A recent work session focused on a potential 2020 merger vote found local department heads offering a consistent message to their governing boards: Be mindful of identity and stick to your decisions.
The input came during the first-half of Saturday’s daylong board retreat, with Essex and Essex Jct. department heads sharing challenges they see in their current semi-consolidation environment and obstacles that stand in the way of merger.
The session’s most pointed advice came from town public works director Dennis Lutz. He called on leaders to “make decisions and then move on” instead of wavering.
“Staff is experienced. We’re smart. We deal with problems on a daily basis. We’re basically problem solvers,” Lutz said. “We have a mission to perform irrespective of merger. I don’t have the time to go back and forth and back and forth on issues.”
And when officials don’t like the options before them, let staff go back and find some alternatives, he said. Ricky Jones, the village’s public works superintendent, agreed with his counterpart. “We can do whatever,” Jones said. “We can make anything work. We just need to get that direction.”
Lutz also called on officials to better understand how town and village differ – from the way the departments operate to the physical landscape – which he said requires more than just attending meetings.
“Go drive the gravel roads in town,” he said. “Go drive the ones with crossroads. Look at the roadway, look at the divots, look at the culverts.”
“If you’ve never been in the building,” he added, “How can you pick up the report and understand what’s in the report? You can’t.”
Saturday’s session underscored the wide-ranging impacts a merger could have on the two municipalities and their staff and demonstrated how each department arrives to the conversation differently.
For three big-ticket departments – recreation, libraries and fire – yet to experience consolidation to the degree of their colleagues, the prospect of merger poses significant questions over identity.
With the fire departments, that comes down to the insignia on the trucks and the color of the gear they wear. “The fire service prides itself on history,” said Essex Town Fire Chief Charlie Cole. “Each department just doesn’t want to lose some of the historic identity.”
In the same vein, Essex Jct. Fire Department Chief Chris Gaboritault said aligning policies and practices can be done, but merging the two departments without taking care to maintain their identities could make retaining volunteers even more difficult that it’s become.
“If they don’t care for the way things are changing, they are going to leave,” Gaboriault said.
Other department heads described identity as the way in which their departments create a sense of place, with the main examples being the libraries and the municipal pools. The environment created at these municipal gathering places differ between the town and village, several department heads said, noting that the Brownell Library and Maple Street Pool offer more hustle and bustle compared to their counterparts in the town, influencing where people prefer to congregate.
But not everyone agreed that historical differences should influence how the town and village work out a merger. Trustee Dan Kerin asked the boards to “find commonality” and plan for the next 50 years. He feared that if boards could get caught up in trying to appease every individual group, they could unnecessarily complicate a new charter and put future leaders in a bind.
“We get so caught up in the here and now, we’ve got to look further down the road,” Kerin said. “It will work.”
“If that’s the decision, we need a plan in place,” responded Cole, the fire chief. “If that’s the decision, have a back up plan to support it.”
Elaine Haney, selectboard chairwoman, said she appreciated hearing the department heads’ “direct” and “honest criticism.”
“For them to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, they need us to do our jobs to the best of our ability,” Haney said in a phone interview. “We need to stop revisiting topics over and over again. We have a tendency to think at the 50,000-foot level and then suddenly jump down into the weeds, and that’s confusing for staff. They don’t deserve that kind of fluctuation.”
As proof, Haney pointed to testimony from a handful of department heads – especially those in the administrative roles – that detailed the challenges of managing day-to-day operations for two municipalities with such a complex relationship as the town and village.
“Right now, they’re keeping two sets of books, two sets of equipment and two sets of bosses. It’s confusing and leads to more issues than it solves,” she said. “I want to make sure they have all the tools they need to do their jobs … they were very clear that moving forward into a single community would help them do their jobs better.”
Village president Andrew Brown left the meeting with a similar takeaway. He was encouraged to hear that even while some staff emphasized the importance of their individual cultures, none believed that would be impossible under a merger community. He said the meeting also left him feeling “incredibly excited and incredibly honored” about the work of the boards moving forward.
“I see nothing but excitement out of this. This is the exact kind of thing I’ve been campaigning on term after term,” Brown said. “I see light at the end of the tunnel, which is fantastic.”
For the latter half of Saturday’s work session, officials discussed their rationales for merger – better customer service, more consistency across departments and more stability – while also determining responsibilities between staff and the boards.
They planned to continue their work at a joint meeting Tuesday that kicked off after The Reporter’s deadline. The meeting’s agenda showed planned discussions on a “why merge” elevator speech, approval of a web address for a merger website and a follow-up discussion from Saturday’s retreat. The boards then plan to meet regularly over the coming months to tackle a long list of outstanding issues.