HAMPDEN, Maine — While the rancorous, contentious debate and argument at Monday night’s Town Council meeting typified many council meetings in recent years, Town Manager Susan Lessard said it had little to do with her decision to resign.
“When it starts to be impossible to separate what you do from who you are, it’s time to make a change,” Lessard said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. “None of what’s happening in Hampden is personal. It’s all about policy.”
Lessard, now in her 11th year as Hampden’s town manager, notified all seven council members of her decision during Monday’s finance committee meeting. Later, at the council meeting, she repeated that she will vacate her position, but only after allowing the council plenty of time to find her replacement.
The heated atmosphere during much of the nearly three-hour council meeting Monday arose from debate over anonymous emails sent to residents and public officials, councilors’ conduct at committee meetings, the 2001 comprehensive plan and the Citizen Comprehensive Plan Committee.
“When I came to Hampden in 2000, we had to have meetings in the high school gym because there was so much anger and controversy over the landfill,” said Lessard.
“This is not the first issue in Hampden that’s raised a lot of vocal debate and it won’t be the last,” she added, referring to the current dispute over the comprehensive plan.
Lessard, 55, said while the increased anger and distrust of public officials has been noticeable, it was not a primary factor in her decision to leave.
“I am not leaving because the comprehensive plan is under question or because HALO [Hampden Area Landowners Organization] has emerged with concerns or because some lady stood up and accused me of being part of some left-wing conspiracy group based in San Francisco,” Lessard said with a slight chuckle. “I’m an individual who, at this age and stage of life, wants to make some changes in my personal life and those changes mean that I may not be living in Hampden and may not be working 80 hours a week.”
Lessard has two married sons, two grandsons and twin granddaughters living in the Ellsworth area. Her boyfriend of five years lives in the Southwest Harbor area.
“When your day ends at 11 p.m. sometimes, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for family and friends, especially when they’re not close by,” she said.
While she knows she needs a change, Lessard isn’t sure what that change will involve.
“No, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing,” she said. “I have a number of options and interests in things both in the public and private sector, so over the next three to four months, I’ll see how those pan out.”
Hampden Mayor and Councilor Janet Hughes was one of several councilors to voice disappointment with Lessard’s decision and to laud the town manager for her efforts.
“I’ve known her for some years, and gotten to know her better since I joined this council,” Hughes said. “I was a little intimidated by her because she’s smart, experienced and professional, and she keeps many of us in line. Sue Lessard’s a leader, not just in this town, but in this state. She’s a role model for many.”
Before coming to Hampden, Lessard was Vinalhaven’s town manager from 1993 to 2000.
She began her public service career in 1982 as Searsport’s town clerk. In 1986, she became Livermore Falls’ town manager, and worked for the Maine Tomorrow consulting firm from 1988 to 1991. She returned to the public sector in 1991 as town manager of Fayette.
“I’ve had so many opportunities in my life to do some of the coolest things,” said Lessard, a former president of the Maine Municipal Association who is now in the last year of her term as chairwoman of the Maine Board of Environmental Protection. “I’ve thought long and hard about how long I want to create a new life for me. There’s always a reason to put things off till tomorrow, and for me tomorrow is now.”
Lessard said she values her time in Hampden and is proud to have been part of a “top-notch” town staff that saw many additions and improvements made to infrastructure and amenities over the years.
“When I arrived here, we didn’t even have a supermarket,” she said. “We’ve started a business park and we’ve seen many businesses locate here, from Pepsi to Rite Aid to Dunkin’ Donuts, along with several banks.”
Lessard said the town’s greatest economic development asset is its educational system. Other pluses are high-level emergency services, recreational amenities not typical in many towns, such as a heated indoor pool, and a Public Works Department noted for high-quality work.
“Really all we have as a town to offer are the services of the people who work here,” Lessard said. “My theme — and the staff has embraced this — is our citizens are customers, not hostages who have nowhere else to go for our services, and we treat them with due respect.”
Lessard added that the Hampden community is at a crossroads in terms of zoning, land use, regulation and where it wants to go.
“Hampden has been known for years as an environmentally concerned community and our standards generally are more stringent than even state standards,” Lessard said. “Now there’s a question of making things more simple, which has led to ongoing conversation and debate. And the fact is this process in Hampden is going to take awhile to run its course.”