A summer job in Boothbay Harbor in the early 1970s, taken to pay off student loans, turned into a new life for Irish-born John O’Connell – one which would involve seats at the table of municipal and county government.
O’Connell, formerly a Boothbay Harbor selectman, Lincoln County commissioner, Lincoln County Budget Advisory Committee member, and interim Wiscasset town manager, will work his last day as Lincoln County administrator on Friday, April 1.
Local, county, state, and federal officials have lined up to wish him well and congratulate him on a job well done as he transitions out of the position he has held for eight years. O’Connell was honored at Lincoln County’s annual St. Patrick’s Day potluck and a reception held by the Maine Association of County Managers, Administrators, and Clerks.
Despite not feeling the need to eat for awhile due to the amount of food at the gatherings, O’Connell said he appreciates the support and will maintain the personal relationships he has developed within the county and with his counterparts across the state.
“I’ve enjoyed it and I appreciate the opportunity and the career experience,” O’Connell said.
Raised outside Dublin, O’Connell came to Boothbay Harbor in the early 1970s for a summer job. He met his wife there. O’Connell returned to Maine to attend the University of Maine at Orono, where he received his Master of Business Administration degree.
Despite a couple of years working in Ireland and London, O’Connell would return to Lincoln County and make Boothbay Harbor his home. A financial adviser and planner with American Express Financial Advisers and for his own independent business, O’Connell became involved in the Boothbay Harbor Budget Committee.
He would go on to serve as a Boothbay Harbor selectman in the mid-1990s and represent Boothbay Harbor on the Lincoln County Budget Advisory Committee. He would also serve as Wiscasset’s first town manager when Wiscasset transitioned to a town manager form of government.
In the late 1990s, O’Connell was appointed by the governor to serve as District 1 commissioner after the previous commissioner’s resignation. O’Connell won the subsequent election and served as commissioner until 2004.
During his tenure as commissioner, Lincoln County went through its own transition in government, from a county clerk to a county administrator. While commissioner, O’Connell was intimately involved in developing the blueprint for Two Bridges Regional Jail with Sagadahoc County; what happened to the original vision would be a source of frustration for O’Connell throughout his time as county administrator.
“Jail funding has been the thorn in my side,” O’Connell said. Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties “identified a need. We sought professional advice and input. We put together a state-of-the-art facility and it was barely in place before the state made it impossible to function as designed. After eight years, we still don’t have a long-term solution,” he said.
O’Connell was hired in 2006 to serve as Lincoln County’s third administrator, where he oversaw about 82 employees from about 10 departments. Several of the departments in Lincoln County, such as the district attorney’s office and registry of probate, are “hybrids” with the state, O’Connell said.
Assistant district attorneys are state employees, O’Connell said, but the county is responsible for providing staff, space, and equipment for the office. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office is funded by the county, however, the training and standards the sheriff’s office must follow is determined by the state.
“The state takes us for granted,” O’Connell said. “A lot of costs get shifted onto counties and municipalities. Every time there’s a change at the state level, we seem to pick up the tab.”
While struggling to comply with the unfunded mandates of the state, O’Connell has also worked to keep the county budget low for municipalities. The relationship between the county and the municipalities is generally positive, with the county taking on a bigger role in providing shared services.
Shared services, like the animal control officer program, are a point of pride for O’Connell and he hopes the county will continue to expand shared services to a code enforcement officer program.
“Counties are the ultimate form of regional government,” O’Connell said. Lincoln County, in particular, has been able to provide services other counties have not, he said.
Lincoln County is the only county in the state that runs a recycling program, O’Connell said. Despite frustrations with unfunded mandates from the state, Lincoln County has a positive relationship with several state agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Protection.
The DEP has worked with Lincoln County to establish and expand the recycling department’s composting program, which is another point of pride for O’Connell. O’Connell said he will continue to work with the composting program after his departure to ensure it remains stable.
For O’Connell, the best part of serving as Lincoln County administrator is “getting things done efficiently, following up on ideas, and seeing things actually happen,” he said.
It is his desire to get things done and see projects through to their completion that makes him “not a government guy,” O’Connell said. “I acquired some patience, but not enough.”
O’Connell hailed the employees of Lincoln County for their loyalty. Debbie Tibbetts has worked as the county commissioners’ administrative assistant for 22 years. There are many things she will miss about working with O’Connell, she said.
Every morning, Tibbetts would pick up coffee for O’Connell on her way to work. Lincoln County’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which O’Connell established, is now one of the most anticipated days of the year, she said. “He’s been very supportive,” she said.
Following his departure, county Finance Director Carrie Kipfer will take the helm as the new administrator. Michelle Cearbaugh, currently Sagadahoc County’s accounting manager, will serve as Lincoln County’s new finance director.
O’Connell plans to garden, do home repairs, continue to run his monthly book focus group at the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library, and may consider doing some short-term contract work, he said. Whatever he does, it is unlikely to involve a Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, he said.