A Legacy of Municipal Management: Spotlight on Theresa Porter

Sitting in the office she's held since the 1980s is City Clerk Theresa Porter. Porter, who has worked in the City Building for 35 years, follows in the footsteps of her mother, Jean Robb, who retired after 20 years as city controller. (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson

 

Downeast Maine is a place of legacies, where families continue traditions generation after generation. For some families, their legacy may be tied to working in the woods, for others, it’s related to military service. For Theresa Porter, her personal and family roots are strongly tied to the City Building, where she has worked for the past 35 years. 

As one of ten children born to Jean Marie (Hollingdale) Robb and Bernard (Bunny) Robb, Porter grew up on Spring Street in Calais. Her mother, Jean, began working in the City Building as city controller in 1967, a position similar to that of the finance director of today. In 1977, Porter was in the first class to have graduated from the newly constructed Calais Middle High School. She married her high school sweetheart, Jim Porter, and together they began to raise a family. 

After graduating, Porter worked a few jobs around town, including in the payroll department of Norwock Shoe, then later in the bakery and deli department at the IGA. In July of 1982, her mother called her and asked her if she would like to help out at the City Building during the conversion of sewer billing from a flat rate to one based on water usage. “There was a lot of pre-work that needed to be done to accomplish that merge between the sewer accounts and water accounts,” Porter recalls. What was supposed to be only a few weeks project evolved into a full-time job when Porter took on the roles of an employee in the process of leaving.

Porter’s primary task was that of tax collection. At the time, in November of 1982, there were a total of eleven full-time employees in the city building, a sharp contrast to the five that work there today. The difference is largely attributable to technological improvements, Porter explained.

“When I started in 1982, everything was done manually,” Porter said, describing how she’d have to handwrite receipts. “I remember being so excited when we got the data entry terminals. We thought it was just great. Then, of course, things again changed when we got the internet. It’s been a learning experience, that’s for sure.” Now, people can pay their taxes online and compiling and maintaining records is significantly faster. By way of illustration, Porter indicated a stack of sewer liens she had processed earlier that morning; decades ago the same work would have taken her weeks to accomplish.

In 1987, as the technological improvements were beginning to sweep the office, Porter’s mother retired from her position. At the time, Nancy Orr was city manager and the city was moving swiftly into the computer age, something that Porter’s mother was slow to adapt to. “Mom still used a manual typewriter when I started here,” Porter recalls. “There were electric ones, but she preferred the manual. She did data entry into the computer system, but that was before the internet. She never worked with that at all.”

There have been many other changes in the City Building since Porter has started. When she was first hired in 1982, Bill Bridges was the city manager, work that he continues today for the city of Augusta. In the 35 years that Porter has worked for the city, she has served with 13 mayors and 8 city managers. Her favorite city manager, unsurprisingly, is her husband, Jim, who began working with the city in the early 1990s as the first full-time code enforcement officer. Working in the City Building itself has been an evolving experience. At one time, the building housed the Superintendent of Schools, the Headstart Office, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the District Attorney. “The building was full,” Porter recalls.

Other changes have been societal. When Porter first started, people could smoke at their desks. Then, they were only allowed to smoke in the breakroom, and then it was only outside. “The general public made it a lot easier to quit smoking because of the places you were unable to smoke.” She herself quit smoking as a result.

As a result of having fewer employees, the city building has undergone a major restructuring of duties. Porter’s job now includes acting as the welfare director, registrar of voters, and handling accounts payable, in addition to the duties of the city clerk which she took on officially in 1990.

The most challenging parts of Porter’s job are related to welfare, she said. “It’s all confidential. There are a lot of sob stories, but there are also a lot of lies that come through. That’s something I have found difficult to deal with, at times,” Porter admits. On the other hand, she finds assisting people who do have genuine need to be highly rewarding.

Assisting the townsfolk with genealogy is another highlight Porter enjoys. She researches through older records to come up with birth, death, and marriage records, occasionally uncovering something that the requestor wasn’t aware of. “Sometimes we’ll stumble on something that they’d never heard of and they’re just ecstatic that it’s going to lead them down another path. Some people are so fanatical about genealogy,” Porter said with a chuckle.

As a public notary, Porter has performed as many as 200 weddings, a process that has also changed over time. When she first started working at the City Building, requesting a marriage license came with a waiting period of up to five days. Now, after submitting their application, aspiring spouses need only wait an hour before becoming wed. Sometimes they become wed on the spot in Porter’s office, or just outside the building.

“Elections are fun in other ways,” Porter shared. “You get out of the office and you get to see everybody.” The city’s recently-acquired voting machines have made the process much smoother. “It used to be something that would take us into the wee hours of the morning to count, now, we can press a button and have that information at our hands ten minutes after voting has closed.” In the past, Porter recalls when there would be three or four ballots to process, and she and her helpers had to come back the following day to count the referendum vote due to being so tired.

When she reflects on her and her family’s contributions to keeping the city’s municipal affairs in order, Porter feels a sense of pride. She fondly remembers how in the earlier years people would come in after having been away to ask if her mother still worked there, and how later her mother and father would come in to assist her. “They used to come in and help out on ballot elections,” Porter explained. “Two of my sisters did as well, and my daughter, too.” By chance the interview took place on the five-year anniversary of Jean Robb’s death; Bunny Robb passed away seven years ago. For her part, Porter plans to continue working at the City Building until she retires in seven or eight years.

Upon retiring, Porter doesn’t have any extravagant plans other than enjoying time with her family at their camp on Howard Lake. “I’m a huge advocate of family fun,” Porter said. She has several grandchildren of various ages, and spending time with them and her other relatives is a constant source of joy. While her siblings live all over the United States, Porter has never been inclined to live elsewhere. “I like it here,” she states assuredly, a statement handily reinforced by her enduring commitment to the city.