Get a lifer

By Daniel Dunkle | Dec 25, 2013

This week we bring you the news that City Manager James Smith has resigned and, come January, will be headed back to his old job in Brewer.

Smith started his job in March 2012 and complied with the City Council's wishes that he live in the city he serves. I've run into him at several school concerts and events because his children started attending schools here.

I took some comfort in the idea that the city manager's children were going to school with mine, that he was as invested in the future of my community as I am. I remain firmly in support of the rule that any city manager working in Rockland should also be required to live here.

In fact, I would like that rule to go a step further and apply it to school superintendents. Right now our superintendent commutes from Readfield.

There was a time when these key leadership positions were not revolving doors, and the people who filled them would stay for a while.

When Tom Hall resigned as City Manager in 2008, he had served our city for nearly a decade. Cathy Smith Sleeper was here for 10 years. Other than that, most have come and gone within five years.

Don Kanicki was superintendent of schools for more than a decade.

Recent history, however, would suggest that Rockland and the surrounding communities are merely a stepping stone. City managers and superintendents pay their dues for a few years here before moving on to leadership positions elsewhere. Most of those seem to also be temporary gigs on the way to still other jobs.

Even in the newspaper business, I have seen this over the years. Reporters would come from out of state, work a year or two and move on to bigger papers, seeking their fortune and glory. I had found a home in the Rockland newsroom and community and took on the dreaded term, a career death term in the 21st century. I was a "lifer!"

And even my career has not been a perfect example of the "lifer" mentality. I went to Belfast to serve as the editor of The Republican Journal for four years and then came back to the Rockland newsroom after one of the company mergers. I was criticized by some during my tenure in Belfast as a Rockland person, while most in Rockland are also aware that I only came here in 1998, having grown up in Hampden and gone to UMO back when it was still called UMO.

But inside the company, I've been seen as a lifer because I haven't ever left the company. It has changed ownership several times, but I've always gone with it, like one of the computers.

The reality at this point is that I've made a home in the Midcoast. My son Wesley, now 12 years old, has lived his entire life so far in the same old Victorian in Rockland. My daughter even has a bit of a Maine accent.

Few people back in Hampden probably remember me. Few of them ended up being lifers themselves, so they're probably not there to remember me anyway. But if I go to the grocery store in Rockland, I always find friendly faces and people to talk to. This is a small community where everyone knows each other, and part of what I like about living here, aside from the ocean, the mountains, the cute downtowns, the great summer swimming spots, and on and on, is that sense of community.

I was talking to someone in the school district recently who said a superintendent, some two school superintendents back I believe, was asked why she didn't live in the community. She said she could never go to the store or out in public without having to talk to parents and community members concerned about what's going on in the district. Shouldn't that come with the territory?

It doesn't matter to me if someone has made this their adopted home, as I have, or if they were born and raised here. However, it might make sense for those who occupy top leadership positions to think of this as home, to have a stake in our future.

At the school district, next time we're hiring a super, why not simply promote someone who is a longtime administrator in the district? If they need more qualifications, we can send them to the university for further education. We're already paying for the tuition for a number of teachers and administrators to get master's and doctorate's as it is.

Someone who sees the value of making a home here, will serve us well.

None of this is to criticize Smith, but the reality is that every city manager and superintendent takes a great deal of criticism in our local media (I can claim plenty of responsibility for that). Is that a factor? Volatile local politics?

It would be useful to know why people come and go and don't stay in these positions. One of the problems we have as a culture is that we never really speak honestly and frankly anymore, because to do so invites consequences. Smith cannot publicly state why he would really rather be in Brewer than here.

In the past, I have seen major controversies that forced the resignation of leaders in schools and towns. In SAD 40, for example, there have been at least two such issues. However, when there are problems with community leaders, these issues are never fully addressed. They are simply moved along to the next community, which cannot get any warning or straight answers to questions about their performance.

The best thing we can do to invest in our future is to prioritize education. The children growing up in our community can be future leaders, the kind of leaders who might also be lifers. In addition, nothing attracts good people and young families to a community like quality schools.

But don't take my word for it. I'm just a lifer.

Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, and two children. He can be reached at or 594-4401 ext. 122.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Francis Mazzeo | Dec 30, 2013 17:11

When you see your doctor, lawyer or some other professional out of their office, do you discuss your business with them? People need to respect anyone's time off the job. You might get a story lead out shopping. Most other professional have office hours.

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