Westhampton’s Dowling: ‘It’s time’ to step down

  • Westhampton Select Board Chair Phil Dowling, seen in front of Town Hall, is leaving the position after nine years of service. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Westhampton Select Board Chair Phil Dowling is leaving the position after nine years of service. Here he stands in front of Westhampton Town Hall. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/2/2023 1:07:35 PM

WESTHAMPTON — As a longtime member of the chief executive body in town, Phillip Dowling has seen a lot of matters come before the Select Board.

From disputes over dog bites and financial obstacles to procurement and hiring, Dowling has worn several hats over the last nine years.

Now, after completing his third term on the board of which he currently serves as chairperson, Dowling has decided to step down.

“I think it’s time for another person to step in,” he told the Gazette.

While the volunteer positions in municipal government are often referred to as a service to the community, Dowling calls his involvement in town government “participation” as he feels like it’s a healthy way to interact with neighbors and the greater community.

Among the highlights of his involvement on the Select Board, he said his efforts on the Library Building Committee is near the top. As the chairperson of that committee, he spent five to six years of his life helping a landmark building come to the town’s center from start to finish.

His experience, he says, is something that he’d like to catalog in a book, detailing how the initiative failed when it was first presented at Town Meeting.

In the end, Dowling said the project brought people from throughout the community together.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but what we found out is that the project would not have been the same had it been approved at the first vote. Through hardship, like many things, we learned and grew from it,” he said. “Initially someone laughed when I said we could raise $150,000. Instead, we raised over $1 million in little Westhampton.”

Other projects he was particularly proud of include the Hampshire Regional High School renovation project and the new 10,400-square-foot public safety complex, which opened earlier this year.

Throughout his tenure on the board, the community has also undergone several changes, including the creation of an interactive municipal website, which is currently getting another revamp as the need for data security and protection continues to evolve, and the municipality received a “green community” designation after pledging to reduce energy use and implement clean energy projects.

Much like other western Massachusetts communities, Westhampton had to get creative during the COVID-19 pandemic. The annual Town Meeting was held outdoors behind the high school and was attended by 300 residents.

“I think the Select Board is interesting because you never know what’s going to happen. Our meetings are open and we encourage people to participate. Westhampton tends to be a lot less formal than other towns in that process, so when people show up with concerns or issues, there could be up to two dozen different issues — you just never know,” he said.

Dowling also spoke proudly of the board’s effort to create a healthier stabilization account. At this May’s Town Meeting, for example, residents approved the purchase of a $360,300 dump truck with spreader and wing plow. Following the approval of that transfer of funds, residents approved the transfer of $350,000 from free cash to the stabilization fund.

“When I got on the Select Board, we had $26,000 in stabilization. Over the last nine years we’ve been saving money and we’re able to pay for equipment with cash,” he said. “We’re fortunate with our town departments that don’t spend down their budgets at the end of the year. Instead, they save it and it gives the town some buffer for the next year.”

In addition to his time on the Select Board, Dowling has served on the Zoning Board of Appeals, Board of Health and as the town representative for the Hilltown Resource Management Cooperative.

With a little more time on his hands these days, Dowling intends to devote more time to some of the hobbies he’s taken up since his retirement from his painting company five years ago. Among those hobbies is photography. He’s set a goal to make a few documentaries.

He also hopes to travel more with his wife.

Reflecting on his role on the Select Board, he offered the next member some advice of being “flexible” and constantly conscious of what is said during public sessions or outside of that as being a member of the town’s executive branch can make a difference.

“It’s a mixed bag for someone serving on this board. You walk that line of being a human being on a casual person-to-person level versus not coming across as an administrator, and there are always surprises and things that you’ve never dealt with before,” he said. “You need to be deliberate and you need to be kind. For me, it’s certainly been an honor.”

Saturday election

Two candidates have stepped up to vie for Dowling’s seat on the Select Board: Jonathan Albitz and Susan Bronstein. The race is the only contested election on the ballot.

There are several vacant seats on Westhampton’s ballot. Of the four open seats on the Finance Committee, only two candidates are running. Incumbent Jeremy Durrin and Jennifer Milikowsky are in line for the two of the three available three-year seats on the committee while no one is running for the one-year term.

Incumbent Peter Cleary is also the only listed candidate for the two, three-year seats on the School Committee. However, Town Clerk Katrin Kaminsky said Julia Lennen has indicated a willingness to be a write-in candidate for the other seat.

Polls are open Saturday from at 8 a.m. to noon at Town Hall.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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