Town manager Griffin winds down tenure after quietly remaking Hanover


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-25-2022 9:26 PM

HANOVER — In certain respects, Julia Griffin’s career in municipal government has unspooled backward, as she worked from New York City, through Santa Monica, Calif., then Concord, to a long career in Hanover, where she started work in 1996, and from which she will retire this week. Like baseball managers, city managers tend to start in the minor burgs and work their way to the bigs.

But looked at another way, Griffin started in a teeming city and worked her way up, managing Hanover as its taxable property hit $1 billion in 1999, and $2 billion a couple of years ago.

When Griffin came to Hanover, it was still very much a small New England college town, led by an elected Selectboard and a manager who oversaw a small staff. Dartmouth College was largely unchecked, as the town had too little staff to chart a separate course from its largest employer. Her tenure has been devoted to building up a professional staff to manage every facet of town, its relationship with Dartmouth included.

“I think Julia understood and even helped create the Hanover culture,” said Peter Christie, a longtime Selectboard member. She was visible in places all over town and outside working hours.

Now, as she’s set to retire this week, the town’s big challenges are tied to its affluence. Can Hanover find ways to grow and become more welcoming (read: affordable) to young families? How will residents respond to Dartmouth’s expansive new view of its footprint? Will a new generation step in to reinvigorate the town meeting form of government? Can Hanover’s downtown businesses survive, caught between the rock of high rents and the hard place of e-commerce?

Griffin hopes to shape answers to these questions from outside the town administration, as a public-spirited and decidedly progressive citizen who will serve on several nonprofit boards. She and husband John Steidl, who’s retiring on the same day from the management job he’s held at Dartmouth for the past 11 years, plan to stay in Hanover.

Backed by the town’s wealth and savvy, Griffin was able to develop a town administration that runs like a well-oiled machine. Its politics are generally pretty smooth, too, but some friction seems inevitable as residents consider the town’s next wave of development.

“It’s become unaffordable. You know, my house when we bought it, in 1996, was $321,000, for your basic four-bedroom modular colonial on 3.25 acres,” Griffin said in a recent interview in her Town Hall office. “It was just assessed at $956,000. Wow! I couldn’t, if the board were hiring me today, as town manager at my salary, I don’t think John and I could have swung it.”

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(She was hired at a salary of $76,000, and now makes nearly $160,000.)

Early days

Luckily for Hanover, times were different.

When the Hanover Selectboard put out the call in the winter of 1995-96 for a replacement for retiring Town Manager Cliff Vermilya there was no shortage of candidates.

“We had — I can’t remember who handled the search, but we had 100 resumes,” Dorothy Heinrichs, who was on the Selectboard at the time, said in a phone interview.

When she took them home to Etna to read them, she sorted them into stacks, separating likely candidates from the unlikely. But one was in a category all its own, Heinrichs said, clearly the person Hanover should hire: Julia Griffin.

Her fellow board members felt the same way.

“It was a unanimous decision,” said Heinrichs, who now lives in Orange. “It was an easy decision.”

Not only did Griffin have the background for the job, Heinrichs said, she exhibited a breadth of interests and a warmth uncommon among executives. Her decision to move to a smaller town to raise her two children — she was pregnant with her second, Christopher, while interviewing in Hanover — also was in her favor.

Vermilya had recruited her, Griffin said. “He said, ‘This is just a wonderful place to work. It’s a wonderful place to be a working parent,’ ” she recalled.

Her job interview consisted of a dinner at the Hanover Inn, and the town put her and John up in a room overnight. The next day, Marilyn “Willy” Black, the formidable longtime Selectboard member, drove her around town, ending at Hanover’s Ray School.

“She was no dummy,” Griffin said of Black, who died in 2018. Seeing the school her daughter, Catie, then 7, would attend sealed the deal.

Right away, when she started work in July 1996, Griffin started solving problems.

For all its Ivy League polish, Hanover didn’t have anyone in charge of human resources for a town workforce that at the time had 286 employees. Lawsuits over workplace harassment were not uncommon.

“My very first week here, I was sitting at the table next to Charlie Bauer, who was defending the town in a case filed by a former public works employee,” alleging harassment, Griffin recalled.

At her urging, the Selectboard empowered her to hire the town’s first human resources director, Barry Cox, who had served in the same role in Merrimack County.

“It had immediate positive benefits because we were dealing with issues appropriately before they become lawsuits,” she said.

She also diversified the pool of lawyers the town called upon, turning to specialists in employment, land use, telecommuncations and other areas of law that required deeper knowledge.

“I was not comfortable with having just one attorney handle all of our legal matters, particularly in that Hanover was and always has been a community where you deal with a lot of land use litigation,” she said.

This problem-solving approach dates to the early days of Griffin’s professional life.

Her path to management wasn’t a straight one. Born in Michigan and raised mostly in Denver, a key event in her early years was a move east, to Darien, Conn., when her father was transferred to New York.

“I am, in large part, a product of that transition, in that I hated what Darien stood for,” Griffin said.

In status-obsessed Darien, Griffin was known as “that hick from Colorado,” and she wore that outsider status proudly.

On a 1974 college tour, her father said, “ ‘Let’s drive through Hanover,’ ” Griffin said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, what kind of back of beyond is this place?’ ”

Her family never lets her live down this early assessment.

She graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she majored in government, with a focus on international development, particularly in Africa. She went through the international relations masters program at Yale, which was where her career took shape.

She did some work with the aid organization Save the Children: “I was kind of shocked at how poorly managed it was.” She took a couple of courses at the school of management and was invited to pursue a degree focused on nonprofit management.

She thought she was going to work in the developing world, but the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 led to a slashing of foreign aid to the organizations she’d have worked for.

Instead, she spent weeks riding around New York in garbage trucks.

As a consulting project for the city, she and some of her Yale graduate school classmates were assigned to help solve a major problem for the New York Sanitation Department. The trucks were operated by three-man crews who suffered huge workers’ compensation claims. The city planned to replace them with two-man teams and a machine that lifted and emptied trash cans. The union took some convincing.

“I had so much fun getting to know these guys and talking with them about what they were concerned about,” she said.

The consultants figured out how to transition to the two-man trucks without laying anyone off.

From there she consulted with the city department that handled the $400 million budget for special services for children.

Southern California, where she served as a budget analyst and in emergency management in the Santa Monica city manager’s office, didn’t suit her or Steidl, so she looked for a job in New England.

She served as assistant city manager in Concord for a year before her boss, who had clashed with the City Council over the best way to handle an economic downturn, was fired. The council asked Griffin to serve as interim manager for a year. She was 35.

“It was, as I look back, way too soon for me to be thrust into that position,” she said.

But she managed it well enough to stay for another 4½ years before she moved to Hanover.

A growing town

Working in larger communities prepared Griffin for Hanover, which was growing and needed some of the administrative structures with which its new manager.

In addition to adding an HR director and expanding the town’s pool of lawyers, Griffin recognized that the town didn’t have the planning, zoning and building code staff needed to uphold its own regulations, particularly where Dartmouth was concerned. Hanover employed just a planning director, a part-time building inspector and an administrative assistant.

“It was just way too folksy, way too informal. And the college in particular was used to doing whatever they wanted to do, because the assumption was they built high-quality buildings,” Griffin said. “Their plans were top-notch, but they weren’t used to being regulated by building codes, planning and zoning. And so it took me a couple of years to get that organization reconstructed, and in my opinion enhanced, and the college bristled, because we were suddenly holding them to a standard in both the plan review and the board review and the inspection process that they hadn’t had to adhere to prior, and it was really bumpy for my first, I’d say, five or six years here with the college because they just resented being overseen as strictly as we were overseeing them.”

Hanover officials have been at odds with the college over a number of issues during Griffin’s tenure, notably underage drinking and the college’s continuing growth, or in some cases the lack of it.

Dartmouth dropped plans to develop graduate student housing when it faced a financial crunch during the Great Recession, for example. Prior to the recession, Dartmouth redeveloped its Sachem Village housing and built the South Block, a mix of commercial, office and residential development on South Street. Hanover officials had urged the college to buy the property that became the South Block, she said, and another piece on Sargent Street, partly because Dartmouth students were living in the area and the housing was substandard. Post-recession, projects on Grasse Road and at Rivercrest, off Lyme Road, also stalled.

“It’s clear to me that that halt on off-campus residential construction efforts the college had long been involved with was a turning point that’s in part contributed to what we’re seeing right now, which is the 10,000-plus insufficiency of housing units in our region,” she said. “The college was a big player, an important big player, and does high-quality construction.”

Hanover saw influxes of new residents after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and again during the coronavirus pandemic, Griffin said. But the town is largely built out on the land served by existing water and sewer infrastructure. Housing costs have skyrocketed, and a switch to denser zoning is an ongoing political challenge.

For example, in 2015, the town asked voters to enable higher-density housing on West Wheelock Street, a proposal that went down to defeat. But Dartmouth students led the charge to bring the proposal back up this year, and voters approved it.

“We’re also hearing through our sustainability master plan surveys and in meetings that a larger number of Hanover residents, not just students, are recognizing that we need more housing options in town. So I think the tide is turning,” Griffin said.

The tide might also be turning in downtown Hanover, which has struggled for several years as shopping habits have changed. Dartmouth ends its fall term at Thanksgiving and doesn’t restart until after New Year’s Day, but even if the students were around for the Christmas shopping season, they would likely be buying presents online.

The pandemic appears to have changed that a bit, Griffin said. Supply chain issues that affected big box and online retailers had something to do with it.

“But part of it was just saying, ‘Wow, I better appreciate what I’ve got here and support it because otherwise, these businesses are totally going to go under,’ ” she said.

The town also is going to have to reckon with declining participation in Town Meeting, and Griffin said it might be time to consider a city council, or more likely, a town council form of government. The generation of residents that has volunteered for town boards and other duties are now in their 70s and 80s. Newcomers to town are less conversant with the annual meeting and how it works. A council form of government, where elected officials approve budget and zoning changes on their own, is more nimble.

But that’s an issue for her successor, Alex Torpey, to resolve, Griffin said. At 34, Torpey is five years younger than Griffin was when she started in Hanover.

Christie, the longtime Selectboard member, said the town is “very committed to the Town Meeting,” and that Torpey is as well.

“I look forward to watching Alex go to work on those issues,” Griffin said, “because the next generation needs to help direct the solutions, because I can’t relate to them. I think I understand them, but you need to be one of them to sort of lead that rejuvenated public commitment and understanding of local government.”

The human element

True to this deferential stance, Griffin has mostly steered clear of partisan politics, particularly where she knew she would only impede a potential solution.

She’s also got Hanover figured out. She has long called it “a city dressed like a town.” When she arrived, deals between the town and the college were still worked out by handshake, an era that’s ended, but that was effective in its day. Living in a town means making decisions with the understanding that you’re going to see people from the community at Little League games and in the grocery store.

That means for an administrator, many political disputes aren’t worth having. Hanover Public Work Director Peter Kulbacki noted that Griffin tried to “stay out of the picking-a-side, when there isn’t a side you can pick and win.”

Griffin hired Kulbacki in 1997 and he’s remained on the job since then, one of a range of town employees with lengthy tenures.

Perhaps because Hanover is replete with members of what might be called “the managerial class,” elected leadership tends to get the job done without much fuss. Griffin noted that the many Selectboard members she’s worked with have given her guidance and let her do her job. And that’s how she in turn has managed the town.

“She doesn’t step on your feet and micromanage,” Kulbacki said. “But she made sure you followed what the community wants.”

Aided by a capacious memory and a constant presence, she kept in touch with the community’s needs and wants.

“She knows what’s going on in almost every aspect of the town,” Kulbacki said, adding that he doesn’t know how she keeps track of it all.

Griffin said she never could have predicted she’d be in Hanover for so long.

“Local government is more contentious than it used to be,” she said, and her career would ordinarily have taken her to a much larger community.

One of the qualities that got her hired in the first place was essential to her success.

“I think the one attribute of Julia is that she is one of the most caring individuals in the world,” Christie said.

Kulbacki agreed, calling her “genuinely a really warm human being. ... The human element is really important. That’s why she did so well.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.