PARIS — Sawin Millett Jr. has never shied away from a challenge, which is why he tossed his hat into the ring to serve as interim town manager for Paris.
And on Thursday, Dec. 17, selectmen unanimously decided the Waterford resident and longtime educator and politician was the man for the job. Millett met with outgoing Town Manager Amy Bernard on Tuesday to get the lay of the land before officially coming on board on Monday, Dec. 28, he said. Bernard’s last day was Wednesday and after the first of the year she will begin her job as town manager in Newry.
Selectmen shared Millett’s enthusiasm in accepting the temporary position.
“I am so happy we got Sawin and he is going to be great asset to make the transition so much easier,” Selectboard Chairman Mike Risica said. “He has got such a vast background in all functions of government. He is so great with the budget – I am so glad we’re going to have him during this budget process.”
Sawen retired roughly 18 months ago after serving as commissioner of the Maine Department and Administrative Financial Services in the LePage administration, and has been involved in state budgeting in a variety of capacities for the past 40 years. During his lengthy tenure in the Maine House of Representatives, Millett served under five governors, which is one of the reasons he was approached about filling in as interim town manager for Paris.
“Reflecting on the last year and a half now of being retired and basically living on the farm and not having a lot of day-to-day mental challenges – I’ve always enjoyed a challenge, I’ve never shied away from anything that was difficult – it seemed like a good way to get back in the business of being challenged,” he said.
Speaking of challenges, the biggest challenge the town is facing is the working through the budget process and being responsive to the residents who signed a citizens’ petition, Millett said. The petition sought to cap the town’s mil rate to the state average, but the town’s attorney deemed the petition invalid and many residents have repeatedly called for tax relief.
“To do so, I have to work directly with the board and staff to see what we can do that is clearly responsive and supportable,” he said. “I want to basically improve relationships between the board and myself, the board and the community, the board and the staff. I don’t look at this as a caretaker opportunity – I look at it as a way of stabilizing and improving relationships, leaving the town in a better position in for the incoming, permanent town manager. We’re looking at the present but we’re also preparing for the future.”
Having Millett eyeing the future is one of the reasons Selectman Vic Hodgkins is pleased he accepted the interim town manager position.
“His experience and reputation both locally and state-wide speaks for itself. Not only is he a respected man with a long history of public service, Sawin’s integrity, and steady hand is just what the town of Paris needs,” Hodgkins wrote in an email. “I look forward to working with him to accomplish great things for our town.”
The budget isn’t the only challenge facing Paris. Another issue that needs to be addressed is the town’s employees who are looking to unionize, Millett said. He also plans to work with the town’s school board directors and county commissioners during their respective budget processes.
Millett wants to “make sure that they understand our concerns as a town and also look at the issues of the upcoming spending plans whether there are options for moderating, if not stabilizing, their increased request. We can do everything we can at the town level and have it all for naught if the county and school district have a larger-than-expected increase.”
This very issue is tied in state valuation. He plans to stay on top of the new numbers that will be released in late February or early March. Millett said the town’s latest reevaluation in Paris will be reflected in the state valuation, “which will determine the town’s share of both the school district budget, as well as the county budget.”
Selectman Sam Elliot noted Millett’s record, including his laundry list of public service.
“He is just a very well known man in the area with great experience and he should be an excellent choice,” Elliot said. “He knows his stuff. He will be really good for us.”
Millett began his professional career as a teacher and coach in Carmel High School in 1959 after graduating from Bates College, according to his background summary. He served in these capacities and later as a principal after obtaining his master’s from the University of Maine until 1971.
His first taste of politics was when he 24 and was elected selectman in Dixmont, serving from 1963-70. Millett credits his parents for interesting him in politics, they were both involved locally and brought him to town meetings.
“I would sit there and enjoy the process and [was] intrigued by the parliamentary procedures as how people came out on a cold Saturday in March were listened to and responded to,” he said, “and I felt maybe I could do something that would be maybe helpful to them answering their questions, as well as following through on their recommendations.”
During the late-’80s, Millett served for three years as a selectman in his hometown of Waterford and to date moderated more than 50 town meetings. He also served in the House of Representatives six times and was the commissioner of education for two governors during the mid- to late-’70s.
Other positions include serving as the legislative director under Gov. John McKernan, then later as finance commissioner, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, policy advisor under Gov. Angus King, associate commissioner for the then-Department of Mental Health/Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services and the Western Maine regional director for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
Millett lives on the family farm with his wife, Barbara, of 58 years. They have five children, 10 grandchildren and five great-children. He is also a Mason.
He explained in a nutshell his mode of operation in his professional life.
“My style of leading and working with boards is one of … civility and respect and also team building. I was also brought up you don’t gain anything by trying to talk your way out of a challenge or blame others where you are in the challenge,” Millett said. “Those two … strategies are approaches I will continue to do and stay away from the blame game.”