Easton Town Manager Jim Gardner -- who is set to become Maine Municipal Association president in January -- sits in his office at Easton Town Hall. Credit: David Marino Jr. | BDN

EASTON, Maine — For the first time since 2006, an employee of an Aroostook County municipality will be president of the Maine Municipal Association: Easton Town Manager Jim Gardner will take the position in 2021, according to the association.

Gardner will lead the Maine Municipal Association as cities and towns grapple with enforcing COVID-19 restrictions and continuing local government during a global pandemic. 2021 will also be the first full year that recreational marijuana sales will be legal in Maine, a development that has divided communities and poses legal questions due to the drug’s federal status.

The association’s 12-member executive committee selected Gardner, replacing Gardiner City Manager Christine Landes. Gardner had served as vice president in 2020 — the vice presidency is a stepping stone to the presidency, with each position revolving annually.

The Maine Municipal Association is an advocacy group and educational outlet for municipalities across Maine, of which 484 are members. The last president of the organization who worked for a municipality in Aroostook County was Aroostook County Administrator Ryan Pelletier, who was elected 15 years ago while he was town manager of St. Agatha.

Gardner, who grew up in Presque Isle, has a long history in County administration, serving as town manager of Washburn from 1999 to 2005 and Ashland from 2005 to 2010. He has served as town manager of Easton since 2010, a position he will continue as head of the association. He is also a U.S. Army veteran who spent more than a decade working at the now-deactivated Loring Air Force Base in Limestone and Caswell.

As Maine Municipal Association president, Gardner will lead the executive committee that governs the Maine Municipal Association on operational and budgeting matters. He said he would also travel across Maine, meeting with interest groups and engaging with city, town and plantation employees “from Kittery to Fort Kent.” He also plans to continue meetings held by the association with Gov. Janet Mills.

Gardner said it was an honor to be chosen to lead an organization he has long been familiar with. He said the Maine Municipal Association’s legal department was one of the first numbers he called in his new job as code enforcement officer in Presque Isle in 1994.

“I found from that day forward that they are some of the most experienced, knowledgeable people that you need in municipal government,” Gardner said.

While town managers are far from politicians — unelected bureaucrats rather than a name on a ballot — Gardner said being a people person has served him well in each of his municipal offices.

Much of the job involves meeting with representatives from citizens and disparate groups. As town manager in Easton, Gardner frequently meets with leaders of the local Amish community.

Such skills will be essential for Gardner as he guides officials on two hot-button political issues they will continue to face in 2021: COVID-19 and marijuana legalization.

Gardner said COVID-19 is the defining issue for municipalities across Maine at the moment, as they deal with new guidelines on social distancing, cleaning and town meetings.

He said municipalities across Maine are facing different levels of difficulties in containing the virus. While Aroostook County has had 49 cases since March as of Tuesday, Cumberland County has seen more than 2,000. No matter the level, he said he would use his office to inform employees about how to adequately follow Mills’ guidelines and keep their communities safe.

Marijuana is another touchy issue that continues to cause troubling legal problems: while marijuana remains illegal according to federal law, cannabis use for people over 21 was legalized by Maine voters via referendum in 2016.

State law requires that both the state and municipalities approve any commercial marijuana businesses — medical or recreational — within their borders before they begin operations. Recreational sales are set to start on Oct. 9, and Gardner will take his seat only two months into legal sales.

Gardner said that the association’s main role in this new legalization era would be to provide guidance on the choices facing municipalities as they confront the issue.

The association’s executive committee will also feature three new members in 2021, two of whom hold office in Aroostook County: Grand Isle Selectperson Terry Helms and Ludlow Town Manager Diane Hines. Robert Butler — chairperson of the Waldoboro Select Board — will also join.

With the inclusion of Helms and Hines, four out of the 12 members of the association’s executive committee will be employees from The County. Town Manager David Cyr of Mars Hill will continue to be a member.

Gardner will participate in an inauguration ceremony at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday. While the convention usually contains more than 1,000 people, this year no more than 50 people will be in the room due to Mills’ civil state of emergency. Several others will engage remotely.

James Bennett, Biddeford’s city manager, will become the association’s vice president in 2021 and is in line to take the presidency in 2022. Bennett also has ties to Aroostook County: he served as the city manager of Presque Isle from 2010 to 2015.