Hanover Talks With Julia Griffin
Feb 20, 2011 05:24PM ● Published by Erin Frisch
As a graduate student at the Yale School of Management, Julia Griffin caught the bug while tagging along on New York City garbage trucks. It was part of a project to assess the city’s shift from three- to two-person trash routes, and it’s where Griffin’s future career in municipal management became clear. “Over many weeks, I had the opportunity to ride around Brooklyn and the Bronx with sanitation workers, talking with them about their concerns about this transition which would clearly have saved New York City considerable expense,” she explains. “I was fascinated by the experience, and got hooked.”
Griffin’s professional path took her from the Office of Management and Budget in New York, where she oversaw the $400-million budget for the city’s foster care system, to the City Manager’s Office in Santa Monica, California. In the early 1990s, she served as Assistant City Manager and later City Manager of Concord, New Hampshire.
Then 15 years ago, Griffin became Town Manager of Hanover, where she and her husband John Steidl have raised two children, Catie, 21, and Christopher, 14. Off the clock, she is a member of the Friend’s of CHaD, chairs the Board of New Hampshire FastRoads, and serves on the Board of the Grafton County Economic Development Council. And when she takes time for herself, one might find Julia Griffin riding her quarter horse gelding or playing in her gardens.
What are a couple “hot topics” on the Board of Selectmen’s agenda that will help guide Hanover’s future?
The Board is keenly focused on how we maintain and enhance the services we provide without significantly increasing the municipal tax rate out of concern for the substantial financial stress many of our taxpayers have and will continue to experience during the economic downturn. Part of the approach they have fashioned is adoption of a “Total Compensation Statement,” which essentially looks to educate our staff about the total cost of their “compensation” package (salary, health insurance, retirement contributions, disability, etc.) and to link each annual increase in total compensation more closely with the taxpayers’ ability to pay for those increases. This is fairly radical stuff for local government, but absolutely makes sense in our effort to control the cost of local government.
The Board is also very supportive of our investments in our buildings, vehicles, and infrastructure to enable us to become much more energy efficient. From retrofitting older buildings and replacing light fixtures and mechanical equipment to overhauling facilities like our wastewater treatment plant with the latest energy-efficient technology, we are all about substantially reducing our carbon footprint as we work to “walk the talk” relative to sustainability. In the past three years, we have invested in improvements that will ultimately reduce our overall energy use by 17,400 gallons of fuel, 323,459 kilowatt hours, and 929,026 pounds of carbon. A small municipality can make a difference!
How would you characterize the relationship between Hanover and Dartmouth College?
The relationship is very open and straightforward. Town staff work daily with college staff on any number of fronts, from co-investment in improved infrastructure, to reviewing and advising relative to college new construction and renovation, to policing on campus. There is regular and very dynamic tension around issues about which we do not always agree, but there is also tremendous cooperation and collegiality. Much of what we do could not be accomplished without the support of the college. The municipalization of the Hanover Water Works Company in 2010, the culmination of many years of work between the town and the college, is one very good case in point.
Where do your family members’ extracurricular and leisure interests intersect?
As working parents, John and I are still very much in “support mode” with a 14- and 21-year-old. We find ourselves on the road a lot, transporting our son, Chris, to sports practices and other activities, and driving out of state many weekends in the fall and spring to watch our daughter, Catie, compete with her college team. Whether it is transporting a carload of 14-year-old boys hither and yon or feeding Catie’s entire team 10 weekends each year as the “food parents,” we are all about just being there for our kids. When we settle back down to earth, we all enjoy our menagerie of pets (three dogs, one cat, a house rabbit, and guinea pig, plus a horse stabled in Etna) and the men in our household are major computer gamers while I putz in my gardens. We spend a lot of time together as a family. I would not have it any other way.
What is the significance of Hanover’s 250th Anniversary? What will separate this from other town celebrations?
Many of the Upper Valley communities along the Connecticut River received their land grants 250 years ago this summer. These same communities made a very big deal of celebrating the 200th anniversary in 1961, and so we are all about continuing in that tradition of grand celebrations. What better excuse to organize some wonderful events that help bring the community together, and to help reacquaint folks with our local history. We are in the process of raising $100,000 to help support all of the events that are currently being planned, which is significantly more than we have traditionally spent on community events. And to be linked with several other communities that are planning parallel events at the same time is great fun, as we look to support one another and to plan a wide variety of activities that we hope will appeal to lots of different folks in our region.
What’s next in the town’s efforts to adopt environmentally friendly initiatives?
We are about to embark on the last element of our wastewater treatment plant upgrade, taking advantage of ARRA funding to help us fund these improvements. Once completed in 2012/13, the plant will have reduced its annual fuel consumption by 11,500 gallons and its electricity usage by 114,000 kilowatt hours. That represents a 434,494-pound reduction in carbon.
We are also moving forward to pilot a food waste composting program, initially involving downtown restaurants. The Ray School is already piloting a program and has estimated an annual reduction of 30 tons of waste transported to the landfill via composting. If we can successfully launch the restaurant composting program, we then hope to extend the service to households and other businesses.
What are the greatest advantages to raising children in Hanover?
Hanover has been a wonderful place for my children. They have thrived in the schools, have enjoyed the many athletic and outdoor activities available, have always felt safe and, most importantly, I have never been more than 10 minutes away from them when they needed me. Our community is small enough that, as parents, we have the opportunity to get to know their friends and their parents, without being so small that it begins to feel claustrophobic. And to grow up in this healthy and beautiful environment is the icing on the cake . . . as they grow up they may not always appreciate how lovely it is here, but as they grow older and think about children of their own, I bet they will want to find a way to come back to raise their own families in a place just like Hanover.
What are some attractions and offerings of which Hanover residents could take more advantage?
There is so much going on at the college that benefits Hanover residents. Many folks know about these things—Hop performances, Dartmouth athletic events, lectures, ILEAD—but I am always surprised at the number of folks I speak with that do not know about all Dartmouth has to offer the community. The FLIP program at Dartmouth is fabulous (says the woman who loves her FLIP yoga/Pilates fusion and rowing classes in the Alumni Gym tanks), the swim lessons for local children that the Dartmouth swim team offers (which is how Chris learned to swim), the chance to cheer on some of the lesser-known teams (when was the last time you went to watch the Dartmouth Women’s Volleyball team play at home? I go several times a year and more so when my daughter played volleyball for HHS), cross-country skiing from the Dartmouth Outing Club, grabbing a quick lunch among students at the Courtyard Café, and popping into the Hood Museum Gift Shop (a wonderful, whimsical small gem of a place).
We also have a raft of hiking trails in Hanover, lovingly stewarded by the Trails Committee of the Hanover Conservation Commission and the Hanover Conservation Council. We offer trail maps here in Town Hall and they are available on the Conservation Council website. Or rent a kayak or canoe from the Ledyard Canoe Club and explore our stretch of the Connecticut River, thought to be one of the best sections of river for rowing anywhere in the U.S.
What will you do after you complete your tenure as Town Manager?
I would love to manage in the nonprofit sector at some point. I began my career working for the American Friends Service Committee, their Washington, D.C.–based lobby, and Save the Children. They are facing some unique challenges in this day and age, and can be refreshingly free from the government regulation that so controls what we can (or cannot) do at the municipal level here in New Hampshire.
I am also, first and foremost, a public policy person. A Government major in college, International Relations graduate student before pursuing my graduate management degree. If I had the chance to spend some time working in the world of policy analysis, I think it would be a fascinating change of pace.
How do you attract and retain strong staff?
Hire staff with the understanding that you value their professional contributions, that you will not micromanage them, and are always available to them, and then turn them loose. Hanover’s Department Head team knows I am open, accessible, and will support their efforts but am not afraid to press where I think we need to change course or implement improvements, and, most importantly, use humor always to keep things upbeat. We do a lot of laughing in my office and at home. Without humor, all is lost, particularly in this day and age when things tend to feel dark and discouraging. I am a people person and love interacting with folks and I generally think that both Hanover staff and our citizens know my door is always open . . . and that I am always good for a mid-aisle chat at the Co-op!
What is your favorite room in your home, and why?
Our kitchen is my favorite room. We renovated the house five years ago and my goal was to knock down walls, open up the place, bring in the sunlight and plant a big island in the middle of the kitchen. Everything happens around that island . . . cooking, homework, gaggles of 14- and 21-year-olds gathered to hang out (and consume large quantities of food!), dogs underfoot everywhere, late-night conversations with John or the kids, the morning cup of coffee and newspaper. And from my kitchen window, standing at my sink, I have the most gorgeous view of the Ompompanoosuc River and the hills of Vermont. In 14 years of gazing out that window, I have never tired of that view. That sublime view and a slow, deep breath is the best antidote for the stress I juggle every day.
Written By Mark Dantos