Former wastewater director Douglas Clark stands near a screw press that is used to dewater sludge at the city of Gardiner’s wastewater treatment plant in South Gardiner in February 2023. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

GARDINER — Sometimes when employees leave a job, they hear they can’t be replaced.

In the case of Douglas Clark, that’s actually true.

Gardiner’s former wastewater director retired in January. And although he gave five months’ notice, city officials haven’t been able to find a suitable candidate with the training and experience to head the wastewater department.

Across Maine, public sector organizations are trying to fill all kinds of positions, from office staff and grounds crews to code enforcement and wastewater plant operators. Currently, more than 350 mostly Maine jobs are posted on the Maine Municipal Association website, including 28 open water and wastewater treatment positions.

While public sector jobs have traditionally been considered desirable positions that are sought after, it’s not clear that that’s still the case.

There may not be a single reason why.


Kate Dufour, director of Communications and Advocacy for the Maine Municipal Association, said a combination of factors are likely responsible for chronic vacancies at cities and towns across Maine. The association helps Maine local governments and those who work in them to serve the state’s residents and advocates for municipal interests.

The traditional municipal workforce is aging and retiring, and few people are waiting to step into open positions, Dufour said, particularly in municipal management and in law enforcement.

People also tend to think that municipal careers are meant only for people who want to be a town manager and don’t see opportunities for people with other skills.

“There are so many opportunities in municipal government,” she said. “You got a background in finance? We got a job for you. You are really, really well organized? We got a job for you. Technology, law enforcement, EMS, you name it. (There is a) lack of awareness of: whatever skill set you have, we have a job for you.”

In this case, Gardiner is looking for someone with experience to oversee the operation of a class 4 wastewater treatment plant that serves Gardiner and parts of neighboring towns, and the city sewer system, who can be a department head and a city representative to the community.

And the city is continuing to look, posting the position across New England.


While it does, it has contracted with Water Quality & Compliance Services in Wiscasset to oversee plant operations, while Andrew Carlton, Gardiner city manager and John Cameron, the city’s Public Works director, will oversee the city’s sewer collection system and personnel.

“I don’t know what it will take to find that person,” Carlton said recently, at a meeting with Clark, Mayor Patricia Hart and Denise Brown, the city’s finance director. “We’ll keep re-upping our advertisements.”

While, as Dufour said, many people have skills that make them good candidates for a wide range of municipal work, that’s not the case for wastewater treatment plant operators.

Among the requirements for an operator in charge is having worked six to eight years at a grade 4 wastewater treatment plant, in addition to some education, generally at least an associate’s degree. The state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees wastewater treatment plants in Maine, has a set of criteria for each grade and must approve whoever the city hires. In this case, it also has the authority to review the city’s contract agreement with Water Quality & Compliance.

Some communities have hired professional engineers to serve in that role.

“Any (professional engineer) can run a wastewater treatment facility; however, we’re pretty unique,” Carlton said. “It’s going to require someone to gain a lot of knowledge. Even with a grade 4 operator, it’s a good-size system with a lot of complexities.”


Clark said while there are plenty of smart professional engineers, their expertise might lie in traffic or airports, and not wastewater treatment. 

“Kids today don’t graduate high school and say: ‘I want to work in a sewage treatment plant,'” Clark said.

And neither did he. Fresh out of college with a four-year environmental science degree, he signed on to an internship in a lab at a consulting engineering firm. He found that he really liked chemistry, and he also gained an insight to the workings of sewage treatment plants and fell into his career from there.

For 27 years of his career, first from 1982 to 1999 and then from 2014 to 2024, he has worked at the Gardiner plant.

“I’ve always said that Gardiner is big enough to make your job interesting, but not so large that you lose your mind,” Clark said.

During that time, he’s overseen upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant on River Avenue and the installation of a combined  sewer overflow tank at the waterfront and has worked to clear up illegal sewer connections.


The pipeline to fill these specialized positions no longer really exists.

“Are there training programs for these jobs?” Hart asked.

“There used to be, but they were canceled for lack of interest,” Clark said.

Dufour thinks another factor that might affect people’s decision to work in the public sector in general is a broad antigovernmental sentiment.

“It’s really hard to be a public servant these days without being painted with a broad brush of ineffectiveness or (being) greedy or (being) lazy,” she said. “You don’t want to do the best you possibly can and continually and constantly be criticized for simply doing your job.”

Carlton, who was a school superintendent before he was hired as city manager in Gardiner, said public service is rewarding, but it’s also not for the faint of heart.

“I have worked in the public and private sectors, and when you work in the private sector, you seldom if ever get an attaboy,” Clark said. “Here, people will stop me — and I don’t know who they are or remember who they are — and thank me. ‘Remember when you came by my house last year and helped me? I want you to know how much I appreciate that.'”

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