Town Manager Ron Van Winkle attended his last Town Council meeting in an official capacity Tuesday night.
By Ronni Newton
Ron Van Winkle gave his last Town Manager’s report at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting, just before Council members gently roasted him and wished him good luck in his retirement which begins July 1.
“Be nice to Ron, everybody. It’s his last day,” Mayor Shari Cantor told her fellow Council members.
Van Winkle responded to a question about the budget, admitting that it’s tough leaving at a time when there is so much uncertainty at the state level.
On Monday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy provided two options to legislators who are back in special session tasked with approving a budget before July 1. If that doesn’t happen, one option presented by the governor was a short-term 90-day budget and the other was what how he would respond if legislators failed to approve any type of budget. If the latter happens, Van Winkle said, West Hartford would lose another $15 million in state aid.
It would not mean “just a couple of adjustments,” Van Winkle said.
“I suspect it may be some time before you’ll get a final budget out of the legislature,” said Van Winkle, but West Hartford won’t see major impact until September, when the state would ordinarily make the first Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) payment to the town.
By September, if the state hasn’t adopted a budget, it will be time for the town to make a decision on the car tax bills, which have already been delayed, as well as how to deal with state aid.
“We’re in limbo,” Van Winkle said, and in his 30 years of working for the town he has never seen anything like this.
Before all of the Council members – with the exception of Beth Kerrigan who was absent from the meeting – took the opportunity to publicly say goodbye to Van Winkle, Cantor also also read a proclamation on behalf of the town. It included a long list of accolades that West Hartford had received under his tenure – including one of the “best places to live” by Money Magazine and one of Family Circle’s best towns for families.
The proclamation also noted as part of Van Winkle’s legacy his involvement in Blue Back Square, the Connecticut Veterans Memorial, and Bristow Middle School.
“Integrity, fairness, and commitment are but a few of the qualities that make Ronald Van Winkle the highly-respected Town Manger and individual that he is,” states the proclamation, which also wishes him “good health and much happiness during his retirement and in all future endeavors.”
Van Winkle is known for his love of poetry, and Cantor read a poem that former police chief Jim Strillaci wrote in his honor. It ended with the words: “We hope you enjoy; Your retirement with Ruth; You’ve earned years of happiness, Ron; But the Town of West Hartford; If I tell the truth; Will miss you the moment you’ve gone.”
Department directors who report to Van Winkle had been asked to submit a few words that Cantor also shared. The comments ranged from Library Director Martha Church (“his talent for teaching”), to Assessor Joe Dakers (“his passion for doing what was right for West Hartford”), to Police Chief Tracey Gove (“steady leader who has empowered his directors” and understands the need for a work-life balance), to Human Resources Executive Director Rick Ledwith (“vision” of what was best for the community not for just today but for tomorrow), to Public Works Director John Phillips (“astute leader providing the right resources”), to Leisure and Social Services Director Helen Rubino-Turco (“doesn’t micromanage but trusts us to be professionals).
“It’s been a long goodbye,” Cantor said, since Van Winkle made the formal announcement of his retirement in early November and the community paid tribute last month.
Cantor said Van Winkle is one of the town’s biggest cheerleaders, and as everyone said is a “good man, an honorable man, respectful, hard working, smart, and has a good sense of humor … a true gentleman and earns the respect of everybody you touch.”
He has done his complex job with grace and expertise, and what Cantor said she will always remember is Van Winkle’s reminder: “Do you know how lucky you are to be mayor of one of the best communities in the country?”
Minority Leader Denise Hall recalled meeting Van Winkle back in 2001 when she was working with a group of veterans who had a “passion” that Van Winkle was able to meld into the Connecticut Veterans Memorial. “You were able to take this group and listen to all of their ideas, all of their wants … you coaxed them and you steered them … you just did a wonderful job working with people,” she said.
“You are responsible really for changing the nature of our center,” Hall said regarding the construction of the memorial.
“I know I’ve joked that your mind is like an amazing computer of knowledge,” Judy Casperson said, adding that doesn’t even begin to encompass all that Van Winkle is. What she most appreciated, she said, was his “constant voice of calm” during the many long meetings.
“I wish you and your family a blessed happy and healthy next chapter,” Casperson said.
“You are the model of what a town manger should be,” said Dallas Dodge. During the search for the new town manager he said, “I want another Ron Van Winkle,” adding that one of the things he admires most is Van Winkle’s “ability to simplify complex ideas in a way that doesn’t appear you’re dumbing it down but making it understandable.”
“I to want to thank you for your service to the town but also for your guidance and wisdom that you’ve shared,” Chris Barnes said. Even when he and Van Winkle disagreed on issue, Barnes said he admired that the next day he always “had a smile or handshake” and has always been a true professional.
Chris Williams praised Van Winkle’s character, and how he always made sure that students or members of the public attending meetings were take care of, had their questions answered. “I will, and I know we will all miss you very much.”
Ben Wenograd said that he first heard of Van Winkle through newspaper articles, where he was touted as a great economist and always asked to provide a comment. “What I didn’t realize until I got to work with you – you were all those attributes everybody talked about,” he said, adding that Van Winkle is a real “mensch.”
Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff said that all the development in West Hartford over the past decade is the result of Van Winkle’s efforts. “People want to be in West Hartford and that’s true … they understand that there’s a West Hartford way of doing things and there’s an expectation of excellence.”
Davidoff said he was there at Van Winkle’s first meeting as town manager and glad to be at his last, and at all the meetings he has conducted himself “as the ultimate professional. You set the standard for what a town manager should be.”
“Enjoy your retirement and take advantage of all the opportunities that life has in front of you … I see days that are bright and shiny,” Davidoff said.
Corporation Counsel Pat Alair also added his sentiments, and said that like Cantor he was getting a bit “verklempt.” He said that of all the incredibly bright people he’s worked with during his decades in West Hartfor, Van Winkle is the one he’s enjoyed the most.
Rather than quoting a poet, Alair quoted the words that Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz” said to scarecrow: “I think I’ll miss you most of all.”
Van Winkle had his opportunity for farewells, too. “I’ve been with the town 30 years and never expected to be more than five,” he said.
He said he looks forward to being a resident of the town and watching the town continue to excel under the leadership of great directors, and feels blessed to have worked with many mayors and town council members during his tenure.
The Veterans Memorial project is one of his most special moments, and something that “will be there for the next 100, 500 years.”
West Hartford has a special quality that makes people want to be here, love the community and continue to move here. “It’s about the town manager, the team, the Town Council, and the community” – which is so supportive.
Van Winkle also praised the press, addressing his comments to reporters in the audience as well as business columnist Dan Haar who spoke during the public comment session about his respect for Van Winkle from the perspective of both a West Hartford homeowner and an economics writer.
“I’ve always been blessed to have great relationship with the Fourth Estate. My door’s always been open to them. [The press is] “really important to democracy.”
Van Winkle said that a statewide effort is needed to fix the tax structure. “The property tax system sucks, it’s broken,” he said. And while West Hartford is not an inexpensive community in which to live, it’s important to continue to do the things that make it great.
“It is a funny time and it’s going to be a funny time for me to sit and read We-Ha and read about what’s going on at Town Hall,” he said, but added that he’s going to enjoy sitting down, and spending some more time with his sons, Van Winkle said.
Just before adjourning, Cantor presented Van Winkle with proper retirement gifts: the customary chair engraved with the town’s seal – but in a rocking chair style – as well as a Noah Webster House blanket, customized bathrobe, slippers, and several books of poetry.
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