Sunday, December 8, 2013
Fairfield and Oakland, two mid-sized towns in the Waterville area that share a border, are amassing clout, knowledge and recognition as their town leaders move into prominent roles in important statewide municipal organizations.
Oakland Town Manager Peter Nielsen was sworn in earlier this year as president of the Maine Municipal Association.
Photo by Jeff Pouland
Josh Reny, town manager of Fairfield, was named Rookie Manager of the Year by the Maine City, Towns and County Management Association.
Staff photo by Michael G. Seaman
OAKLAND, FAIRFIELD LEADERS
State associations work to balance their executive positions between towns of different sizes and from different areas in the state, but two central Maine communities have made their marks this year:
Oakland Town Manager Peter Nielsen — president, Maine Municipal Association
Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny — Rookie Manager of the Year, Maine City, Towns and County Management Association
Oakland police Chief Michael Tracey — president, Maine Chiefs of Police Association.
Fairfield Town Council Chairwoman Tracey Stevens, former town clerk in Fairfield — second vice president, Maine Town and City Clerks' Association
The names may sound like a jumble of bureaucratic jargon, but groups such as the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Town, City and County Management Association, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and the Maine Town and City Clerks' Association play a vital role in shaping how small government works in the state.
The associations help towns pave roads, arrest criminals, revitalize downtowns, foreclose on delinquent taxpayers, handle lawsuits or give public aid to those in need.
They also allow towns to band together for collective action — providing the leverage to negotiate lower rates for employee health insurance and to lobby effectively in the state capital.
Nearly every interaction a person has with town hall — from registering a car to getting a fireworks permit — is influenced by the groups.
And these groups, for the moment at least, are influenced by key town officials in Oakland and Fairfield.
In Oakland, Town Manager Peter Nielsen was recently named president of the Maine Municipal Association, while police Chief Michael Tracey is the president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.
In Fairfield, Town Manager Josh Reny was named Rookie of the Year by the Maine City, Towns and County Management Association in August, while Town Council Chairwoman Tracey Stevens, who formerly was town clerk in Fairfield, is the second vice president of the Maine Town and City Clerks' Association.
The statewide associations work hard to achieve balance, ensuring that no single region or demographic gains too much clout within their ranks. Still, the area is well represented this year and in recent years, according to Eric Conrad, Maine Municipal Association spokesman.
One way Oakland's Nielsen and Fairfield's Reny have achieved success is by maintaining close ties to each other and to several other town managers in the region.
"One thing that most people don't realize is that every month or two, the town managers try to get together for coffee in the morning and share ideas," Reny said.
Several times a year, he said, the town managers of Belgrade, China, Clinton, Fairfield, Norridgewock, Oakland, Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow gather to discuss regional issues like new fireworks laws, negotiating cable agreements or the natural gas pipeline that's under construction.
Nielsen said the group works together, but doesn't lobby to divert resources from other parts of the state.
"If we can advocate for a region in a way that won't take away from other regions, we will," he said. "Like, for example, an economic development piece."
A casual observer in the Oakland town office might mistake the mild laid-back Nielsen for a farmer who has stopped by to chat about community events, rather than the person who oversees nearly every detail of the town's business.
He often defuses a potentially tense situation with dry humor, delivered deadpan from behind his eyeglasses and whitening mutton chops.
"He's very good at listening," Reny said. "So when he speaks, you're interested to hear what he has to say."
Reny, 32, is equally agreeable, but he projects the vibrant energy of an entrepreneur whose business is the town and whose passion is to see that business grow and prosper.
During conversations, Reny is active, restating what's been said to him to make sure he understands and to make sure everyone in the room understands each other.
While their styles differ, both cited their relationships to statewide and regional associations as a major factor in their effectiveness.
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Oakland Police Department Chief Michael Tracey
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Fairfield Town Council Chairwoman Tracey Stevens is the second vice president of the Maine Town and City Clerks' Association.
Staff file photo by David Leaming