More than a third of the Keene City Council will be new to the job come Jan. 1, and they plan to hit the ground running.
At the polls Nov. 5, voters elected six newcomers to the 15-member council: Mike J. Remy at-large, Raleigh C. Ormerod in Ward 1, Robert C. “Bobby” Williams in Ward 2, Mike Giacomo in Ward 3, and Gladys Johnsen and Catherine I. “Catt” Workman in Ward 4.
These councilors-to-be say they expect a learning curve and are gearing up for their roles in city government by attending council and committee meetings, reading policies and researching procedures. Issues on their minds include tackling the opioid crisis; securing funds to maintain public pools; ensuring money from any opioid settlement is used for treatment; the city’s land-use code update; and the future of the Keene Pumpkin Festival.
Building relationships is also key, they all said, and many are arranging meetings with sitting councilors and looking for ways to reach residents.
Johnsen, 76, handed business cards to voters exiting the Ward 4 polls at Symonds School on election day, encouraging people to contact her if she won the seat in an effort to connect with her soon-to-be constituents.
Having served as a state representative from 2010 to 2018, Johnsen said she feels comfortable in the role of an elected official, though she recognizes she has plenty to learn about leading the city.
She said the idea of bringing in fresh faces was a big part of mayor-elect George S. Hansel’s campaign. And while many people will be learning on the job, she pointed out that there are veteran councilors who can offer guidance.
“I really just want to listen,” Johnsen said. “When you’re in a new situation, it’s really best to just sit and listen.”
Hansel said he aims to foster opportunities for the new and experienced councilors to meet and create mentorship relationships.
As mayor, his duties will include determining the seating arrangement for council meetings and appointing members to the three standing committees. Hansel said he wants “to really mix things up a bit” and provide chances for institutional knowledge and new ideas to come together.
Leadership development will be a primary goal, too, he said, and he plans to do what he can with his four years of experience as a councilor to help those who are newly elected.
“It’s going to be challenging, but I also think the change brings new opportunities,” he said.
In a group interview Tuesday afternoon, Giacomo, Ormerod, Remy and Williams also emphasized the value of leaning on their colleagues for support.
“I’m definitely looking forward to picking the brains of the existing councilors that are there, the councilors that have been there for a while, and trying to absorb as much as I can,” Giacomo, 37, said.
The newcomers can learn procedures, he said, but not experience, and they have an opportunity to “be the bridge from the past into the future.”
Ormerod, 53, said he benefited from the mentorship of Councilor Stephen L. Hooper, who represents Ward 1 but ran successfully in November to become a councilor-at-large. Since he wanted to succeed Hooper, Ormerod said he went to him for guidance and continues to do so.
While ward councilors might deal most directly with their own constituents, Ormerod pointed out they also vote on issues that affect the rest of Keene.
“I need to know about what’s going on and make decisions for the whole city as well, too, so I think I’m going to rely really heavily on my other ward councilors as well, particularly when issues come up with that,” he said.
Remy, 30, said he’s had coffee or chatted with eight of the current councilors. He got feedback while campaigning, he said, and gets advice now on what issues to pay attention to.
He called Councilor Kate M. Bosley a good example of a quick on-the-job learner — she was appointed to fill a midterm vacancy for an at-large seat in August and was elected to the position in November with the highest number of votes across all races.
One of the best pieces of advice Remy said he’s received was to “take your time getting used to it” and to listen.
“Don’t go into the first meeting and just assume you know everything,” he recalls being told.
For many councilors-elect, prepping for inauguration is about more than meetings and reading materials, though. Williams, 42, noted that he has a wife and son at home, and weekly council and committee meetings in the evening require an adjustment to his family life. For instance, they plan to go out to dinner early Thursday evenings, before the twice-a-month council meetings at 7 p.m.
“I’ve been elected to serve and I intend to serve, so [it’s figuring out] how can I balance that with my family,” Williams said.
Talking about the struggle is important, he said, “because I’d like to see more people with families in the future decide to run for City Council … and to make that happen, part of it is figuring how can that fit into people’s lives.”
Giacomo added that people also have full-time jobs to work around, which can make public service a challenge. And as someone hoping to start a family with his wife possibly during his four-year term in office, he is also thinking about how to help people strike that balance.
Remy said his own difficulties relate to his job, which involves frequent travel at times. While his employer is supportive of his upcoming role, he noted that there’s currently no ability for a councilor to attend a meeting remotely using technology.
“I think it’s important to identify the things that are preventing people from being more involved and figure out if those are things we can address,” Remy said.
Williams hopes this line of brainstorming could also help people with disabilities participate in local government. For someone with disabilities, he said, “getting out to go to the committee is a lot more of a chore than if you would be able to just connect remotely and be part of that committee.”
That would bring a level of inclusion to Keene’s government that doesn’t exist now, he said.
Catt Workman also discussed ways to make citizen participation more accessible, such as scheduling more workshops or non-council committee meetings around noon so working adults could attend on their lunch breaks.
Workman, 36, said she’s still wrapping her head around the concept of being a public official, realizing that anyone could potentially call her cellphone or stop her while she’s walking down Main Street to discuss an issue.
“So I think that is going to become more real as the months go on,” she said.
As she attends more city meetings, Workman said her perspective is shifting, seeing the councilors no longer as her representatives or fellow candidates but as her colleagues. If there was any animosity during the election, she said, that’s long gone. She described Councilor Robert J. O’Connor, whose seat she’ll take in January, as phenomenal in showing her the ropes and keeping her in the loop with Ward 4 voters’ interests.
“I mean, no one’s on the council for their own self worth,” Workman said.
From talking to the other councilors, she said she’s gathered that everyone is serving because they are passionate about Keene and want to see the city grow and maintain its “keep it local” mentality.
“Regardless of what may come for Keene in the future, that’s something everyone can agree on, that that’s a good part of Keene,” she said.
This article has been edited to correct which ward Councilor Stephen Hooper represents.