Windham’s power couple


Regional School Unit 14 board Chairwoman Marge Govoni and Council Chairman Dave Nadeau’s views could affect town policies into the future.

In 1985, Marge Govoni and Dave Nadeau cleared a camp from 89 Johnson Road and built a home looking out onto Highland Lake. At that point, there were 10 small camps on the road, mostly owned by people from Portland.

These days, there are some 70 homes located on the winding, narrow road. And the Highland Lake shore, close to Route 302 and once ringed by camps, has undergone a similar transformation.

“When we first came here you got to know a lot of the people,” Govoni said. “But then it became people who really just came for vacation. Now the boats are a lot faster and there are a lot more Jet Skis. It’s grown so much, and like anything that grows, you lose that feeling of intimacy.”

For Nadeau and Govoni, who moved from Charlestown, Mass., into the lakefront home in 2000, the issues associated with the residential growth on Johnson Road cut to the core of the key question facing Windham: How does the fastest-growing town in southern Maine want to develop? With the couple’s ascendance to local political prominence – with Nadeau as the new Town Council chairman and Govoni as chairwoman of the Regional School Unit 14 School Board – their views on this question may increasingly affect town policy this year.

“There’s all these houses in here on a private road,” Nadeau said, referring to Johnson Road. “Windham’s got hundreds and hundreds of these private roads that development keeps going in on. Why? How’s it going to be taken care of? In 30 years or whatever, how do you get the fire department down there? How do you get the police down here?”

This type of unplanned, spontaneous growth is set to cause hardship in the future, in Nadeau’s view.

“If you continue to allow growth to happen like that, whether it be commercial growth up in North Windham or residential growth, you’re only putting a burden on the people 20 years out, 40 years out,” Nadeau added.

Nadeau and Govoni, who are not married but have been together for 35 years, say they don’t agree on everything. Govoni describes Nadeau as a “visionary” and herself as a “realist.” To keep their partnership stable, they say they try to stay out of each other’s business. But when it comes to their assessment of Windham and its future, the two seem to be on the same page.

In Charlestown, the oldest section of metropolitan Boston with its historic, Colonial row houses and Irish-American cultural tradition, neighborhood feelings ran deep, according to the couple. In Windham, with its rapid residential growth and car-centered culture, life is more alienating, they say.

“Charlestown was pretty tight when we were there,” Govoni said. “You knew a lot of people in your neighborhood. You went out and shoveled, if anyone was out there and they finished theirs, they come over and helped you. You finished yours, you went and helped them.”

“We find that not to be the case up here,” Govoni added. “People will wave when they go by you. They won’t stop and help you necessarily. I find that a little disconcerting. I know the people who live here don’t think of themselves that way.”

For Govoni and Nadeau, the frenzied residential growth and the relative dearth of public services, places and transportation options are depriving the town of a sense of community.

“In my mind, it doesn’t really meet the needs of families with children,” Govoni said. “That’s why they’re moving into developments, because they need neighborhoods. Because, otherwise, my child – everything they want to do, even visit a friend – I have to drive them.”

For Nadeau, Windham needs to take a hard look at what it is, and what kind of community it wants to be.

“I kind of view Windham as a bedroom community,” Nadeau said. “But Windham doesn’t look at itself like that.”

Windham’s “rural” quality – a difficult trait to define – is increasingly absent, Nadeau said.

“They like it for its location,” Nadeau said, referring to Windham residents. “They like it for its rural character – niches of ruralness.”

“At one point in time, Windham was a rural farming community,” he said. “The manufacturing was in South Windham where the mill was, like a lot of other places in Maine. Then the mill went away. And when Windham was a farming community, one of its biggest resources was hay. And the market for it was Boston and New York, back then when horses did their thing. All that stuff has changed.”

The couple moved to Windham after Govoni retired. From 1980 to 2000, Govoni was a manager in a manufacturing facility that produced missile systems for Textron Systems, an industrial conglomerate that includes Bell Helicopters and Cessna Aircraft.

From 1980-1986, Nadeau was an electronic engineer for GenRad, a manufacturer of electronic test equipment. In 1986, en route to a meeting, Nadeau was hit in a head-on collision, when a driver drove across the centerline. Prior to the crash, Nadeau had already had his back fused together in surgery. The crash led to further injuries that have caused Nadeau chronic back pain for the past three decades. Nadeau retired following the accident.

“After that accident there were pieces of disc floating around in my nerve canal and they tried to go in and get them out, but because of the fusion they couldn’t get them out,” he said. “I got pieces in there that cause constant pain.”

After moving to Windham, Govoni and Nadeau quickly tired of sitting around the house, enjoying the view.

“I get bored,” Govoni said. “I quit work and I loved being retired and that was nice. We took a nice trip to Alaska and that was great and then I came back and it’s like, OK, what do I do now?”

To fill the void of activity, Govoni and Nadeau tried to involve themselves in the community. Govoni volunteered at the food pantry, and started the Windham community garden, which she modeled from a community garden in Charlestown. She joined the Human Services Advisory Committee and the Zoning Board of Appeals, eventually becoming its chairwoman. In 2008, prior to consolidation with Raymond, she ran for a seat on the Windham School Board and lost. Several months after the election, Jeff Vermette stepped down, and Govoni was appointed to fill the vacancy, given that she had received the most votes of any losing candidate. In June 2014, Govoni was appointed chairwoman of the RSU 14 School Board when Catriona Sangster stepped down from the board. Govoni is scheduled to remain chairwoman through December of this year.

Meanwhile, Nadeau served 10 years on the Windham Planning Board. In 2011, he was elected to the Town Council. Last November, he replaced Tommy Gleason as council chairman.

So what does the couple plan to do now that they are heading the town’s two major governing boards?

“It’s not power,” Govoni said. “It’s being in positions of everybody holding you responsible.”

Govoni said she plans to continue applying her “realistic” approach to school board affairs, and, in particular, the threat of a Raymond withdrawal from the district.

“I know realistically what could happen,” she said. “They either withdraw and then there are two separate school districts or they stay and we remain one,” Govoni said. “Until that point in time realistically we have to proceed as if we are one district, because right now we are, and that’s the realistic part of it.”

That perspective, Govoni said, informed her approach to the new cost-sharing formula proposal, which would raise Windham taxes and decrease Raymond taxes.

“People would ask the question, ‘Well, why are you doing this cost-sharing formula if they’re going to leave us anyway?’” Govoni said. “It’s because it’s not a done deal. Until they go to the polls and vote finally, ‘We’re done, we’re out of here,’ we’re one district. To me, that’s realistic. I can’t dwell on the fact that they might do this or somebody might do that. We could never do our job if we did that.”

Nadeau, meanwhile, plans to move full-speed ahead with a new strategic planning approach for the town government. At its Feb. 3 meeting, the council voted 5-0 to approve its 2015 council goals, which included the adoption of a long-term strategic plan by Nov. 1. According to Nadeau, strategic planning will provide continuity through the years, align the visions of various departments with the town’s comprehensive plan, and improve the quality of town services. Although the town has tinkered with strategic planning approaches in the past, Nadeau said, this time will be more serious.

At its core, strategic planning represents an acknowledgement that town government is “fundamentally different than a business,” Nadeau said.

“This came about because prior councils wanted everything measured, and they wanted it to run like a business,” Nadeau said. For Nadeau, this axiom that the town must run like a business is a legacy of the days when Windham was legitimately rural. The laissez-faire “Old Yankee mentality,” as he put it, has led the town to become a “convenience economy” or a “pass-through economy,” as opposed to a strong, year-round economy.

“By not raising taxes to invest in itself, Windham still grew, but it’s kind of grown by accident,” Nadeau said. “Windham’s ideology for years and years and years has been, ‘If you want a road, you build it. We’re not going to do it.’ Anybody who is coming in and wants something, ‘You build it.’”

If Windham had used strategic planning in recent decades and invested strategically in its long-term infrastructure needs, the town would look more like Scarborough, in Nadeau’s view. With better infrastructure, the town would be able to attract more businesses, and create more and better jobs.

What does strategic planning mean practically? This budget season, Nadeau will propose to his fellow councilors a 5-cent annual increase in the property tax rate for each of the next five years. The extra $100,000 in annual revenue will go to the road budget, which was funded last year at roughly half the levels necessary, according to a town study.

“Just to maintain our roads, the study we have tells us we should be spending $1.4 million a year,” Nadeau said. “We only budgeted $750,000 last year. How are we going to get to the place we have to be? Do you raise the taxes to get there instantly?”

As part of the strategic planning overhaul, town departments will also be instituting new metrics that show the level of services Windham taxpayers receive for their tax dollars. The new data will appear on the budget and will show the percentage of services that a given level of budget expenditure provides. If a given budget total will allow the public works department to mow a third of the town’s grass this year, the budget will reflect that. It will also give a reason, such as lack of manpower.

“I’m trying to rectify the disconnect between taxes and services,” Nadeau said. “Marge says I’m a visionary, but I’m a problem solver. What I see happening is the town provides a service, but there’s no long-term plans or goals on how to provide these services or how to sustain the level you’re at or grow at.”

“Let’s talk about the service first,” he said. “Then let’s say what level of service we’re providing. If you don’t want to pay the cost of it and you want to pay less of it, then look and see if the service is worth having. But let people know right up front this is the level of service you’re going to get.”

Nadeau’s strategic planning vision reflects their different approaches, Govoni said.

“I would say Dave’s a visionary, God bless him,” she said. “He can look out and see something 20, 30 years. I have a problem doing that. Without somebody saying, here’s a clear set plan – and I don’t mean something that looks like motherhood and apple pie, here’s our dream – I would need to see something that’s more detailed. Without seeing that, I have a hard time figuring how do you get there.”

But to Nadeau, strategic, long-term planning is the only realistic approach for Windham. The alternative, Nadeau said, is to wait for the town’s infrastructure to deteriorate so much that the council will be forced to float more large-scale infrastructure bonds, plus debt service.

“I’m going to ask you for a dollar, I’m going to spend your dollar,” Nadeau said. “I’m not going to ask you for a dollar and ask you for a quarter, too, for your interest.”

Regional School Unit 14 School Board Chairwoman Marge Govoni and Windham Town Council Chairman Dave Nadeau moved into their home on Johnson Road in 2000 from Charlestown, Mass. They built the home in 1985. Staff photo by Ezra SilkRegional School Unit 14 School Board Chairwoman Marge Govoni and Windham Town Council Chairman Dave Nadeau in front of their lakefront home on Johnson Road. Govoni considers Nadeau a “visionary” and herself a “realist.”Staff photo by Ezra Silk