A Collegial Government

by Zak Meghrouni-Brown | 3/5/15 7:48pm

Julia Griffin, Hanover's town manager, described Hanover's town meetings as unusually genial.

I hustled out of my 2A last week, grabbed a bite at the Hop and made my way to Hanover’s first public budget hearing of the 2015-2016 fiscal year — a typical Thursday.

Town Hall is an understated,ivy-covered edifice in the center of Main Street across from Starbucks. The coffee shop sees substantially more student traffic — the average student likely craves lattes and iced-whatevers more than scintillating town meetings discussing the laws of zoning. I, however, was in Town Hall that day to do the bubble-inhabiting student body a service and figure out what actually keeps this beautiful, quiet town we live in so beautiful and quiet.

With the meeting about to begin, I felt out of place almost immediately. After stepping into the hearing room, I loudly proclaimed my identity as a Dartmouth student in block letters across my chest. I could not help but notice I was the only student in the room — and the only person lacking gray hairs. (That said, comfortably into week nine there are definitely a few gray hairs up there.)

Once beyond the immediate awkwardness I discovered a quite hospitable environment. After all, before I entered the meeting, the thought of a dreary budget hearing didn’t exactly evoke warm sentiments. I was mistaken. Members of the Board of Selectmen cracked jokes about the police chief’s dietary habits — coffee and donuts is an old one, but we can cut this demographic some slack — and attendees engaged in sardonic discussions of “Moving Dartmouth Forward” over the free pizza and pasta.

Who knows — perhaps three months from now, a budget meeting might be the only place in town where a thirsty undergraduate can sip on a gin and tonic.

Over the course of the two meetings I attended — I just had to come back — the town council genially processed each section of the budget, poring through the funding details of public services like the police and fire departments, parks and public works. Perhaps I’m used to digesting news about how Washington, D.C. remains mired in Congressional blockades and partisan bickering over this or that, the efficient scene in this meeting room was not what I expected.

I sat down with Julia Griffin, Hanover’s town manager of 18 years, to talk about what makes the town’s government so special. She attributed the friendly proceedings to the general vitality of the town’s municipal sector.

“This is a very collegial community,” she said. “Our staff is very dedicated. In terms of quality of work-life [balance] it’s a wonderful place to work if you are a municipal employee.”

She did note, however, that Hanover is relatively unique in its collaborative, pragmatic approach to administration. It seems this amiable atmosphere does not extend throughout all of the Upper Valley.

“Each community has its own personality,” she noted. “There’s more partisanship on the Lebanon city council.”

Traditional partisan divisions have little meaning on this city council. Both Democrats and Republicans, it seems, can agree when it comes to doling out funding for sewage piping and police cruisers.

“I have no idea how our board votes,” she said. “They don’t evoke [political] views at our meetings.”

Part of what lends vibrancy to the Hanover community is the collaborative relationship between the town and the College — the “town-gown relationship.” As its largest property taxpayer, the College aids Hanover greatly in maintaining a relatively predictable and robust budget.

Just as important, though, are the free and cheap labor resources that Dartmouth students provide the town. Griffin, who was formerly the city manager of Concord, noted that the collaboration with students has immensely enriched Hanover’s community.

“We always encourage Dartmouth students to get involved,” Griffin said. “We’ve benefitted from them volunteering in our recreation department. They help coach some of our youth teams.”

Recently, the town has collaborated with a campus club called the Dartmouth Consulting Group to improve marketing and planning initiatives. The organization helps Hanover’s parks and recreation department — cue Amy Poehler jokes — with marketing strategies in social media, and they also hope to make volunteering as accessible as possible. The consulting group also helps the Sustainable Hanover committee in efforts to create a green energy purchasing cooperative.

Tessa Robertson ’15, one of DCG’s four executives, described the relationship between the town and the group as a mutually beneficial process. Students interested in consulting and business get to hone their skills and receive valuable real-world experience, and the town benefits from the students’ free labor.

“It’s very much a two-way street — we’re helping each other,” Robertson said.

Not only does the group’s work provide value for both students and community members, but it also helps to build a rapport between the two institutions and bring students closer to the town that sustains them for their four (or five or six) years at the College.

“Working with the town, I’ve gotten an idea of just how integrated the [College and town] are, even if it might not seem that way to us,” Kamran Ali ’15 said, one of DCG’s executives.

Still, you wonder just how close most students’ ties are to Hanover. Consider Yale University, where a sophomore is running for a municipal position in New Haven, Connecticut, for a seat held by a current Yale alumn.

Here in Hanover, Mick Wopinski ’15 was elected as register of probate — mostly a ceremonial position — in a write-in joke campaign launched the day of the election last November.

“[The county] contacted me and asked if I wanted to accept the position and become sworn in, and I said yes, because how often do you get elected to public office?” Wopinski said. “Why would I say no to that? They were really surprised.”

He noted, however, that because he was a student and labelled a “frat bro” in the headline of a Valley News article, he said he did not feel accepted by the county. He remains in the position, but he refused the $200 salary, he said.

Whether we are aware of it or not, that ivy-clad building on South Main Street informs much of our time at Dartmouth. Sometimes I catch myself feeling that Hanover is nothing more than a prop in the students’ lives here — a familiar, but passive, background to all the collective toil, revelry and, yes, mediocrity that make up our days.

It’s not just that Hanover policemen will inevitably roll by next time your buddy stumbles onto Webster Avenue.

The town keeps our roads clear and pathways walkable in the winter. Its salt is responsible for the exquisite patterns that adorn Baker-Berry’s tiles. When I depart after my college years, I’m sure I’ll take more than one salt crystal wedged in my trusty Timberlands’s tread.

And if Dartmouth Hall ever goes up in a fourth fiery blaze, it will be Hanover firefighters who contain the damage.

We shouldn’t need to snore through budget hearings to appreciate it. The fact is that Hanover gives a great deal to us — and we have a platform to shape it in turn.