When Ron Owens graduated from college in 1965, the Vietnam War was raging, Martin Luther King was marching, bras were burning, and young idealists like Owens dreamed of changing the world.

“I just knew if I got out in the world I could change the world and make it a better place,” recalls Owens. “I was inspired by (John F.) Kennedy.”

His passion for changing the world led him to Columbia, where he worked in urban community action, helping city dwellers recently relocated from the country coalesce into a community and work together to build schools, roads and infrastructure.

During his free time, he meditated on his direction in life.

“I’d sit on a rock in the middle of a stream and contemplate what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I decided I wanted to be a city manager because I thought I could make a difference in communities and help people figure out what they wanted from their communities.”

He’s spent much of his life doing just that. Forty years later, Owens is to retire Oct. 1 as Scarborough’s town manager. His replacement will have a lot to live up to.

“If I were to describe Ron in a word, I think the word I would use is ‘dignity,'” said Town Council Chairman Jeffrey Messer. “(He has) dignity, honesty, integrity. He’s honest as the day is long … He is an outstanding human being.”

After his stint in the Peace Corps, Owens went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh and earned a master’s degree in public administration. He worked for a year as an assistant manager in Upper St. Clair Township, Pa., before being drafted and serving two years as a surgical medical technician in Japan.

After his tour of duty, he held assistant positions in St. Clair, Stillwater, Okla., and Richmond, Va., before taking his first job as a munipal manager in Coventry, R.I., in 1977. That was followed by manager terms in Stratford, Conn., Smithfield, N.C., and Franklin, Mass.

According to Messer, who was on the Town Council that hired Owens eight years ago, Owens’ resume stood out immediately from among the 70 applicants.

Messer said he was impressed by Owens’ time in the Peace Corps and in the Army Medical Corps. He also had excellent references and was a dynamite interviewee, Messer said.

There was one potential problem with Owens’ resume, however.

At his last municipal manager job, in Franklin, Mass., he worked only two years before he was fired due to “concerns with his management style,” according to the Franklin council’s 2000 minutes.

But, Messer said, investigation revealed that the firing was politically motivated. According to both Messer and Owens, an election-year takeover on the Franklin Town Council led to housecleaning, and Owens, hired by the previous council, was shown by the door.

The firing turned out to be a boon for a rapidly growing former farm town on the Maine coast. Owens’ job search brought him to the attention of Michael Wing, an executive search consultant who at the time worked for Maine Municipal Management. Wing recommended Owens, and Scarborough hired him about three months after Franklin fired him.

“We checked out what happened in Franklin,” Messer said. “Basically, (the new council felt) Ron wasn’t their guy.”

Owens, for his part, found Maine attractive.

“I liked Maine, I liked being on the coast, and I liked the Portland area,” Owens said. “I liked the sense that people had of being self-sufficient. Today, many places are just like any other place … It just seemed right at the time.”

Apparently, Owens’ instincts were dead on. For the last eight years, he has enjoyed the respect, mutual cooperation, and good chemistry of most, though not all, of the town’s councilors, public employees, and residents.

“Ron has been a real asset for the town,” said Harvey Rosenfeld, president of the Scarborough Economic Development Corp. “I think he gives the impression, and it think it’s a real impression, that we’re all working for the same goals. Cooperation is very important and I think he gets that idea across.”

Rosenfeld says Owens’ personality sets the tone for the Scarborough Municipal Building and town officials’ interactions with residents and outsiders.

“He’s very personable,” Rosenfeld said. “He’s a very likable guy. I think he’s very analytical. He thinks through projects and sorts through problems very well. He’s very willing to listen. He works well with people.”

Messer described Owens as “the calm in the middle of the storm,” a manager who manages by empowering his subordinates to do their jobs, a person who earns respect by giving it, and a leader who leads by example.

“Ron is the person who taught me that you have one mouth and two ears, and sometimes it’s better to keep one closed and two open,” Messer said. “He’s been a mentor to me … He is just an outstanding human being.”

Councilor Carol Rancourt said Owens has been a visionary who has helped the town move forward in areas ranging from activities to senior citizens to waste disposal to participating in a regional crime lab. She described Owens as a consensus-builder who’s easy to work with.

“I think what you see is what you get,” she said. “He’s very low key, he’s thoughtful, he doesn’t lose his temper, and if you ask him a question, he gets back to you.”

Owens has not, of course, enjoyed unadulterated popularity. In one recent incident, councilors say Conservation Commission Chairman Paul Austin yelled at and threatened Owens for more than an hour after a council meeting, over what Austin felt was town officials’ mishandling of a controversial development project. (Both Austin and Owens said after the fight that they had found some common ground.) Pine Point residents have occasionally accused Owens of colluding with the owners of the controversial Lighthouse Inn, which recently converted to seasonal condominium ownership over abutters’ protests.

But, Messer said, the conversation with Austin was the only time he can recall Owens raising his voice, and Councilor Michael Wood said Owens was able to have a civil discussion with Austin after the initial clamor subided.

Owens takes it all in stride.

“I think one of the things you learn is that you have to listen,” he says. “There’s always going to be some disagreement … (but) I think by and large, people feel that I’ve treated them with respect and I’ve listened to them.”

In an unplanned testament to the regard in which they hold Owens, the Town Council, after soliciting proposals from executive search consultants to find Owens’ replacement, recently unanimously voted to hire a familiar name.

Eight years after recommending Owens, Michael Wing – now an independent consultant – has been retained to find Owens’ replacement.

In the town’s advertisement for a new manager, Messer said, “basically, we just described what Ron is.”

When Owens came to Scarborough, it was – and still is – one of the most rapidly growing towns in the state of Maine. His challenge as manager was not only to negotiate the politics of public service, but also to help the council, citizens, developers, and other parties with a stake in Scarborough to find a common vision for the future.

“Managing growth and dealing with the infrastructure needs of the town as a result of growth … is always a real challenge,” he said. Luckily, he has some experience.

“I have pretty much dealt with the problems in all the the communties and hopefully learned from my mistakes,” he said.

Owens has helped the town expand its services and infrastructure to keep up with growth “while keeping the budget increases very low,” Rosenfeld said. “We have one of the lowest tax rates in Greater Portland and that’s because we’ve all worked well together.”

Despite his expertise, Owens has been careful stick to the role of advising the Town Council, not leading it.

“He is a facilitator, which is a very important,” Rosenfeld said. “He makes councils aware of his opinions as well. Again, it gets back to being more cooperative in nature than combative. Some managers that run into problems are more combative with council. It doesn’t work.”

Messer said Owens’ chief accomplishments, in conjunction with town leaders and residents, include developing the Haigis Parkway, building the new Scarborough High School, developing Memorial Park, helping the town grow in an orderly, affordable way, and helping to revamp the financially unstable and much maligned Regional Waste Systems into ecoMaine.

“The list is long,” Messer said.

One of his last acts as manager has been to develop a decade-long plan that will convert Scarborough’s “call” fire department to a full-time, paid department. The first employees will be hired this year.

Owens cites two reasons for retiring Oct. 1: First, he turns 65 this month, and second, his most recent employment contract, negotiated two years ago, ends in October.

“I’ve really enjoyed working here,” he said. “I love the community. I’m not leaving because I’m dissatisfied at all.”

Owens’ wife Marcia, a nurse, will also retire, and they will move to the Sarasota, Fla., area.

Owens said he plans to take photographs, hike, bike, relax, spend time with his wife, travel to Sweden, and perhaps find some paid or volunteer work that is fun and doesn’t involve too much commitment.

“I’m moving on to another phase in my life,” Owens said.

Moving on – Scarborough’s Ron Owens nears end of community-building career

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