Wed, 2009-12-16 12:56 — webmaster
(Acton, MA) - Steve Ledoux never meant to be a town manager, but a chance college assignment sparked a fascination with the workings of town governments and set him on a career that has never wavered. He relishes the challenges of managing the day-to-day details as well as the far-reaching, long-term plans essential to making the town of Acton function well.
Before arriving as Acton's Town Manager in early 2008, Ledoux was town manager in Westford for eight years, spent three and a half years as town manager of Sudbury, and the 12 years prior to that serving Williamstown, Massachusetts, in the same capacity.
“I took political science as a sophomore in college and was asked to write about [a town official] in Holden,” recalls Ledoux. “I talked to him and was interested in what he did.” After earning a bachelor's degree in government from Notre Dame and a master's degree in public administration from Cornell University, Ledoux was on his way to learning the intricacies of town governments and the delicate balance they have as a direct link between residents and the larger state and federal governments.
Despite working for many towns, Ledoux said just about any town in the Commonwealth struggles with the same issues. With 2,000 or 20,000 residents, towns grapple with spending, saving, schools, safety of residents, and making the local neighborhoods the best they can be.
“There is a lot of commonality in the towns I have worked for,” said Ledoux. “Budgets are always an issue, no matter where you are. That is not unique to Acton.”
What is unique is the citizen involvement in town government here, said Ledoux. People in Acton have high levels of education and are technically literate, he said, mirroring the other communities he has served. “My whole career has been spent working in communities like this,” he said. “But of all the communities I have worked in, Acton has the most active number of people involved in town government. There are more people at the Board of Selectmen meetings; there are more people working on [things like] the Suburban Mobility Grant.” Last year, a citizens' initiative forced a special town meeting to vote on how the town would spend some of its reserve funds.
Since Ledoux has come to town, he has noticed a bigger push for having accessible town information, especially budget information, available. “There is a hunger for more information to be on the web,” he said, “so we are focused on getting more timely information out there.” More than in other towns he has worked in, Acton residents, he said, are more attuned to and interested in financial information and having access to budgets and spending in town. “That is certainly more impetus to get things on the web,” he said. “And I think it is definitely good for the town. We have nothing to hide. It is good to get it out there.”
For Ledoux, planning for the town's future is top in his mind. He wants to solidify an image of what Acton might look like in the future, based on community feedback and the town's potential resources. To that end, Acton's master plan, currently under review, is essential. When asked about his own personal vision Ledoux said, “I am here to serve the town and the public officials and what their vision is of Acton, not my own vision.” Outside of the general operations duties, one of Ledoux's tasks is to mediate the collective bargaining process with Acton's emergency management unions.
Calling himself an ombudsman, Ledoux said his favorite challenge as a town manager is to try to solve the problems in the town and make it a better place to live. “On the flip side,” he said, “when I can't do it because of red tape or the bureaucracies, that is frustrating.” Recently a resident trying to sell a home was stymied by the state's septic code. As a town manager, Ledoux can do little but sympathize with a very frustrated resident. “Our hands are tied,” said Ledoux, noting that it makes it even more satisfying when he can help a resident solve a problem.
And there is also the nitty gritty involved in being everything from the go-to guy for reporters to being the emergency management coordinator in charge of all emergency response in a crisis. “You become a quick expert in things you would never think you would even be involved in,” he said.
But Acton has some serious financial challenges right now, with reduced state funding and rising costs, to keep the town at an even level. “There are needs within the town and within the schools,” he said. “With our resources and with Proposition 2 ½ and the economy, it is unrealistic to expect that we will meet all those needs.” But for residents, that answer is not always going to settle well. “People have high expectations in Acton,” he said. Calling the current economy a perfect storm, he said town governments are the government of last resort, meaning they are closest to the residents and to understanding what is most important to them. And residents sometimes want things the town government is unable or unwilling to provide.
“For me, life safety and public safety are most important,” said Ledoux. Everything else in town comes after those top two, he said. The schools, while important to Ledoux, are not going to trump safety. Good or bad, Ledoux welcomes hearing from residents.
Newer and younger residents who are often raising families here or who might have even moved here specifically for the great schools, are more interested in seeing education and transportation top the list of important issues. Older residents, he said, are interested in open space and conservation to keep Acton's beloved open spaces protected from development.
Some concerns are universal. The high percentage of apartments in town means more residents are here temporarily and that changes the services the town requires. The pressing problem of transportation in the town is being examined, but Ledoux believes a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail station is better suited for Littleton than for expanding the small lot in South Acton's residential neighborhood. Commuters, he said, always look for shortcuts and the increased traffic will impact that area.
Ledoux said Kelly's Corner is one of the big challenges to Acton right now. The area is “an eyesore” to many in town, but has to be planned carefully to take traffic into consideration at the busy Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street intersection.
“When I was younger I would have never thought my career would have gone this way,” said Ledoux. “My job is never boring. That is what I like about it.”