He has worn many hats over the years: civil engineer, regional health agent, town selectman and legislative liaison.
And soon Russell Smith of Aquinnah will be wearing a new hat: that of county manager.
“I’m looking forward to being involved with the county,” Mr. Smith said in an interview this week as the news of his recent appointment was still sinking in. “I hope my tenure there will be a benefit to all the Island towns,” he said.
The Dukes County Commission voted unanimously to appoint Mr. Smith county manager last Friday.
A self-described man of the people, Mr. Smith is an Island native who has chased a career path in public service for most of his adult life. “It’s a big life and a small Island,” he said. “You can disagree with people, but you have to be able to say you have acted in a manner that has been a benefit to the majority of the people on the Island, or in a town if you’re a selectman. What’s best for the people you’re supposed to be representing?”
He points with pride to a family that goes back 13 generations on the Island. “My grandmother was a Mayhew and my grandfather was a Flanders. My uncle Bob Flanders, who just passed away, used to say, ‘If the Mayhews ever give you any trouble, you just remind them that the Flanders were there to greet them when they got off the boat,’” he said with a laugh.
Growing up, Mr. Smith enjoyed what he calls a dual citizenship between up-Island and down-Island. His mother was from Chilmark, his father from Vineyard Haven. His father worked in the airline business, so he spent many winters off the Island. He bounced around between Florida and the Vineyard and finally landed in New Hampshire, where he graduated from high school. But he and his family always returned to the Vineyard in the summer. He learned to swim at Owen Park and hung out on the docks in Menemsha.
Before enrolling at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth), Mr. Smith spent a winter living on the Vineyard and working for his grandfather, the surveyor Hollis Smith. The experience inspired him to study civil engineering. “Growing up with him, making maps, I got that interest from him,” Mr. Smith said. His grandfather also passed on to him a love of Island history and his Island heritage.
After graduation Mr. Smith took a job with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission as a water quality engineer and planner. “That job brought me back here,” he said. He praised the people he worked with at the commission, including the late Michael Wild, who hired him, and the late Douglas Ewing.
When he took the job, both Tisbury and Edgartown had pulled out of the commission and he recalled the political turbulence of those years. “We worked hard in the early eighties to get them back in the MVC,” he said.
He won the Governor’s Environmental Achievement Award for his work in changing zoning regulations to protect the public water supply in the three down-Island towns.
After seven years at the commission, Mr. Smith took a job as the regional health agent at the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District. He later worked as a private consultant and took a part-time job as the laboratory director for Dukes County. In 1990, neighbors encouraged him to run for selectman in Aquinnah. The greatest lesson he learned? “Don’t argue with the people who buy ink by the barrel,” he joked, quoting an old saw about newspapers.
Mr. Smith served as selectman for six years until taking another political post — legislative liaison for Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington. It is a job he has held since 1996. “I make sure the communities on the Vineyard feel and maintain a working relationship with the legislature and the legislators,” he said. His job includes tracking bills at the State House which may affect the Vineyard. He commutes to Boston on a regular basis.
“I try to explain it to the guys up at the State House in this way — it’s different where you come from than where I come from. Where I’m from, everyone walks down the street with the underlying idea that ‘what I think matters.’ ”
It is an aspect of the Vineyard he thinks is important to preserve. “In a small community, when you take your kids down to the dock, they can see their friend Mary’s father loading the lobster pots or see their friend Billy’s mom getting gas. That gives people a sense of fabric of community, and with it comes a sense of social responsibility. It’s important that we maintain that and I think we do. It’s important that we do,” he said.
He is a passionate advocate for land preservation.
He also believes the Vineyard must take active steps to preserve its town centers. “You have to maintain the four anchor businesses: the pharmacy, the hardware store, the post office, the grocery store,” he said, adding: “To borrow a phrase from Eric Turkington, it’s one Island, six countries. Although there are things we should regionalize, the character should remain provincial.”
He was hesitant to discuss what led him to apply for the county manager post, which has been vacant since E. Winn Davis left office in August 2007. He first applied for the position this fall and was one of three finalists interviewed by the county commission. The search process stalled, however, when the commission decided to readvertise for the position. When they did so, Mr. Smith again threw his hat into the ring, and became one of two finalists. “My view is regional, so it’s a good venue for someone like myself,” he said.
“I’m very excited to have Russell on board,” county commission chairman Leslie Leland told the Gazette last week following the vote. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, a lot of things to do and I think Russell’s the man to do it.”