70 Years of Municipal Management
(from Maine Townsman, March 2002)
by Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer
In many communities, five years is a long
time for a town manager to serve. This month, two veterans with more than 70
years of municipal government experience between them are retiring, and they
shared their reflections on lifetimes of local government service with the
Dwight Dogherty had recently graduated from Harvard when he went to work as the first administrative assistant to the city manager in Auburn in 1961. A State House page while he was growing up in Augusta, Dogherty says he "was pretty well indoctrinated into local and state government" by the time he graduated. He took his first town manager post in Lisbon from 1966-71, and had a stint in the Secretary of State's office as well as serving as Cumberland town manager. After a five-year hiatus in which tried the antiques and collectibles business, he took the job for which he is best known, Pittsfield town manager, serving almost 19 years.
Bob Littlefield's town manager career began in a way some would consider inauspicious. He had joined the Guilford Board of Selectmen after "a fellow I thought was a friend of mine talked me into running." A few years later, there was a contentious town meeting in which his immediate predecessor as town manager was talking with selectmen in the parking lot after the manager "had gotten into a nose-to-nose confrontation" with some of his critics, Littlefield recalls. As they spoke, the manager said something about feeling tired, staggered backward and collapsed - and died of a heart attack on the spot. With characteristic directness, Littlefield said, "It was right then that I knew that was a job I ought to have."
He resigned as a selectmen, was one of 16 applicants, got the job - and stayed for 31 years.
Littlefield is among a rare breed of hands-on town manager, literally. He's also listed in the town report as tax collector, welfare director, road commissioner, emergency management director, and health officer, but the titles don't convey his actual role. He works on the roads, plows the snow and collects the trash. On the afternoon of our interview, he was ready to take the town garbage truck up to the PERC incinerator in Orrington, accompanied by his designated successor, Tom Goulette - showing him the ropes, as it were.
JOB CENTER TOWNS
Pittsfield, in Somerset County, and Guilford, in Piscataquis, share some similarities beyond having town managers of unusual longevity. Both are small service center communities, offering a high number of stable blue collar jobs in a part of the state where traditional manufacturing has been hard hit by job losses.
Pittsfield has stayed about even in population over the last decade, even growing slightly to 4,214, and it offers 3,000 jobs - more than half of them with Cianbro, the family construction company that is by far the largest in Maine, conducting business around the country and even internationally. Dogherty says that Pittsfield has unusually well defined neighborhoods, as well as a wide variety of housing. In addition to Maine Central Institute, the private school that serves as the town high school, Pittsfield also has the only municipally-owned movie theater in Maine, which acts as an anchor for a downtown cleared out in the 1960s and '70s, but more recently stabilized as an office and small retail center.
Guilford plays a similar role in its area, even more so after the demise the
Eastland Woolen mill in Corinna and the shutdown of Dexter Shoe's manufacturing
operations in Maine. Its population of 1,531 is down a bit from 1990 census -
Piscataquis lost more people, as a proportion of population, than any other
county besides Aroostook - but Guilford still boast nearly 1,600 jobs, drawing
workers from a wide radius. Guilford Industries, a textile manufacturing and
design company, is the largest employer, but Pride Manufacturing and Hardwood
Products each also employ hundreds of workers.
BEST GOVERNS LEAST
The business-like attitudes that keep the plants humming seem to have worn off on the town managers. Littlefield is the blunter of the two in asserting that government regulations "have taken the fun out of" being a town manager, though he hastens to add that he still enjoys his job and working with townspeople. "As conservative as they come," by his own description, he subscribes to the belief that the government governs best that governs least - particularly at the state and federal level. The state could help most "by leaving us alone," though he concedes that some regulations are justified. "I don't hold with those that think industry has a right to pollute," he said, and points to the local sewage treatment plant, shared with Sangerville, as a model. "It far exceeds the state and federal standards, and our water is among the best."
Lately though, he feels "regulation has gotten completely out of hand," citing OSHA and Department of Labor rules such as the one mandating two firefighters outside for every two fighting a blaze inside a building, the so-called "two in, two out" rule. "It puts us on the same footing as the city of Portland," Littlefield said. "Where's the sense in that?"
As befits its hands-on leader, the town manager's office in Guilford is a small hideaway alongside a garage bay in the municipal building. Though the local school district, SAD 4, is a leader in the use of computer technology in the classroom, Littlefield's desk is innocent of electronics, and even a manual typewriter nearby looks unused. "I type up a bill for a few bales of hay from the farm every now and then," he said. "Just to make it look professional." He feels more comfortable solving budget problems with pencil and paper: "I'm not even sure I trust calculators."
Fit and trim at age 71, Littlefield clearly enjoys his work in the field. "I operate totally different than any other town manager," he said. "With my two men and me, I do my share, plus some." His remarks about firefighting regulations come from experience - he's been a volunteer firefighter in town for 41 years.
Guilford has kept its manufacturers at least in part because "We work with our industries, not against them. It's not like some towns, where they're trying to keep everything out." His frank assessment of the downtown is that "our business district, as in every other small town, is not what it was. We've all been Wal-Marted." In recent years, downtown has made "a little comeback," including a new Rite Aid in the middle of town, "which is appreciated," he said.
As a believer in low taxes, he likes the results. At $14.35, the Guilford's tax rate is lower than any nearby town: "It looks like it'll be $18-$19 in Dover-Foxcroft this year, and $25 in Milo." The state, he said, could do more to help. "They've never funded education at the level they said they would." On the other hand, he's doesn't believe it would be easy to lower local taxes through more state and federal aid: "I've been to Augusta and Washington, and I've hunted for the well full of the money, or the trees it grows on. They don't seem to be there."
Littlefield's penchant for turning a phrase has been noted elsewhere. He frequently appears on the public television show, "Public Opinion," and has enjoyed his dealings with some of Maine's most noted politicians. Sen. William Cohen often came to Guilford for open houses, "and since it was usually just him and me in the room, we had plenty of time to sit and talk." He came to know Sen. George Mitchell after the great flood of 1987 devastated Guilford, causing $6 million in damage, when Mitchell was instrumental in crafting an emergency aid package.
Littlefield nonetheless likes to keep town government down to its basic elements: "So many people have a knack for taking a simple problem and making it complicated. I'll put up our results against anyone's."
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
A few days before he moved out for good, Dwight Dogherty's office was piled high with paper - literally, a foot thick in places - but it had been like that for the most of the 19 years he served as town manager. As befits its larger size, Pittsfield's municipal building is more imposing than Guilford's, though hardly pretentious. Dogherty is already feeling the benefits of slowing down.
"All those years of working 65-80 hours a week, nights and weekends, takes its toll, and you don't even realize it. People come up to me and tell me how much more relaxed I look."
Dogherty's departure was not quite as smooth as Littlefield's. He had already intended to retire in 2003, but after a couple of stormy meetings with the town council decided to step down earlier. Though Pittsfield no longer has a weekly newspaper of its own, it is intensively covered by the Bangor Daily News and the Waterville Morning Sentinel, both of which maintain bureaus in town, and the story of his leaving continued to be reported for weeks.
As he did earlier, Dogherty declines now to say what led to the breach with the council except that there were "a couple of issues" involved. He just decided that "it wasn't going to be a very productive 15 months," and that "the town would be better served" with a new manager. He agreed to stay on until a successor was hired. It turned out to be Kathryn Ruth, for five years town manager of Topsham, which has more than twice the population of Pittsfield and is one of Maine's fastest growing municipalities. Nevertheless, Ruth called Pittsfield her "ideal job." Dogherty said "the town is in excellent shape" - a contention no one seems to disagree with.
Aside from his State House service, Dogherty attended Boys State and, early on, developed a taste for government service: "At the time I wasn't really sure, but I discovered it was in my blood."
He was a page while Edmund Muskie was governor, and began learning his political lessons early. Muskie, he said, was "an impressive figure," but also "very approachable." When later, Muskie helped clear the way for Freddy Vahlsing to pollute Prestile Stream in Aroostook County to operate his sugar beet plant, Dogherty had second thoughts. "It was a blemish on his record. I suppose you could find them with anybody if you look far enough back into the past."
State politics had a small town feel back then, even for governors. "Burton Cross ran a florist shop on Water Street" in Augusta, and "you could see John Reed shopping there evenings. Everybody did." Ken Curtis went to high school with Dogherty's father, and "nobody had a State Police bodyguard."
Pittsfield continues to be a politically well-connected place as well. The late Chuck Cianchette, a top executive with Cianbro, served two terms in the state senate, and Peter Cianchette is a Republican candidate for governor this year. Even so, the business influence at the State House was much more explicit years ago, he said, when Bob Haskell, president of Bangor Hydro, was also Senate president, and Louis Jalbert "looked after the [Maine Central] railroad's interests."
Town government was different, too. When he arrived at his first posting as a town manager, in Lisbon, he discovered that the town hall was on a 16-party phone line. "If anyone else was on the line, you couldn't get through." This led to his installing radios in police cars for the first time.
In Pittsfield, a town clerk ran the office, as recently as 30 years ago, with a collection of cigar boxes filled with cash. "There was one box for Social Security, another one for taxes. What you had left over was your weekly pay." Though it would give an accountant nightmares, the system "worked well enough" in its time, he said.
Today, Dogherty finds "a little more apathy" among the citizenry when it comes to local government, and it's difficult to find people to serve on volunteer boards. This reflects, in part, increased professionalism, but also a "much busier lifestyle," and the impact of television and home computers.
Though he's less outspoken about it, Dogherty agrees with Bob Littlefield that the thickets of regulation have taken some of the enjoyment out of the job. He offers as an example the case of a young woman who applied for general assistance back in the '80s. She came from a good family, but was addicted to cocaine, and trying to quit. Although the state rules clearly didn't allow for the purchase of cigarettes, Dogherty decided to ignore her two-pack-a-day habit. "I figured if she could beat the cocaine habit with cigarettes, it would be worth it."
In another instance, he remembers an elderly woman who had paid to have her driveway plowed out twice, only to have the town truck bury it once more. "She was living on a $258 Social Security check, and she told me she couldn't afford to have it plowed again. Do you send the town truck out there? Sometimes what's legal isn't what's right."
Now, he'd think twice about complying with these requests, not only because of more stringent regulations but the greater frequency of lawsuits. Still, "Being able to help people is the greatest satisfaction of the job," he says.
Even the seemingly mundane details of municipal government can have their twists and turns. He recalls a local contractor "long dead, now" who had read the regulations calling for catch basins on new streets in his developments. "Unfortunately, he put the basins in but he didn't connect them to anything. We were wondering why the drainage was so poor on some of these roads." Dogherty used part of a Community Development Block Grant to reconstruct a town road and connect the catch basins in the bargain.
Pittsfield has used federal and state grants to work on whole neighborhoods, particularly those that show signs of blight. "It works," he says. Improving infrastructure can make individual homes more desirable, and avoid the decline that befalls so many neighborhoods as the housing stock ages.
Dogherty, who is single, has no big plans for retirement. He wants "to put my affairs in order, write a will" - and catch up with his reading; he has four years of certain magazines still on the shelf. He plans to keep his hand in municipal work; already, he's had offers to write grant applications, and would look favorably on joining the "circuit rider" program to fill in when towns are between managers or one has taken ill. "I'll be doing it on my time, though," he said.
Littlefield has worked outdoors throughout his life. He expects to continue with the fire department, and with the family farm; gardening and cutting wood are among his favorite activities. He and his wife like to travel, and will typically fly out "to a place like Denver, Kalispell or Portland, Oregon," rent a car, and drive around for several weeks. Now, "I intend to work when I want to." He may even write his memoirs for the benefit of is family, which includes five children.
Littlefield said he dealt with "a lot of different people over the years" on the board of selectmen, but has always found them "highly supportive." He says, "I've given a lot more stress than I've gotten," and that townspeople "have been just tremendous. Ninety-eight percent of them have been extremely nice, and the other 2 percent, if they'd liked me, I'd be mad."