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July 2008 · Volume 90 · Number 6

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Bill “Rusty” Fraser: City Manager and Musician, He Is Montpelier’s Main Attraction

William Fraser, city manager of Montpelier, Vermont, has been playing guitar since he was 10 years old.

“It’s like a benevolent dictatorship,” Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser says with a wry grin from his office at Montpelier’s city hall.

Fraser, 48, is referring to his lead role in Rusty Romance, the “roots ‘n’ roll” band he fronts under his alter ego, Rusty: cowboy-hatted, often hidden behind shades, and always closing the show with his upbeat song, “We Brought the Fun.”

The band functions somewhat like the city, Fraser says, in that it has “really great people” who bring in ideas and initiatives. “We sort them out. . . . I might try to say, ‘Well, here’s the general direction I’d like us to go in,’ and then everyone figures out, as a team, how we’re going to get there.”

Ah, spoken like a true diplomat.

Diplomacy, it seems, is city manager Fraser’s forte.

Through his parents (his father, a high school principal who died when Fraser was young, and his mother, a teacher), he was taught the importance of public service. His grandfather, Emile Fraser, a Maine state legislator, meanwhile, was responsible for his grandson’s lifelong interest in government and politics.

“I would visit him at the statehouse in Augusta. Because of him I got interested in elections and campaigns and all that stuff. My grandfather was one of those local guys everybody knew and liked.”

With 13 years as Montpelier’s city manager, the longest-running manager in the city’s history, Fraser is also one of those guys everybody knows and seems to like.

This is obvious when he takes center stage as Rusty and welcomes the “Rusty-farians” as he calls the group’s following. Fraser glows under the spotlight and is in his element—whether it’s at the recent First Night celebration in Montpelier or at a barn dance, which he describes as “authentic Vermont as you can get: cows mooing downstairs, hay in the corners, and the sights, sounds and, yes, smells of a working farm all around.”

Fraser’s between-song banter keeps the performances lively and is his opportunity to speak freely. “I love music. I’ve always loved music, and I love performing with the band. Music’s been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember,” he says.

Fraser says the band, originally called Rusty Romance and the Raunchy Rednecks, has played close to 60 gigs since he cobbled it together in 2002. Its 2005 CD, “Who Brought the Fun?” was the 2006 “Tammie” Award Winner for Best Vermont Country Album. Burlington’s Seven Days newspaper praised the CD and the band, saying “Rusty Romance is a good old-fashioned, friendly Americana act . . . refreshing in its utter lack of pretension.”

Fraser, the city manager in shirt and tie, is different from Rusty, the blue-jean-clad performer. He takes his job quite seriously and conducts himself in a manner befitting his membership in the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), which describes itself as “the premier local government leadership and management organization.” His affiliation with ICMA is about all one will learn about Montpelier City Manager Fraser’s political bent. He’s tight-lipped when it comes to personal politics and beliefs.

And for good reason. Living and working in a small town, which happens to be the seat of state government, is an ongoing challenge. Fraser, as private citizen and public figure, has to remain neutral and apolitical. He has, and this may account for his successful 13-year reign.

“I don’t give any money to any campaigns. I don’t sign any petitions at all. People come up to me with simple little things. ‘Would you sign my petition for the school board?’ I am a registered independent. I don’t wear political buttons. I don’t put signs in my yard. I don’t attend rallies. I might share private thoughts with close friends.”

This is no easy feat, but Fraser pulls it off. As a private citizen with a wife and four kids, he is on guard constantly. He says that when he and his wife are invited to a dinner, it often turns out to be a fundraiser. Their answer has to be no.

His fellow band members understand this and shun political fundraisers. Rusty Romance does, however, play such benefit concerts as the January 20 show at Montpelier’s Bethany Church to benefit Jackie (Benjamin) and Richard Danner, a Montpelier family in dire need of medical and travel expenses.

Fraser’s ability to remain apolitical and function as both a private citizen and very public musician in politically charged Montpelier comes from years of experience in public service.

He graduated from the University of Maine in 1981 with a degree in public management. “At one point my college adviser sat me down and said, ‘Have you considered public management? I remember saying, ‘Oh, my god. That sounds like a dreadful job,’” Fraser says with a laugh.

His first taste at that “dreadful job” was an internship at the town manager’s office in Brunswick, Maine, followed by administrative jobs in Wakefield, New Hampshire; Ogunquit, Maine; and Farmington, New Hampshire, where he met his future wife. A job in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as finance and personnel director of the department of human services, was the turning point in his career, he says.

“It was the greatest thing I could have done at that time because I got to see a view of things I never had seen before. I was just a cog in the wheel, and yet it was good for my personal development.” He also landed a fellowship at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, earning a master’s of public administration in just one year.

Shortly thereafter, Fraser applied for and was offered the city manager’s job in Montpelier. So in 1995, he, his wife, and two children (eventually, two more) moved to Montpelier.

“I think to survive in this stressful job you have to have some sort of hobby. Different people have different outlets. Music has been my default. (As Rusty) people do see me in a different light. They get a kick out of it. Montpelier gives you a chance for people to know you in many different ways.”

—Patrick Timothy Mullikin
Staff Reporter
Vermont Today
Montpelier, Vermont
www.patricktimothymullikin.com

Reprinted with permission from the January 13, 2008, issue of Vermont Today (www.vermonttoday.com), Rutland Herald and Times Argus Newspapers.