It has only been just a little over two months, on August 24, since Joe Roach assumed his role as Rangeley’s new town manager. However, he feels more at ease here in his new position than probably many a town manager before him. After all, he has only been gone from working in Rangeley’s Town Office for a relatively short while. Formerly head of public works in Rangeley from 2015 to 2018, he feels right at home here.

As I had never spoke with him at length before the interview, I tried to break the ice with my inappropriate (yet timely) sense of humor test. I set up to take his photo and made him smile by asking (at the point of click) who he was voting for. He laughed, and I got a pretty good picture. I was pleased he passed the smart and sensible test by not answering. In addition, I was relieved he had a good sense of humor. Something we all need more of nowadays.

New Town Manager Joe Roach smiling despite my silly joke. Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

I had heard he was a bit of a gardener and so asked about it. He confirmed and said he was kind of a ‘hobby farmer’. He clarified, “I like to grow stuff. We got chickens. I just built a new chicken coop. We grow vegetables. We had a pretty good garlic crop this year.” So of course, I made the analogy between planting a seed and the eventual joy of seeing a project come to fruition. He laughed at my somewhat obvious push for a good anecdote and so graciously helped me out by happily discussing the changes from when he first started as the public works director. He told me that Oquossoc Park was the first project he worked on almost exactly five years ago. “I had coffee there a few weeks ago, sat on the bench, looked around and I said ‘Wow, you know Oquossoc has grown in the last few years. There have been many improvements; the Portage Tap House is there, the park is being maintained, the streets have been paved.”

I asked him about what kind of response he has had since his return. “It’s been good. I have enjoyed a nice welcome back to Rangeley. People are great here.” He mentioned two people I know quite well. One, Carl Symes, a former employer of mine (who is like a brother to me), and a previous public works co-worker of his, and two, Allen Wicken, Rangeley Highlander freelance writer, (who  I also play in a tennis group with). They were two of many of who had made a point of stopping in to wish him well in his new position and welcome him back to Rangeley.

Getting to know who was who of the many Rangeley boards was also not an issue for Roach. “I had worked with at least two of the board members that are on there now as board members and then of course I knew two of the other board members from their positions in the community. So I knew them coming into it”.

Now, as town manager, he continues to be reacquainted with many in the community. “I know some of the storekeepers and people that are on the committees. They know my name. They know my personality. There is no waiting period if you will.” He offered the example, “Like if they want to talk to me, they know to come see me- we’ll talk, the door is open. So I felt those connections with those people right away”.

Roach left his position in Rangeley back in 2018 to accept the position of town manager in Buckfield. He made it clear that he was enjoying his role in Buckfield when the opportunity to work back in Rangeley came about and had no intention of leaving. “I wasn’t really looking.” He explained. “I was in a contract. I was plugging away, and I had a call and they said, ‘Are you interested? Can we talk about it?’ and I said I was going to stick it out here.” At that moment, he reflexively knew he was content where he was. Some time passed. “Then I thought about it, and I got excited. I remembered all the things that were going on here.”

He went on to explain what appealed to him about working in Rangeley government.

“So here’s a town of 11, 1200 people, remote, 23, 24 full time employees, an airport that just had a 12 million dollar upgrade., a 460 acre spray irrigation waste water facility, parks; a town making investments in themselves. You know million dollar investments in their infrastructure. That’s appealing to someone who is into local government administration.” He thought, ‘There’s a town that is investing in itself and they’re not slowing down.’

From Roach’s point of view, the Rangeley community has a history of making the most of their small town. “You know they’ve done it since the sixties when they built the tertiary plant where the highway is now, and then in the nineties they built the new waste water plant, and then, a couple of years ago, they invested in the airport. So it’s not like Rangeley just all of a sudden decided ‘Hey we’re going to start investing in ourselves’, they’ve been doing it for a long time. So there’s stability there and there’s a fairly low tax rate.” He further considered and had concluded that it was an exciting albeit surprising opportunity.  On the flipside, he recognized the possible negative challenges as well. “There has been some turnover, and not just recently, but historically, in management, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad town, you see that in pockets all over the state.”

Fortunately for the town he doesn’t have to play a lot of catch up. For one, he has experience as a town manager and so knows to some degree what to expect. For two, he has already worked in the town of Rangeley and so is familiar with the policies and most of the code. For three, he knows the nature of our community. Finally, he has already worked with many of the town office staff members. “I did have the luxury to know what it looks like behind the curtain. There are good people here, a visionary Select Board, the residents are good people, the visitors, but also the staff is good to work with. They’re talented. They know their jobs.”

Of course, of late the challenges that came with the pandemic made relevant changes in procedures since when he was here several years ago. So while he attends every Select Board meeting and occasionally other meetings, nowadays he has the ability to go remotely.

He reflected on the contrast between then and now. “The use of technology to hold meetings even by telephone in the past was not endorsed. In fact it was discouraged by the Maine Municipal Association, I believe, up until COVID.” Fortunately, he believes virtual meetings have not caused any significant problems. “I actually haven’t seen any downside. In fact, what I saw through this transition was that more people are actually attending board meetings, especially select board meetings. In my experience, because they could do it from home, they could do it from their phone, wherever they are. Even if they are just observing, they can do that. And you can see, on Zoom, you can see on the side of the screen who is in the room, even if it’s just a phone number. I think it has increased public participation.” Further, he saw an unexpected bright point, “I think what it’s done is open a lot of people’s eyes about what technology can do in a positive way.”

Roach got his start in government affairs almost twenty years ago when he started taking classes in political science and public administration at the University of Maine, Augusta, because of his interests in budgeting and finance.  He admitted he “didn’t know at that point where it would take me.”

Some time after graduating, he saw an opening for a road commissioner in Peru and realized he had many of the skills that would fit the position. He had taken the right courses and he even had the required Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). He thought, “This is a place I think I can add some value”. However, it was a position he needed to be elected into. “I got on the ballot, went through all those steps, and as I recall it was a three way race and I won by like eight votes”. With no experience, he got through it, “It was trial by fire. It was a challenge. I had to really learn how to do it, what to do, when to do it, all that stuff, but that was a really good baseline for where I’m at today because the two jobs are kind of similar; work with a select board, work with staff, work with the public. One of the big differences is that one I was elected, this I was not. So I also have that perspective of being an elected official, reporting directly to the people, but working with the board.”

“In that time frame I said ‘I like this, this is something I want to make a career of.’” While working full time, he went to graduate school, which further solidified his commitment to his career path. So when the job as Public Works director came up in Rangeley he thought it would be a good next step. He considered, “That seems pretty interesting. It seems like something that would tie in everything I have learned and again add some value, which I believe I did.”

Okay, so personal note, I’m sure most of you probably aren’t aware, but I used to be the town office board secretary. In other words, I had to go to every single meeting; Selectmen, Parks, Planning Board, etc. and write summaries. The reason I mention this is to say the following. I had already believed all town office jobs and board positions were difficult and rather thankless before I took on the job, but afterwards even more so. I mentioned this to Roach and further commented on how I admire his career path and had observed it seemed like a really awful lot of work and that he could easily have chosen a path that was more corporate and less public service. He laughed and agreed. “It IS a lot of work! It’s a commitment, it’s a lifestyle!” He continued, “The bottom line or the level of success in business is profit. The level of success in local government is the quality of service you provide. So it really is kind of a difference of mindset. You get paid in the dividends of the service you provide, that’s where you judge your success. So, it’s not really about profit. Yes, you want to balance the budget, you want to keep taxes low; you want to make sure everything is taken care of that way. You have to worry about financial things, but it really is about that service level. That’s how you measure your success. It’s really cool. It’s back to what I said in the beginning. Rangeley has a history of keeping up with its infrastructure, investing in itself and that’s a good environment, a good springboard to be able to produce good service. That framework of a healthy municipal government allows us to give the best service that we can and that’s where we’re profitable, in service.”

I looked at my watch. The interview had taken a lot longer than I had anticipated but simply because it was pleasant and I lost track of the time. I’m grateful our new town manager is as committed as he is to maintaining and improving upon all that Rangeley has to offer.

Please help me in welcoming him if you haven’t already. I know he would appreciate it. Bottom line, I’m glad Joe Roach returned and from his own comments I know he is too- “I went somewhere else for a few years and then had the luxury of coming back and I feel fortunate. I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to come back. I really am.”

Town Manager Joe Roach Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

 

 

 

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