2014-08-22 / Front Page

Jim Gailey named Manager-of-the-Year

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


South Portland City Manager, named Manager-of-the-Year last week by the Maine Town and City Manager’s Association, holds the first paystub he ever received from the city, which he keeps in his office. Issued Sept. 15, 1986 for $17.50, when Gailey was a sophomore in high school, the check was for refereeing youth league teams for the recreation department. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland City Manager, named Manager-of-the-Year last week by the Maine Town and City Manager’s Association, holds the first paystub he ever received from the city, which he keeps in his office. Issued Sept. 15, 1986 for $17.50, when Gailey was a sophomore in high school, the check was for refereeing youth league teams for the recreation department. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — When South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey was a young boy, growing up in the Meeting House Hill neighborhood and attending Roosevelt Elementary School, his life’s goal was to ride a garbage truck.

“I was infatuated with it,” he said on Monday, during an interview in his office at city hall. “I used to watch the trash truck guys come down the street every Tuesday and I wanted to ride along. Starting in kindergarten and for a long time after, every time they asked me in school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said, ‘A trash truck person.’”

Gailey has been the top administrator in South Portland since 2007 and, it can be argued, a big part of his job is cleaning up messes. As it turns out, he’s pretty good at it.

On Aug. 13, at a ceremony held during the 69th New England Management Institute conference at Newry’s Sunday River Jordan Grant Resort Hotel, Gailey was given the Linc Stackpole Manager- of-the-Year Award. He’s among the youngest municipal managers — and the first from South Portland — to win the recognition, which has been presented by the Maine Town and City Manager’s Association every year since 1977 in honor of Stackpole, a longtime manager of Machias.

“I was shocked,” Gailey said. “I was sitting in the very last row of the hall, absolutely the furthest person away from the podium, just sort of rolling over in my mind the four or five names I thought might be called, when I heard my name.”

By the time Gailey made his way through the standing ovation, he found at the lectern his family, two city councilors, and 11 city staffers, all of whom had managed to keep the surprise.

“For councilors and staff to take the time out of their personal lives and drive two hours away from home on their own time, it was very emotional,” Gailey said. “I was in shock. I mean, I’m just here to do my best and to make South Portland move forward. And to be recognized for that was numbing, it really was.”

Humility aside, Gailey is something of a rarity among his peers, who called him out as the best among them. Not only does he run the city he grew up in, he’s spent his entire professional career in the same municipality.

Protected in a clear plastic holder on a shelf beside Gailey’s desk is the first paystub he ever received from South Portland. Dated Sept. 15, 1986, when Gailey was a sophomore in high school, the $17.50 check was issued for refereeing youth league soccer games staged by the recreation department.

Gailey continued to work for parks and recreation through high school and into college.

“At the time, I thought it was cool to sit on a mower all day with headphones on,” he recalls, with a laugh.

Later, while working his way though the University of Maine at Farmington, Gailey branched out into summer jobs at public works. It was then, on a cold winter’s day, when his childhood dream came true.

“My junior year in 1993, I got a phone call at 5:30 in the morning, on the day after Christmas,” Gailey recalled. “It was (Public Works Director) Ge Erskine. He said, ‘Gailey, get out of bed, I’m coming to pick you up in 10 minutes.’”

“I had no idea what I was going to be doing,” Gailey said. “I just knew it was work. Ge shot me over to Red Bank and put me the back of a trash truck. I ended up riding it for four and a half weeks before I went back to school.”

As it turns out, the job was not quite so glamorous as Gailey had once imagined.

During his senior year in college, having transitioned from an initial desire to follow his father’s footsteps into education, Gailey parlayed his geography major into an internship under City Planner Tex Haeuser.

After graduation, Gailey was hired to his first fulltime job, working in the city’s finance department to collect taxes and oversee city investments. He was hired by Sue Mooney — now South Portland’s city clerk — who nominated him for the managers’ award.

“I’ve worked here for 38 years and I think he’s the best city manager we’ve ever had,” she said on Monday. “He’s responsive. He’s honest with people all the time. I think he’s accomplished an incredible amount of projects in the last seven years.

“I’m really proud of Jim,” Mooney said. “He worked really hard in the finance department and in every job he’s held since. Everything he takes on, he puts his heart and soul into it.”

After working under Mooney for a couple years, during which time he’d begun work on a master’s degree in planning and policy analysis from the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service in Portland, Gailey transitioned back under Haeuser’s wing.

After seven years there, during which time he was instrumental in the creation of South Portland’s popular Greenbelt Trail — even clearing brush and “popping stumps” — Gailey in 2004 became the city’s first administrator of Community Development Block Grants. That led to him being tapped two years later as assistant city manager by thenmanager Jeff Jordan.

“He brought me up. Then he left five months later,” said Gailey, who suddenly found himself working as interim city manager until the city council hired Ted Jenkowski from Worcester, Massachusetts. Eight months later, Jenkowski was out, referring to South Portland in the press as “a political snake pit,” as he hit the door.

Once again, Gailey found himself thrust into the city’s top spot. It was all the hint he needed and, the second time around, Gailey applied for the manager’s job, which he got in November 2007. He was 36 at the time and now the boss of people he’d previously worked under.

“That was a strange dynamic at first, especially when I had to do their evaluations,” he said, “but there were far more benefits than negatives. They knew me, I knew them, and we already had a close working relationship. I think we’ve all gelled as a team.”

Teamwork has been Gailey’s by-word as manager. Where once each city department was “working in silos,” focusing on its own projects without regard for what other departments had on their plates, or what expertise each could bring to the table, under Gailey each is now consulted and, more often then not, called on to pitch in.

That philosophy began with the Greenbelt trail project, when Gailey, until then blazing the path virtually on his own, brought in public works, parks and recreation and sewer maintenance to assist the planning department.

“I just thought, why can’t we all work together and, when we looked back on it, we saved a ton of money,” Gailey said. “Since then, one thing that I’ve tried to do as manager is to take down any barriers that exist between departments. Now we all work in unison.”

Examples of that approach abound, from the recent Knightville renewal project, to ongoing renovations in Thornton Heights, to the installation of an electric car charger at the community center.

“Each department gets in there, all doing their piece,” said Gailey. “That’s become our standard operating procedure.”

And where Jenkowski saw snarling snakes, Gailey has earned nothing but respect.

“I have worked with several city managers and Jim is by far the most supportive of his staff,” said Fire Chief Kevin Guimond. “He encourages us to get involved locally, he stresses that we act responsibly with regards to financial matters, but most important is the feeling that when you work for Jim Gailey, you are treated like family, with a little extra respect.”

Still, Gailey brushes off the accolades.

“This award doesn’t just go to me,” he said. “It is shared with a very supportive city council and an extremely talented city staff. No one person can lead a city; it’s a team approach. South Portland is a wonderful city and I am blessed to be a part of it each and every day.”

One observation Mooney makes is that, over the years, whenever Gailey grew bored with a job, he’d actively seek out new challenges. Now, having done just about every job in South Portland from trash collector on up, having climbed high as he can go, and having been recognized for his work, might Gailey cross the bridge for the manger’s job that just opened up in Portland?

“I would love to stay right here in South Portland,” he said. “I have no ambitions of moving on. This is my community. I grew up here. I want to finish here.

“I love this city,” he added, “and to do anything different — it’s never crossed my mind.”

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