People in town, many of them senior citizens, he said, “are asking for good leadership and fiscally conservative policies that will keep the town affordable. It’s not a revenue issue. It’s how we are spending money on health insurance, post-employee benefits and pensions.”

He said the town has “huge issues on health care and retiree benefits. I know we’re not alone and that this is a national and statewide issue. But how will it change if we keep papering it over as if it doesn’t exist?”

The practice in Andover, he said, has always been to throw more money at a problem, and then ignore it.

For example, the town this year is planning on budgeting $5 million for the retiree health insurance liability when in fact that amount should be more like $12 million.

“If we were being honest with ourselves — the assumptions in the actuarial report are suspect,” he said. “We are just stretching out the payment. We have structural deficits. These are massive problems.”

Getting at solutions

Landry said he is running because he wants to “get attention focused on this — our needs versus our wants,” adding, for example, that the town didn’t need to buy Phillips Academy’s former boathouse, which selectmen opted against. “It’s about priorities.”

Other communities are taking a more creative, proactive approach to their long-term liabilities. In Harvard, for example, he said selectmen are seeking a home-rule petition through the state Legislature that would allow the town to bypass labor rules to control its pension and health-care liabilities.

In Andover, progress could be made if it were easier to change some of those same rules. For example, employees in Andover who work 20 or more hours a week for 10 years are entitled to lifetime health insurance subsidized by the town’s taxpayers. Other communities require someone to work at least 30 to 32 hours a week to be eligible for lifetime benefits, he said. He added that someone who works part-time in Andover gets credit for a full year toward retirement.

“The Andover Retirement Board could fix a lot of this,” he said.

Town officials need to focus on this problem immediately, he said.

“Instead, we are getting the same kind of stuff — dragging it out, and the can is being kicked down the road on a massive problem,” he said.

BOB LANDRY

Age: 53

Address: 4 Seminole Circle

Family: Wife, Line; children, Alex, 11, and Emma, 9

Years in Andover: 10; originally from Burlington

Education: Economics degree, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester; Master of Business Administration, Harvard Business School, Cambridge

Professional experience: Employee benefits broker

Political experience: None

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