CAPE ELIZABETH — When Town Manager Mike McGovern isn’t working on town budgets and attending Town Council meetings, he’s traveling the world.
But the Cape Elizabeth resident isn’t taking luxurious vacations. He’s meeting with world leaders, helping raise millions of dollars, and working to eradicate polio.
McGovern has been involved in Rotary International since 1986, when he joined the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Rotary Club, and has been the chairman of Rotary International’s PolioPlus Program for the past year. He is also a member of the Rotary Foundation board.
Poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio, is an infectious disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause paralysis. Thirty years ago, when the PolioPlus program was created, there were 350,000 cases of polio worldwide, McGovern said. Now there are only 60.
McGovern believes the disease can be erradicated by the end of next year. He said Rotary has raised more than $1 billion over the past 30 years; the money is used to administer vaccinations to children at risk in other countries.
He said the issue is important to him not only because he had a cousin with the disease, but because he wants to help other Rotarians fulfill the promise they made to eradicate polio.
“I just saw within Rotary itself the aspiration of Rotarians 30 years ago to think they could fulfill this,” he said.
McGovern said his progression in Rotary International happened naturally and his positions within the organization keep him very busy. On Oct. 24, World Polio Day, he spoke in New York City as part of a live streaming webcast at a Rotary event with world leaders, business leaders, actors, and other guests. The video can be found at endpolio.org; McGovern speaks at the end.
McGovern said he receives emails every day from people in at least 15 different countries regarding Rotary’s work with polio. The messages come from government officials and Rotarians who want to offer help or share information.
“Everyone’s working on the same thing,” he said. “It amazes me to see the shared dedication there is to this.”
McGovern uses all his vacation and sick time, as well as some weekends, to do Rotary work. When he runs out of vacation days, he said he takes unpaid time so he can continue to go abroad for Rotary.
He said while away, though, he doesn’t neglect his duties back home.
“No matter where I am in the world, I’m still doing Cape Elizabeth work,” he said. “The council and the town have really enabled me to do this.”
McGovern spends seven to eight weeks a year in various African, South American and Middle Eastern countries, and has recently met with world leaders, such as Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain and Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations.
He said while his work for Rotary may seem to be quite different from the work done in Cape Elizabeth, he finds a lot of similarities, particularly when working with people on tough issues.
“A lot of it is actually compatible,” he said. “You learn a lot of skills from both that help the other.”
McGovern said his work with Rotary has made him better at being a town manager.
Rotary “just impacts everything I do,” he said. “I think it hones my ability to see data and information and boil things down to the basics and define issues.”
McGovern said although the places he goes for Rotary are much different than Cape Elizabeth, he’s found similarities between the people, as well.
“Everyone has hopes and aspirations for things to be different,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, that problems in other parts of the world are much more serious than the issues he works on as town manager.
“Sometimes when I see or hear problems, it puts things into perspective,” he said. “Cape Elizabeth has its problems, but they pale in comparison to a billion people who don’t have a toilet. The problems in Cape Elizabeth are solvable.”
There is one local issue that’s been bothering McGovern, though, and he wants to fix it.
“It concerns me that Cape Elizabeth has one of the worst records for routine immunizations,” he said. “I’m concerned with the lack of focus on public health.”
McGovern said only 75 percent of Cape Elizabeth first-graders get routine immunizations, as shown in the Maine Center for Disease Control’s 2014-2015 School Age Immunization Report. He said because of a lack of immunizations against illness, Cape Elizabeth residents may be more susceptible to disease.
McGovern said his position as chairman of the PolioPlus program will end when the work is done. Until then, he will continue working with others to make sure no more children contract polio.
“I want to continue to motivate Rotarians to give money, eradicate polio, and advocate to the governments of the world,” he said. “Everything I do depends on a million people around the world doing this work.”
Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Michael McGovern, who is also the chairman of Rotary International’s PolioPlus Program, in his office, which is decorated with items from his Rotary travels, including a mask from a Nigerian billionaire who donated $1 million to eradicate polio.