Longtime Marine takes charge as Carbondale’s new town manager
Lauren Gister ready to be a creative problem-solver for community
A robust debate over short-term rentals, a Comprehensive Plan revision that’s now on the table and the politics of an upcoming municipal election welcomed Lauren Gister to her new job as Carbondale town manager this month.
Nothing like diving in.
Gister was most recently the chief town executive for Chester, Connecticut and served for over 25 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
We asked Gister to answer a few questions in the way of an introduction to the Carbondale community and the greater Roaring Fork Valley area.
Where are you from originally, experiences growing up?
I was born and lived in Southern California (Los Angeles County) until the age of 14, when my dad took a job in Hartford, Connecticut, and moved the family cross-country. I grew up riding my bike, hiking in the foothills, wandering through creeks to catch salamanders and snakes, and making my parents crazy with all of the animals I filled our house with. A complete horse nut, I would do just about anything for riding time and spent dawn to dusk at various barns in Azusa Canyon and other places working in exchange for riding opportunities. When I wasn’t riding, you could usually find me lost in a book.
Any family/personal information about yourself you’d like to share?
I am divorced and proud to have four (mostly) adult daughters, who live in Oregon, Texas and Vermont. My youngest is a senior at the University of Vermont, so I mostly live alone with my border collie, Apollo, who is a retired seizure detection dog.
Where did you get your training in local government management?
In 2015, I was elected as First Selectwoman of the Town of Chester, Connecticut, and served three terms in that position until being hired by Carbondale. As the First Selectwoman functions as both Mayor and Town Manager, it was a little bit of trial by fire, but I got most of my training on the job with the help of fabulous staff, state and local agencies, and other elected officials. I am a bit of an autodidact and love learning new things, so I am not afraid to ask questions or seek training in areas that are outside of my experience.
People here may not be familiar with the “selectperson” approach to town government. Explain that, and how that role was different from what you’re doing now.
Chester is governed by an elected Board of Selectmen with a Town Meeting form of government. This uniquely New England governmental structure has changed over the centuries, but the core functions have remained essentially the same. The Board of Selectmen acts as the executive branch of town government, with the First Selectperson as full-time CEO in the roles of both mayor and town manager. The First Selectperson oversees all aspects of municipal government and also serves as police chief, human resources director and local traffic authority. There is a strong cadre of volunteers serving on various boards and commissions that also report to the Board of Selectmen — some of them are elected, and some are appointed by the Board of Selectmen. The Town Meeting is the legislative body of the town and is open to all registered voters and property owners. Budgets, initiatives, ordinances, etc. are all voted upon by the electors of the town, not the Board of Selectmen, although it is often the Board of Selectmen that propose, draft, hold public hearings and present the information to the voters for the final decision.
You were in the military. How did that experience prepare you for public service work?
I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 19, thinking I would complete my required enlistment and have educational benefits to go to college. I really did not think beyond that small goal. Twenty-five years later, I retired as a Marine Major. I joined the Marine Corps because I felt they offered the biggest challenges, especially for a woman at that time. While I was correct in those simple goals, I did not expect that my time as a Marine would shape everything I did in my future professional life. My Marines taught me how to plan and complete a project, how to advocate for change, how to lead and supervise subordinates, how to be a great team member, how to prioritize and juggle multiple tasks, how to think independently and make decisions, and how to view all interactions through a human-centered lens. All of these things I see as vital to public service.
What attracted you to the Carbondale town manager position?
I was originally just playing around online with my daughter looking for jobs for her, when I happened upon the job posting for Carbondale and was immediately intrigued. I have wanted to come back west for quite some time and had grown weary of having to be reelected every two years and the political aspects of my job. I find municipal public service to be rewarding and meaningful, and Carbondale appeared to have all of the aspects of my small town that I loved but with more diversity and in a location that was a good fit.
What do you like so far about Carbondale?
The community spirit and creative orientation, engaged residents, loads of sunshine, the connection to the earth and nature, a fiscally sound government and professional, skilled and friendly staff and officials, just to name a few things.
What do you like most about local government management, and what kind of approach do you bring to the job?
I am very people oriented and believe strongly in doing what is best for the town and its residents. I think local government is more apt to be nonpartisan and able to work together to be creative in problem solving for the needs of the community. I believe in listening, having frank discussions (especially with those folks whose views do not align) and in having fun together as friends and neighbors.
What are the biggest challenges facing small towns like Carbondale?
As the world gets more specialized and complex, small towns often struggle to do more and more with a very limited staff. Meeting the needs of the whole demographic is more and more difficult, and the resolutions need more creative thinking and problem solving. Workforce housing, climate protection, sustainability, water conservation, infrastructure maintenance and services, such as mental health, addiction and recovery, food insecurity and senior support, require teamwork and time that is in shorter supply.
What personal interests do you have, and what do you like to do in your off time?
I love to read, dance, play the violin, ride horses, camp and walk. I have also been researching family genealogy for many years in my spare time.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to all kinds of music but am particularly partial to old time fiddle, bluegrass, country, folk and swing.
Reading any good books currently?
I am currently reading “The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson, a novel about climate change. I recently finished “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart and a couple of books by William Kent Krueger and Louise Penny.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.