This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.
In May, the Hanover Selectboard tapped Alex Torpey, the 35-year-old former mayor of South Orange, New Jersey, following a six-month-long search to replace former town manager Julia Griffin. Torpey, who has served in municipal positions across New Jersey, became the mayor of South Orange at age 23, becoming the youngest person elected to mayor in the township’s history. The Dartmouth sat down with Torpey to discuss his plans for Hanover, his experience moving to the Upper Valley, his passion for involving young people in local politics and his advice for incoming students.
You previously served as mayor in South Orange, New Jersey, and held municipal positions across the state. What led you to a career in municipal government?
AT: I don’t use the word “career” to describe what I am doing. I ran for office in South Orange. I was a year out of college when I decided to do that. I got plugged into a bunch of issues in college — I loved the idea of making governance systems work better. I said, “Why not?” I barely had a paying job and I was a year out of college, so sure, I should run for mayor. I started to realize how much actually happens at the local level since we get to make tangible progress. It is pretty cool what happens.
What other steps did you take in your career before coming to Hanover?
AT: While I was in office as mayor, I got my master’s in public administration and I started a consulting company. I also worked on a program called Pathways, a nationwide non-partisan leadership development program at the organization Run for America. I worked with them remotely and in person, and it was super interesting. It involved spending time working with young people to figure out their strengths and weaknesses. That is how I manage people: It is not me coming in and telling people what to do, but rather it is helping people uncover what they are good at.
How have your previous positions in municipal government informed your experience as town manager thus far?
AT: The town manager position is slightly different from what most towns in New Jersey call the business administrator. All my work in the past — mayoring, administering, teaching — have led me to this place and position. Over the last month my priority has been learning. I have made an effort to meet as many people as I can: faculty, administrators at Dartmouth, town business owners, other stakeholders, Advanced Transit, et cetera.
I have also met a lot of my counterparts in other towns. I went to a couple conferences before the job started to meet people. New Hampshire and New Jersey are very different on the local level in many ways. Julia Griffin was here for a long time and carved out her biggest priorities, and everyone who comes into a position like this is going to restructure it based on their strengths and weaknesses.
What are your main goals for your first year as town manager?
AT: The first involves improving media, technology and communications. It’s a meta issue, and if we don’t have communication in place it is hard to have conversations about other issues. Second, improving housing is easily a tie for first place in terms of priority. Third is the hiring environment for municipal staff. The affordability of this area is not very good and there is a big housing crunch. There are some big demographic changes happening in the country with a large generation retiring and a small generation replacing it.
Young people and Gen Z are not as inclined to work in local government as the Baby Boomers were. What we need to do, on the government side, is rethink how we employ people. Government has often rested on providing stability and retiring benefits as why you should work for a government, but now neither of those things are always viewed as positive. Government has to think about more flexible work schedules, remote work opportunities and building housing for employees. We lose people for jobs because they cannot find housing here. We could build local, net-zero energy use housing and bring people in who are near others who just moved to the area and provide better access to childcare as well. As these demographic shifts happen, we are going to see towns smaller than Hanover struggle to provide services which they have been providing.
Do you think there are more opportunities for youth and student involvement in Hanover town government?
AT: I am interested in finding how to get students plugged in with our residents directly. We are exploring partnerships through the Dartmouth Sustainability Office to pair students and residents to work on some projects together. I want to engage students in the community. Hopefully, that will make future conversations on housing and other topics more empathetic and fair. There are also two committees I would like to put together. First, I would like a civics committee, and I would like to have a designated student representative. The other is a downtown Hanover economic committee, and I would like a student representative on that as well.
Do you have any advice for Dartmouth College students, especially the incoming Class of 2026?
AT: After I got elected in South Orange, I was pretty young for the position, and I did all sorts of different interviews and things over the years. They asked me: “How did you prepare for being in office?” I said that I studied, did four years of student government and wrote for my town newspaper, and there were times when people looked at me as if to say, “That isn’t real stuff.” But in that four-year period of time we did some incredible projects. A huge part of my personal — and our team’s — success came from working on this stuff in college. I would encourage people who are passionate about something to go find ways to get involved in it. No one is going to drop opportunities on your lap; You have to find them, plug in and do the work. \We dismiss things as extracurriculars, when in reality they are just as curricular as anything else. The amount I learned in my four years of student government, with budget management and balancing interest from different groups — you cannot learn that in a class.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.