OLD LYME — Before moving to Old Lyme more than 30 years ago, Cathy Frank worked as a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Avon. She covered town meetings, zoning and planning commissions and the board of selectmen. Frank said she learned to value that sharing of information and wanted to bring that to her new home.
“I asked if I could start a newsletter. The town didn’t have any efficient way of communicating with residents at the time,” Frank said. “It was released quarterly and in every issue I featured a different town official so that residents could feel more comfortable with those running the town.”
She wanted residents of Old Lyme to be familiar with their town officials, understand the latest news in town and be informed when issues came up.
A position opened up for a new assistant in the selectman’s office when Tim Griswold was elected first selectman in 1997. Griswold, wanting to make sure that someone could cover those duties in the weeks before a replacement could be found, asked Frank to fill in.
At that time, Old Lyme’s town hall still didn’t have an elevator, and with many of the offices in the basement, town hall staff had to bring materials to residents unable to use the stairs.
“He just asked me to cover for a few weeks,” Frank said, but then a few months later I asked Michele [Hayes], ‘weren’t we going to try to hire somebody?’ and she said, ‘I think we already did.’”
Frank worked for Griswold for his 14 years as first selectman. “It was fun, because he hadn’t been here for a million years, so as far as I was concerned he didn’t have any preset notions of how things should run.”
She has filled the same role over the past eight years for Bonnie Reemsnyder.
“It’s become a full-time job and a lot of different responsibilities,” Frank said. Frank fills freedom of information requests, keeps track of the town’s appointed officials, manages the town website, researches for the board of selectmen, and keeps records.
“The biggest change has certainly been the internet. The big change on the website has been the news and announcements or bulletin board. It means we can send an announcement and anyone in town who has subscribed will get an email right away letting them know what’s going on.”
Frank added that the town’s reverse 911 system has made a huge impact in the town’s preparedness and coordination during storms, flooding and lengthy power outages.
Weathering the controversies
During Frank’s tenure several contentious debates brought the town out and the callers in to her office.
“One of the very frustrating things for us here as town employees, and for me in particular because I probably posted hundreds of documents about the sewer project over the course of years, is when someone says they didn’t know about it,” Frank said.
For the sewer referendum this past summer, Frank said she posted information, “on the website and I made sure information was in Old Lyme Events that goes around to every mailing address. And yet, people would come in and be screaming at employees, ‘You send me tax bills why couldn’t you have sent me information? I never heard about this!’ All you can do is listen, but it’s frustrating.”
Apart from the sewer referendum, Frank said the most contentious debates she can remember are the school renovations, the boathouse at Haines Park, the addition to Old Lyme’s town hall and the proposal for an affordable housing development by HOPE Partnership. There is always controversy when money is involved, she said.
“Affordable housing was a surprise I guess, to me. The vehemence from some people who were against it,” Frank said. “I usually am able to see all sides, I can see the logic in a lot of what people say. With affordable housing, I saw the logic behind the argument that that was not the right place for affordable housing. I guess, I was not prepared for some of the comments that kind of went beyond that, and it surprised me.”
In the case of the school renovations, said Frank, the tables were turned.
“There was a group that wore green ribbons and were supporting a school project. Again it was rhetoric. Some of the negative rhetoric – like if you were a parent and you weren’t wearing a green ribbon you were the enemy. And, I wasn’t wearing a green ribbon because honestly there were so many ideas and your head spins,” Frank said. “You just felt like, can’t we just talk about this? Maybe we could figure out, another idea that would be absolutely wonderful. It doesn’t come down to this side is right and this side is wrong. This is not a situation where there is one truth and only one truth. This is a problem that we need to solve and if we all work together and talk we probably can figure this out very nicely without anyone getting their feelings hurt or getting called names”
The issue of high-speed rail, from Frank’s perspective, brought individuals from all different beliefs and backgrounds in town together.
“The train… that was a great experience because people were united, and that was really nice to see so many people from so many areas working together. Because I know a lot of them, I knew that normally this person and that person would be at odds,” Frank said. “It highlighted that it is possible to disagree with someone and still go on and be polite and be respectful and have a relationship in lots of different ways.”
Over her 22 years as a town hall employee Frank said she learned many things she town residents should be aware of.
Apart from requests from reporters – which Frank said she only just started handling when CT Examiner launched earlier this year — and for companies collecting data, most of the time a formal FOI request is not necessary, Frank said.
“I don’t think people have any idea about FOI. They don’t have to say ‘under FOI I demand,’ they could just pick up the phone or come in and we are happy to tell them where the minutes are or where to find the information,” Frank said. “It really is a friendly government and environment, we are here to serve the people in town.”
Frank’s last day is Friday, October 11, less than a month before the two first selectman she has worked for are both on the ballot again.
“I just know that regardless of what happens, the town will be in very good hands, I know them both and I like them both,” Frank said. “No matter what happens I will feel both happy and badly. That’s the personal thing. You don’t like anyone you like to have something bad happen and it’s hard. Losing an election is hard. They work so hard at the job they’re in and then work so hard at campaigning. It’s gut wrenching to see the result you were not hoping for.”