By Lydia Goetze
The article in the Jan. 28 Islander has people asking what bad thing did the Southwest Harbor Town Manager do to have the Board of Selectmen dump him so summarily? The first answer is nothing bad; they had to fire him “for convenience” (and continue to pay his salary) rather than “for cause” because they have no defensible reasons. The second answer is that some residents and staff have been undermining Justin VanDongen’s tenure from the beginning.
Mr. VanDongen has done several important things that annoy some people. His careful scrutiny of town finances and efforts to bring order both to daily bookkeeping and to longer–term planning and budgeting have been a great benefit to the town. He also improved the use of both reserve accounts and capital improvement accounts to stabilize costs and make them more transparent. His ability and willingness to look at the larger picture as well as tend to details has served the town well.
When COVID-19 arrived, the town manager made it so that staff and volunteers could work remotely, providing not only inexpensive tablets for Zoom meetings, but also training people to use them as needed. He reconfigured the physical space and the working schedules in the town office to improve health and safety for the staff and the public while continuing to provide needed services. He recognized that change may be unwelcome but is often necessary.
Mr. VanDongen has paid attention to “business as usual” with an eye to economic efficiency. He has good working relationships with our public safety officials, police, fire and dispatch, who provide protection for our residents. Collaboration between the highway department and the water/sewer district has led to improvements in water and sewer infrastructure as well as roads. Some projects that require state or federal funds have been discouragingly slow and beyond his control. In his work with the harbormaster, our three town docks are well maintained and further development of the Manset pier area is in the works.
When public opinion is divided on an issue, Mr. VanDongen’s approach was to invite dialogue and suggestions, assuming that in a small town, citizens want to do what is best for the town, that compromise may be required and that reliable information, careful listening and respectful discussion are the way neighbors can accomplish the task at hand. This approach was particularly evident in early discussions about the post office parking lot and in the formulation of our recent marijuana ordinance, among others.
This recent controversy, the firing of a very competent town manager by a 3-2 vote, is a local symptom of the divisiveness in our culture these days. If our town is to survive and thrive, we need residents of all descriptions — old, young and in the middle; female and male; working and retired; those who have chosen to live here as well as those born and raised here — to come together, to pay attention to the town’s welfare, to serve on town boards and committees and to talk and listen to each other for the present and future well–being of Southwest Harbor.
Mr. VanDongen has moved us in the right direction. We need to thank him for his hard work, to wish him well and to pick up the tasks before us and get to work.
Lydia Goetze is a former Board of Selectmen chairman in Southwest Harbor.