From Predictable to Pandemic ~ Town Manager Sarah Stanton’s Second Anniversary

Sarah Stanton (center, front) with her staff (l-r) Charlie Tickotsky, Special Assistant to the Town Manager; Colleen Doyle, Assistant Town Manager of Human Resources and Administration; Alyssa Sandoval, Economic Development Director; and Amy Fidalgo, Assistant Town Manager of Operations on March 3, 2020.

 

Sarah Stanton marked the second anniversary of her appointment as Town Manager on October 1. Although The Bedford Citizen didn’t take notice of the first anniversary in 2019, the events of year two called for a look back at the past tumultuous months and a look ahead-with caveats-as to how the next months will unfold.  Stanton and a Citizen reporter met for a (virtual) face-to-face conversation.

The Bedford Citizen (TBC): Could you sketch out briefly how you felt at the end of year one. Were you accomplishing your goals?

Sarah Stanton: (laughs) It’s hard to remember! I remember feeling that it went by in the blink of an eye and longer at the same time because there was so much that happened in the first year. We revamped the whole budget process, added more accountability and transparency to the Capital budget process, changed the hours of Town Hall to make them more convenient to the public, created the Health and Human Services Department, reorganized the staffing in my office–there were a lot of initiatives in the first year, making it open and transparent about how to get services.

TBC: Let’s move to five months into your second year. In January and February were you feeling the way the rest of us were, that there was “something out there called Covid-19 but it’s not going to hit us too much.” When did you first notice that things were about to change?

Sarah Stanton: Probably the first week in March.  In January and February, I was spending all my time getting ready for Annual Town Meeting. We had a great budget to put forward. We had all these major projects: a staffing study for the Fire Department, renovating the Police department, HVAC improvements at the Library. I remember thinking, “oh it could never get any busier than this.”

I clearly remember Heidi Porter (Board of Health) calling on a Saturday and saying, “it’s here and we have to figure this out.” Bedford had one of the first cases of Covid [related to the February Biogen Conference in Boston.] Things moved quickly after that. We established the Task Force on Sunday, with Superintendent Jon Sills, Police Chief Bob Bongiorno, Fire Chief Dave Grunes, Superintendent Jon Sills, and department heads on board. We sprang into action and worked so well together. Everybody knew we had to figure it out as a group, and we made comprehensive decisions in four days. We sprang into action, the Select Board, Board of Health, and we all worked so well together. But the person we should all be most thankful for is Heidi Porter. She is the real champion of all of this!

TBC: I know that in some parts of the country Board of Health Directors have been physically threatened because they urged wearing masks. Bedford is fortunate to have a strong health department that the town has supported over the years.

Sarah Stanton: I can’t blame other boards of health directors for resigning.  Heidi has been steadfast, making decisions early on that were so hard: no school play, no outdoor events, changing Town Meeting. For months now Heidi and I have talked to each other more than to our significant others. There was no shutdown in Bedford. We were in here every day, although the building was closed to the public. Heidi has worked so hard to keep the town safe. She’s been in here every day and hasn’t worked from home one day!

TBC: Have you had any time off since all this started? And you’re now living closer to Bedford, which probably is an easier commute.

Sarah Stanton: Yes, it is.  And I had a few days off in August.

TBC: Looking ahead, I know that you and the Select Board are working on goals for 2021. Are you seeing things through the lens of the pandemic? Doesn’t it affect every department?

Sarah Stanton: We’re moving into a world that’s looking different and there’s uncertainty about the future. We’re hopeful that Bedford remains strong financially and our economy remains strong, which it has throughout the pandemic, but everything looks a little bit different now in this new virtual world.  We were able to transition all our building permit services online, which happened in June, and I think that made an incredible difference in being able to get up and running as soon as the Governor’s guidance was released around building development. We’ve tried to be really nimble in all of this; we might have to change a plan we made 24 hours ago. Everyone’s resiliency has been the most interesting part around goals. The Select Board has been so responsive. When we first began talking about having Annual Meeting on a football field I began laughing and saying “we’re never going to do that: But cut to July and I’m standing on a football field in shorts and a tee-shirt.”

TBC: And of course, we don’t know what March will bring for Annual town Meeting.  I know you’re grappling with that now.  We won’t ask for any predictions because there probably aren’t any.

Sarah Stanton: (Laughter) As most everyone knows, there will be no fall Town Meeting this year. As for Annual town Meeting, we’re working through some ideas with Town Counsel, Board of Health, and the Health Director so we can say to the Select Board and the Moderator, here are some options. It’s a little preemptive to talk about it now, I feel we just got through this year’s meeting. So, please stay tuned.

TBC: The ability for residents to Zoom in on board and committee meetings seems to be an incredible boon. And so many people are participating. If we go back to in-person meetings, will we still have this accessibility?

Sarah Stanton: It depends entirely on the Attorney General. If she keeps the relaxation to the Open Meeting laws to allow for meetings virtually, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to go back or implement a hybrid model. It allows more citizens to be engaged which I think is incredible. It removes another barrier so that people with families can join in. But there are committee members who love meeting in person and miss being in the same room with their colleagues.

TBC: Social media – How are you reacting to what happens on Twitter and Facebook?

Sarah Stanton: In my office, we’re all pretty much attuned to social media. We monitor our Facebook accounts and try to respond quickly to people. Social media is part of the new world of governance. Sometimes Facebook postings show us where we need to do a better job of getting the information out. I want to remind people, though, that it’s easy to pick up the phone or send us an email if you have a concern, rather than looking for an answer on Facebook.  We are here, we’re answering the phone, and we can direct you to the right person or department for help. Right now, the women in the Town Clerk’s office are hustling with all the questions about mail-in ballots and voting-their phones are ringing all the time, and they are just as pleasant at the end of the day as they were for the first caller.

TBC: On the financial status, it appears we’re in relatively good shape due to careful management in the past and continuing good management. It’s encouraging that Alyssa [Sandoval, Economic Development Director] is still bringing in new businesses to town.  It’s nerve-wracking to think the state still doesn’t have a budget and we don’t know how much we will get from the state.

Sarah Stanton: The state has level-funded local aid, so prior to establishing their budget they made a commitment to all cities and towns that local aid would be level-funded from FY 20 numbers. We proactively reduced local aid, expecting a 12% cut and that cut didn’t happen this year, so it puts us ahead of the curve, in making those reductions. But now if it happens it does put us in good stead in case there are major budgetary implications at the state next year.

TBC: Thinking about the capital expenditures and the big-ticket items that everybody is wondering about-fire, police, library HVAC-how do you see this playing out?

Sarah Stanton: It’s for the Select Board to decide how they want to move forward. These are three worthy projects: if you’ve had a chance to walk through the fire station you know that a new fire station is desperately needed. Our police and firefighters have worked tirelessly and endlessly throughout the pandemic; our firefighters, especially, were going to a lot of tough calls, hoping they weren’t bringing Covid home to their families. They deserve a new building but it’s up to the Select Board. They will decide what moves forward and what doesn’t, based on the financial projections we look at, come the end of fall. All the projects were put on the warrant for a reason; we’ll see where it shakes out.

TBC: And we’re losing Cathy Cordes, our beloved Town Moderator and Ron Cordes too (a member of the Board of Assessors.) How will we handle this, when the Cordeses move away?

Sarah Stanton: That’s really a question for Cathy or the Select Board. The moderator is an elected position so I can’t really speak to it. On a personal level, Cathy and Ron are both incredible assets to the town and were so patient and helpful to me when I started this job.  The institutional knowledge that goes with them – well, I just hope they will answer the phone when they move to Pennsylvania!

TBC: And we have a new Conservation Administrator?

Sarah Stanton: Yes, she started last week. Her name is Rachel Kelly and she formerly worked for the city of Everett and before that, the city of Somerville. She’s going to be an awesome addition to the team.

TBC: Do you think the societal shifts we’ve been talking about will give us a chance to re-think some things about town, such as housing density and making our town more available across all income groups? What is the status of Governor Baker’s Housing Choice bill?

Sarah Stanton: It’s still in conference committee.  The Select Board has identified housing, housing diversity, and increased housing stock as part of their FY 20 and 21 goals. Our Board has talked about how can we collaborate with the Planning Board, the Council on Aging, the Affordable Housing Trust, and Community Preservation as we’re all trying to tackle the same issues and make Bedford a welcoming place for folks who want to come to town, with housing that meets different needs. It’s on our boards’ minds as a priority, an identified goal, and I think it’s very much a passion on the part of many boards.

TBC: You’ve been successful in winning some important grants for the Town, the most recent being the Racial Equity Municipal Action Plan (REMAP) award that will provide technical assistance to create and begin to implement racial equity action plans over the next year. We’re one of six out of 22 communities that applied to receive this award. What can you tell us about this?

Sarah Stanton: The Citizen’s Mike Rosenberg and I have talked about this award and the details are here: https://tinyurl.com/yxa2r8z7. I will be taking the lead on this project and Select Board member Bopha Malone is assigned as liaison. The year-long program will focus on training, reflection, and self-assessment. In the final eight months, each municipality will develop a racial equity municipal action plan and begin to implement elements of the plan.

TBC: More than a year ago you also won an award for Bedford to develop a Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Plan. We made a good start on that work in 2019; is it still viable?

Sarah Stanton: Yes, it is, and Adrienne St John is the point person on it.

TBC: Do you exchange ideas for dealing with the pandemic crisis with your colleagues in nearby towns?

Sarah Stanton: Yes, and it’s great to trade suggestions and not to feel you need to come up with all the answers by yourself.

TBC: Last thoughts?

Sarah Stanton:  I want to make sure a lot of credit is given to both the resiliency of residents and resiliency of staff during Covid. So much has happened: our boards adjusting to the new world,  we have a new school superintendent who was part of the team before he even started…there’s been so much change and everyone is just going with it and adjusting. That speaks volumes for the community.


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