Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Former Vernon administrator reflects on his career

By Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
July 3, 2006

VERNON - Retirement scares Laurence R. Shaffer.

That's why at age 57, when many people might begin making plans to call it a career, the former town administrator is gearing up for his new job in Massachusetts.

"I don't have any idea what I would do in retirement," Shaffer said last week, joking that he doesn't play golf.

Friday was Shaffer's last day at Town Hall, a place where he has been a fixture since April 1999 when he came to Vernon from Durham, N.H.

Today, Shaffer officially begins his new job as town manager in Amherst, Mass., a town known for hosting college students and foreign-policy debates during town government meetings.

Although he was sorry to leave the colleagues he has worked with for roughly seven years, Shaffer said he is excited about his new job.

Shaffer said he is looking forward to again working in a college town. Amherst hosts the University of Massachusetts as well as Amherst College.

Shaffer said he also is looking forward to living closer to his son and grandchild, who are in Keene, N.H.

But Shaffer said he would look fondly on his years in Vernon and some of the accomplishments during the past seven years.

Among them is the impending conversion of the old Roosevelt Mills complex on East Main Street into market-rate apartments.

That project, plus the saving of 100 jobs at the Amerbelle Textiles mill in the fall of 2003 are important steps in ensuring that mill properties in the Rockville section of town remain viable, Shaffer said.

"What community can you name that has been able to intervene and save a manufacturing business from closing its doors?" Shaffer said. "It just hasn't happened.

Shaffer said he is also proud of the role he played in convincing voters to approve more than $19 million in road improvements at referendum during November 2004.

He also pointed to the recently completed $1.9 million public safety complex on West Street as an important accomplishment for the town.

There were also difficult days during Shaffer's tenure, notably an April 2000 "no confidence" vote by unionized Town Hall employees.

When he came on board in spring 1999, Shaffer said, he demanded a high standard of performance from Town Hall workers.

Although this ruffled some feathers, Shaffer pointed out that he remained with the town for six more years, while those who rebuffed him are no longer Vernon employees.

"There are some people who needed to go and they are gone," said Shaffer, who did not specifically name any of the former town employees. "It really put the line in the sand."

One of the biggest challenges to working as a town administrator in Vernon has been the town's changeable political climate.

During Shaffer's seven years with the town, he worked with four mayors - Republicans Joseph Grabinski and Diane Wheelock, Democrat Stephen Marcham, and the current mayor, Ellen L. Marmer, a Democrat.

Because the town administrator is charged with carrying out the elected mayor's policy initiatives, Shaffer said it could be tricky to change gears with the voters

"It's as if someone tells you to jump in your automobile and drive to Chicago, and just when you get to Chicago, they tell you to drive to Dallas," Shaffer said. "It has a tendency to wrench the organization tremendously."

Still, Shaffer praised all four mayors as hard working individuals with the best interests of the town at heart.

"No one can appreciate some of the difficult decisions a mayor has to make and some of the angst they go through," Shaffer said. "

Difficult decisions have become the norm during the spring months, when the mayor must craft a budget that will be palatable to voters, while addressing the needs of the town.

Failed budget referendums have become more numerous in recent years and Shaffer said the results have been spending plans that do not prepare the town for its financial future.

At present, voters will go to referendum on July 13 to vote on a $70.7 million budget, the fourth proposal to go to a townwide vote since mid-May.

Shaffer said the town might want to take another look at how it does budgeting.

One possibility is a representative town meeting system, which allows residents to elect a large body of representatives to vote on significant town matters, such as appropriations.

Shaffer said town meetings could be effective because they allow town officials to answer questions about specific appropriations in an open forum, while referendums allow voters to anonymously vote "yes" or "no" without participating in community-wide discussions.

"I don't blame any of the people who participate, but I do blame the system and I think the system needs to change," Shaffer said. "Our budget has never been a responsible budget."

Although some disagreement is natural between local political parties, Shaffer urged town leaders to always be willing to reach across the aisle on important issues.

And although there have been peaks and valleys along the way, Shaffer said he has enjoyed his time in Vernon.

"This job is a lot like being a stripper," Shaffer said. "If you're not comfortable doing work in public, this is not your cup of tea."

©Journal Inquirer 2006