Martin Shanks has a funny way to describe his job for the many people who aren’t familiar with what a village administrator is or does.
“Usually when I say I’m a village administrator, most people have no idea what that means at all,” Shanks said. “When people ask what I do, I say, ‘Do you know Rob Lowe’s character on (the TV show) Parks and Rec? That’s what I am.’”
Lowe’s character, Chris Traeger, held the title of City Manager throughout the majority of his time in the fictional world in Pawnee, Indiana.
After that pop culture reference, people seem to understand Shanks’ job a little more — one he’s held for the Village of Poynette since 2017. For the past four years, Shanks has been a jack-of-all-trades in helping manage the village.
“It’s a crazy position and you wear a lot of hats, especially in Poynette where we don’t have as big of a staff,” he said. “I’m doing everything from human resources and financial management, to just general project management for everything. It’s widely varied from day to day.”
Shanks is also the zoning administrator for the village.
“The people you elect — most of our officials have full-time jobs — don’t really know how to run a multi-million dollar organization with multiple departments,” he said. “When you explain it to people that way, they seem to get why it makes sense to hire an administrator to oversee everything.”
But after four years, Shanks will be stepping down as Poynette’s Village Administrator for “an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up.” He will take the same position for the Village of Oregon. Shanks, wasn’t looking to leave at all, but the job in Oregon was too tempting.
“I wasn’t really looking for a job or anything, because I like being here,” Shanks said. “That job popped up and looked really interesting from a personal and professional standpoint. I threw my name in there and happened to get it.”
Shanks’ last day in Poynette is Friday, April 30 — marking exactly four years with the village. The Village Administrator in Oregon is retiring after 22 years, so Shanks knows he is walking into a stable community.
“I don’t have to pick up something that hasn’t been worked on for an ‘X’ amount of years,” he said.
That wasn’t the case when Shanks arrived in Poynette in 2017, where he had a “challenge” before him. The administrator before him stayed 1.5 years and the two before that each stayed about 2.5 years. Shanks added there were five different administrators in the nine years before him.
“So I’m coming in and there’s these things that were half-done thoughts and projects,” Shanks said. “The administrators did a good job, but they weren’t here long, so things weren’t completed.”
The village had a lot of other turnover in the years before Shanks. Village Clerk Natalie Megow started a year before he did, but before her, there were three clerks in the previous four years.
“So Poynette really didn’t have consistency, and things weren’t getting done,” Shanks said. “I’m really proud of the consistency and stability that I either helped bring about, or just happened to be part of.”
There has been zero turnover with department heads under Shanks.
“Poynette is real fortunate to have high-quality department heads,” he said. “That’s definitely a hard thing to walk away from.”
When he arrived in Poynette, there were two big things that he wanted to work on. It’s the two things he’s now most proud.
“When I came here, one of the things I noticed is that some of the village’s financials needed better planning,” Shanks said. “The water and sewer utilities were operating without any cash. They would make enough money to cover their annual operations and debt payments, but they had no money at the end of year.”
Within a few years, both utilities had positive ending balances, with plenty to spare — essentially getting them “back on track.”
Shanks is most proud of the financial management the village has had in the last four years. The village was also able to put together a Capital Improvement Plan that looked at the next five to 10 years.
“We looked at not only what we need to do, but how do we pay for it,” he said.
Shanks said those financial situations were better after about two years on the job, which made it easier for the village to accomplish even more — four major infrastructure projects, work throughout the parks and replacing old equipment for the Public Works Department and Police Department. And the village did all that without raising taxes, as Shanks said they were “effectively flat” during his four years.
He was also proud of the work the Parks and Recreation Commission has done, finishing its five-year plan, which blossomed into a Jamieson Park master plan and other improvements. The village will also complete its North/South trail project this summer and is currently working to acquire land to expand Jamieson Park.
“I’m proud of being involved in that because there is good stuff there,” he said, adding that two huge projects came through during his four years.
“We’ve had two huge developmental projects with Research Products and the new Poynette Elementary School,” Shanks said. “I’m very proud of that — the size and scale of those projects is not something the village has had to deal with in decades.”
“We got a lot done and accomplished our goals and objectives,” Shanks added of his tenure.
Shanks taking the next step in his career
Even though Shanks wasn’t looking for a new job, he is following the trend within his field when he takes over in Oregon.
“Traditionally, the trajectory of this profession is that you become an assistant when you get out of college, then you go to smaller community,” Shanks said. “Then once you have a few years in, you kind of have enough experience to say, ‘I can go to a bigger community, or stay with the smaller community.’”
Shanks was an assistant city administrator in Monroe for five years before coming to Poynette. He said that with his time in Poynette, he is now ‘certified’ in the eyes of those bigger communities.
He said that because Oregon is a bigger community — about four times the size of Poynette — there is a lot more things to work on.
“They’re growing really fast,” Shanks said. “They have three subdivisions going on, and they’re looking at a new Village Hall, a new library and a new senior center all within the next couple of years. So it just seemed really exciting and had a lot of interesting things going on, things I’m interested in.”
What’s next for Poynette?
The Poynette Village Board, along with a a hired recruitment firm will search for a new administrator — a search that is estimated to take a few months.
Whomever the village hires, Shanks knows it will be a qualified candidate who has good templates in front of them to continue moving Poynette forward. He also sees some specifics to focus on in the near future.
“There’s going to be a big focus on housing and development,” he said. “Some of that seems to be pushing our way from Dane County. There’s been a couple of multiple-family projects that have come up and are still being considered. We have the undeveloped subdivision on the west side (of the village) that is for sale. So over the next five years, there’s going to be a lot of discussion on housing projects, how the village will handle those and how they can encourage those to happen.”
Shanks also noted that keeping a tight grip on how the financials are managed, will be key to the continued success.
Not totally saying goodbye to Poynette
There will be a lot that Shanks will miss about Poynette, and it starts with the people he’s worked with on a daily basis, as well as the various elected officials.
“I don’t think people realize how professional the Village Board is,” he said. “They take care of things pretty efficiently and generally get along. They put a lot of trust in this position and the staff. I tell the staff to appreciate what they have because it is not like this everywhere else.”
It’s the daily interactions Shanks will miss most — interactions like the one when he told Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Davy Tomlinson via email that we was stepping down. Tomlinson jokingly responded with, “What?? Jerk.”
“Everyone here takes the work we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Shanks said.
While Shanks will be leaving Poynette professionally, people may see him around the village. His wife still has family in Poynette and Shanks is interested in seeing the progression of projects each time he and his wife — along with their one-year old child — comes back to visit.
‘There’s some really good people here that are doing great things,” he said.