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John French retires from Select Board after 21 years

By Susan Mustapich | Jun 12, 2018
Photo by: Susan Mustapich As John French prepares to retire from the Select Board after 21 years, one thing he is happy about is the hiring of Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell, who he highly praises.

CAMDEN — John French is retiring from the Select Board this week, after completing seven consecutive terms, and serving on the board for 21 years.

He was first elected in 1997, winning one of two open seats, among a field of four candidates. He wanted to give as much as he could to the town, according to a report in The Camden Herald. Though he had served on the Fire Department for 15 years, at the time, he wanted to do more. He thought the town was run efficiently, but wanted to keep taxes in check, so Camden would remain a viable place for everyone. He believed there was always room for improvement, and opportunities to make life better for the people of Camden. As a working person, he wanted to bring the ideas of the working community into town government.

That year, he was elected with the highest number of votes, along with Leonard Lookner. The two would serve a number of terms together, not always agree, and become great friends. Back then, town officials were elected to the Board of Selectmen. By 2003, the change to Select Board was enacted by a town charter amendment.

French repeated the feat of earning the most votes each time he sought reelection, in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2015. He ran in contested elections, except 2003, in races with two open seats and fields of four, five and six candidates. In 2009, he announced he would not seek reelection. By that time, he had served on the board for 12 years, and never missed a meeting, but due to the economic downturn, wanted to focus more attention on his business. He changed his mind, however, and won reelection again. That year he told The Camden Herald that attracting jobs was his top priority, a goal that remains important to him today.

French does not like to talk about himself, "never has," he said recently. But he has always had an open door at his business, Coastal Auto Repair on John Street, greeting everyone who comes to see him with patience, listening to what they have to say, and helping with their questions. He gives that same treatment to reporters, and on June 7, he answered questions about his 21 years on the Select Board, a couple of things he hopes the town will accomplish in the future, and what he is going to do with his newfound spare time.

When he talks about accomplishments, the word "we" features prominently. He talks about the privilege of serving over the years with numerous boards and four town managers, Roger Moody, Roberta Smith, Pat Finnigan, and Audra Caler-Bell.

Over the decades, he said, "we've always strived to maintain a good service level and do the best we could as far as keeping the buildings and properties the town owns in good shape." He is proud the boards accomplished this work, overseeing "everything from vehicles to curtains in the Tucker Room [of the Opera House], with funds in the regular budget."

"We created good budgets, kept things in working order, and always tried to do what was right," he said. He talks about planning projects, five to ten years in the future, and how it "has worked out well."

He is proud that the Public Safety building, combining police and fire departments, was built in 2003 when Roberta Smith was town manager. "That was a good project, and it came out great," he said. Saying the work of the board involved "countless things you had to do" French added to the list of accomplishments, expensive but necessary work on the sewer plant, which kept the equipment working much longer than its expected life, and agreements with the town of Rockport, including sharing specialized equipment, that saved both towns money.

Looking back, he now sees that the Snow Bowl redevelopment project, which he also calls the low point of his 21 years, was "actually was a good project. A lot of people invested a lot of time in that. I've heard nothing but positives now that it's done," he said. Those who ski there tell him that bringing snowmaking and the chair lift to the top, widening the trails and opening the views has made the Snow Bowl a great experience. He believes the lodge will be built, and "that it's not really important that it gets done right now."

He credits the many employees who have worked for the town in the past, and who work there now, including the expanded winter staff that runs the Snow Bowl. "At one time, I knew every person who worked for the town by name, everyone one of them," he said. I probably still know 50 percent of them by name," he said.

"We've been very fortunate with the people who work for us. Very dedicated, very good people," he said.

He also credits all of the volunteers on the town's 20-plus committees, "who are dedicated to the community and engaged in what they do," for believing that their committee work is important, and wanting "to do it right so it's good for the future of the community."

He is confident that the town is in good hands, with a good board, including several young people, and Caler-Bell at the helm. Moody was manager for 12 years, Smith for nine, and he believes Caler-Bell "is going to be here for some time."

French has high praise for Caler-Bell's work, including the 2018-19 budget. "She fits in, just like she's always been here. She is a breath of fresh air, and has a lot of energy. She listens and that's a big thing," he said.

He would like to see the town complete the public landing project, that has been in the planning stage for many years. He sees the wastewater treatment plant upgrade as a big project that needs to be done, and hopes the town will get a low-interest USDA bond to fund the work. Repairing Seabright dam is another big project coming up.

He looks forward to seeing work continue on Tannery Park, and has kept his eye on welcoming a business to operate on part of the town-owned land. He hopes the town will get clay from the excavation for the new middle school, which is needed to cover soils with low levels of chemicals left from tanneries that operated on the site. "Then hopefully, we can get a business in there," he said. "There's a good opportunity for a public/private use. I've always wanted to see that with some jobs back in there," he said.

He believes discussion about the future of how to provide emergency, 911-ambulance services is worthwhile. He sees the options as staying with the current service, or combining towns, or even a county-wide service with satellite stations, to provide the service. He believes that having Randy Gagne as police chief for Rockport and Camden "is working out great. Maybe the next step -- god help me for saying this -- is the fire department," he said. He talks about the "good people working in both towns, and how the two towns have been "working together on many things over the years."

French knows he says things that surprise people, and does not shy away from it. Around 2002, a large group of teenagers were gathering to hang out at the public landing, and citizen complaints were brought to the town and Select Board, He recalls that he and then-board member Chip Laite, went down to the public landing to talk to the kids. After talking to the teens for a while, he told one of the young men, "there's not a damn thing you could do in the town" that he and Laite hadn't already done. French still talks fondly about those years, driving around in his Pontiac Trans Am and "raising hell with the best of them."

At a Select Board meeting attended by a group of teens, he said he "hung out" when he was young. He thanked the teens for attending the meeting, telling the audience, "they're our future."

Attending town and board meetings is important to French. To counter the typical turnout at town meeting of around 150 people, when there is no major controversy, he used to say he was going to buy a bus, and drive around town picking people up and drop them off at the meeting.

“The town meeting is their chance to shine,” he said. “Their time to vote, and hold their hand up and say yes, no or maybe. It's a town meeting government, not a council. It's all about them. Town people are the legislative body.”

French has always been comfortable with people, the way town government works and the nature of how plans and projects get worked out. "We may not always agree, and sometimes nobody gets what they want, or not everything they want," he said. "But we try to work together and I think we've done a good job keeping the town as beautiful as it is."

He likes talking to people face-to-face, instead of using social media. While he sees how "not being a social media person might be a downfall," he prefers "to look people in the eye." He encourages townspeople to come to regular Select Board meetings, and not to be afraid to speak when they have criticism. "Ask why we're doing what we're doing, and you'll get an answer. People will be heard no matter what they think. You're welcome to speak."

French is not sure what he is going to do with his newfound spare time, after leaving the Select Board. His wife laughed when he recently asked her if she was "going to be ready for all of this quality time." "I'll have to find something to do," he said.

That something might include town committee work in the future, but not right now. He wants to see what the new Select Board member will choose, and what is available afterward. He also plans to stay away from watching board meetings on livestream "for a while."

He loves his four grandchildren and spending more time with them now that he's not working as hard as he was when raising his own children. He likes to fish in Hosmer Pond and has a small boat that hasn't been in the water in a few years. One of his pastimes  was going out on the pond at 6 a.m. every Sunday morning with his his old friend Chris Lowe, who passed away about five years ago. "We would just go around talking about everything and solving the problems of the world."

He wonders who is going to be the "go to" person on the board, after he leaves. Even when he was not board chair, people have always known they could find him at his auto shop, five days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. When someone came to the shop, he might not have had an answer for them, but would try to direct them to the right place, or get their phone number, ask the question for them, and have the town office call them back. He knows he has been accused at times for not being open or transparent, but says he "has worked hard to make sure people have information." He laughed about how he could always tell how mad someone was, "by the number of steps it took for them to get to the shop from their car." He described the job on the Select Board, which extended into his business, as "a lot of listening and patience."

He is emphatic about his love for Camden. "I would never live anywhere else. At least, I don't plan to."

When he talks about himself, all the elections he won, and how he "did do well each time" he is quick to say he is not bragging. Getting the top number of votes in seven elections, meant "people liked me or what I was doing, whether they agreed or not," he said. "I tried to be honest. I tried to treat them fairly. And I tried to listen to everybody. That's always been my thing."

Soon after joining the Select Board, French had to retire from the fire department because he did not have time to keep up with all the training. 'I still miss it when the fire whistle goes off," he said. "It's always in your blood."

Now, he's going to miss serving on the Select Board, too. "It's going to be hard to let go. I've been a part of it for a third of my life."  Looking back over 21 years, French says, "I'd do it again, in a heartbeat."

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Comments (3)
Posted by: TC Tolliver | Jun 12, 2018 20:55

Thank you John French!

Posted by: Bill Packard | Jun 12, 2018 19:28

John and I had many great discussions about Camden and his service at the NASCAR races at Loudon. Really good times.  John certainly cares about the citizens of Camden. Many times we were on opposite sides of Camden issues, but John was not shy to remind me that I didn't live there anymore.


Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jun 12, 2018 15:17

Congratulations John! So many years have passed but I remember you in the shop when my car needed surgery. Your skilled hands were like a surgeon to my poor broken car. Now you are retired like my twin sons Matt & Mike and now I really feel old! Love and Blessings in your future endeavors. Blessings from Arizona where I swim daily and there is never snow!

Mary "Mickey' (brown) McKeever

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