For the 1st time in 3 decades, Cape Elizabeth starts year without McGovern at Town Hall

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CAPE ELIZABETH — When Mike McGovern started working at Town Hall as an intern in 1977, he never imagined he would spend his entire career there.

Now almost 40 years later, he’s ready to say goodbye. The long-time town manager said the decision to retire was easy: “I made it in about five minutes.”

McGovern, 60, announced in August that he will retire Dec. 31 after 31 years as town manager. His successor has yet to be chosen, but two finalists have been selected.

The Town Council on Dec. 21 announced that Tax Assessor Matthew Sturgis, who is chairman of the Gray Town Council, and Ephrem Paraschak, the town manager of Naples, are being considered for the position. On Jan. 4 the candidates will have their second interviews, a process McGovern never had to go through.

“I’ve never had a job interview or ever applied for a job,” he said recently during an hour-long interview in his office at Town Hall.

Moving up the ladder

McGovern was in college at the University of Maine when he took the internship with the town. From there he became assistant manager before becoming town manager in 1985.

Each time there was an opening, McGovern said he was offered the  job without having to ask or apply. Despite doing well in each successive position, he said he never expected to stay in Cape Elizabeth very long.

“Back then a manager only stayed three to five years,” he said. “It was rare for someone to stay longer.”

A career in government was something McGovern had aspired to for most of his life. As a child born and raised in Portland, he said he would listen to City Council meetings on the radio with his mother. At his junior high school career day, he had said he wanted to be a city manager one day.

Being town manager turned out to be much different than the position of assistant town manager, McGovern said. For example, the manager has to deal with the stress of being responsible for an entire town.

“It’s different being the manager,” he said. “You worry about everything. Are the roads good? You never get over that.”

As time went on, road conditions were minor issues compared to other things McGovern had to deal with.

Unexpected controversies

Having attended more than 1,000 Town Council meetings, McGovern has seen his fair share of town issues.

“Some problems don’t seem solvable, but there’s always a way,” he said.

McGovern has witnessed people picket Town Hall, he’s had more than 400 residents show up at a meeting about the town sewer rates, and in the late 1980s he saw students sit on Route 77 in front of Town Hall to protest school budget cuts.

“You never know what’s going to be the big controversy,” McGovern said. “We had big fights over the first stop light.”

In more recent years, McGovern cites the firing range ordinance and how it affected the Spurwink Rod & Gun Club as a major issue. The ordinance, which was enacted in 2014, required the club to make costly changes to improve safety.

“The reality was that everyone was working together to enhance safety,” he said. “It was never the desire of the town to shut down the club.”

Councilor Jessica Sullivan said the way McGovern handles issues is admirable and will be sorely missed.

“For 31 years Cape citizens have enjoyed the highest standards of integrity and transparency in municipal process,” Sullivan said.

An issue that’s been before the council recently, and will continue to be a topic of discussion after McGovern leaves, is the evolution of Fort Williams Park. The council has been looking at the future of the park after hearing numerous concerns about parking and overcrowding.

The park isn’t the only thing that has changed a lot since McGovern became manager. When he first started, the town had no cable television, no bike lanes, no computers at Town Hall and, instead of a recycling center, there was a dump where trash was burned.

The nature of Cape Elizabeth, however, has hardly changed at all.

Maintaining roots

In a small town like Cape Elizabeth, people like things as they are, McGovern said.

“It’s very similar,” he said, comparing the town now to the way it was when he first became manager. “The town center is basically the same town center.”

Many town councilors have praised McGovern’s ability to move Cape Elizabeth forward while maintaining its small-town essence.

“Through his leadership, Cape Elizabeth has managed to maintain its roots in its strong historical culture, as well as progress into a desirable destination for people to move to and raise their families,” Councilor Caitlin Jordan said.

Councilor Penny Jordan agreed, saying, “I think Mike’s greatest strength is that he embraces the future while respecting the history and heritage of our town.”

McGovern said the population of Cape has grown and town services have been upgraded and improved, but otherwise not much has changed. He said he’s been careful to make decisions that align with what the town needs and wants.

This ability to listen is what many people say they have admired about McGovern.

Police Chief Neil Williams, who has worked for the town only two fewer years than McGovern, said the manager has provided him with great guidance.

As a department head, Williams said he’ll miss “knowing I can call (McGovern) up any time. He’s a good listener and he’s good to bounce things off of.”

McGovern will allow the next town manager to come to him with questions as well; he has agreed to be a consultant to the town for six months after his resignation.

Councilor Kathy Ray said McGovern’s ability to listen to every side of an issue has made him an effective leader.

“He knows how to work through issues so all concerned have a voice and know they’ve been heard,” she said.

McGovern said listening with an open mind is the No. 1 one piece of advice he has for his replacement.

“Listen to many people,” he said. “Listen to many viewpoints.”

Using this skill is something McGovern said he’ll miss.

“I’m going to miss working with so many great people, and I’m going to miss trying to bring together divergent viewpoints to solve a problem,” he said.

According to McGovern, the “great people” are what have made his job so enjoyable.

‘The McGovern years’

In his time with the town, McGovern has worked with 56 of the town’s 59 town councilors; prior to 1967 the town had a Board of Selectmen. As the town’s fifth town manager since the position was introduced in 1960, he has worked with many people.

McGovern said he has learned that “people are good,” especially people who dedicate their lives to making their communities better.

“People today are so critical of government, but there are so many good people who give their time,” he said. “Not just paid people, but particularly elected officials. They give so much of their time to their community.”

McGovern said his favorite part about working with town councilors has been seeing “the wisdom they bring to every decision.”

“One thing I’ve enjoyed about working here is that I’ve always felt the councilors were smarter than me,” he said. “I’ve worked with some brilliant people.”

“I’ve never said that because it would seem like I was buttering them up, but I don’t have to worry about that anymore,” he added.

The councilors shared similar sentiments about McGovern.

“He is a visionary when it comes to what’s best for the town of Cape Elizabeth and how to get there,” Ray said. “Cape Elizabeth is extremely lucky to have had his service for these many years.”

Council Chairman Jamie Garvin agreed.

“As (McGovern) moves on from his nearly four decades of service, he leaves behind an unmatched legacy of accomplishment and commitment to the Cape community,” he said.

This legacy was honored at the Dec. 12 Town Council meeting, McGovern’s last as manager, when the council dedicated the council chambers to him. A plaque honoring his service will be hung in the room.

Former Councilor David Sherman said the manager’s time leading the town “will be known as the ‘McGovern Years’ and will be the standard of excellence for Cape Elizabeth’s future.”

With ‘the McGovern years’ coming to an end, the manager said he plans to focus more on his volunteer work.

Creating a better world

McGovern, who is not married, has been active in Rotary International almost as long as he’s been town manager. He participates in the organization’s PolioPlus program and is a member of the Rotary Foundation board.

“The town has been extremely generous to me in terms of allowing me to focus on my volunteer work,” he said.

Over the past few months alone, McGovern has traveled all over the world and country, and had a meeting with philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The constant travel combined with having to stay on top of his duties as manager “was getting exhausting,” he said.

“It was really time to decide if I wanted to focus on my town work or my volunteer work,” McGovern said.

Spending every vacation and sick day, as well as many weekends, doing volunteer work goes above what the average person does when giving back.

“It’s just the way I was brought up,” McGovern said. “And I think most people are the same. I’ve just had better opportunities to do it.”

Councilor Penny Jordan said McGovern’s “desire to create a better world” has made him a great leader. McGovern, though, said it’s time to let someone else take over.

“If you don’t change, things don’t improve,” he said. “And I used to worry about that. Was I staying too long?”

Saying goodbye

In retirement, McGovern, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, said he plans to utilize town services, but will otherwise stay away from local government.

“I plan to enjoy the community and not worry about it,” he said.

McGovern said he’s looking forward to using the town’s trails and visiting the library and Fort Williams more often. He added that he’s also excited about not having to sit through long Town Council meetings anymore.

That duty, as well as all the other responsibilities of town manager, will soon fall on someone else. McGovern said it won’t be strange for him to see someone else in his position.

“There’ll be a successor and I plan to stay out of their way,” he said.

The Town Council expects to pick the new town manager by the second week of January, with the hope that the candidate can start soon after. Although there are two finalists, Councilor Caitlin Jordan said it will be hard to pick someone who is as good as McGovern.

“His position will not only be hard to fill because of his own excellence, but because of the level of excellence he has set for the citizens to expect from this community as a whole,” she said.

McGovern noted that change is important if the town wants to have a successful future.

“I look forward to seeing someone make changes,” he said. “It’s inevitable that someone will see things differently than I did.”

Saying goodbye is never easy, though. While McGovern will keep traveling the world for Rotary work, he’ll always come home to Cape Elizabeth.

“I’m really appreciative to have had the opportunity to do this,” he said. “I’m very appreciative of this town.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

As Cape Elizabeth town manager, Mike McGovern has worked with almost 60 town councilors and dozens of town employees, including Janet Staples, seated, who works in the Code Enforcement Department.

Mike McGovern started in Cape Elizabeth as an intern in 1977 and since then has attended over 1,000 Town Council meetings and worked on countless town issues.

Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Mike McGovern retires Dec. 31 after 31 years in the position.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.
  • Chew H Bird

    While nobody stays in a government leadership position without some controversy, I am privileged to know Mike and honestly agree with this article in that he has demonstrated an unusually high level of integrity, a never ceasing ability to listen and process information and opinions, maintain an even keel, and be professional in his position. Mike’s dedication to charitable endeavors speaks volumes about his commitment to helping make the world a better place for everyone and his personal priorities. His shoes will be difficult to fill but I am absolutely convinced he will do everything possible to bow out with grace and provide a high level of assistance to his successor.