ELLSWORTH — Three decades is a long time to commit to any one thing, yet John Fink spent the last 30 years as a volunteer on the city’s Planning Board. He first joined as an alternate in 1991, became a full member in 1995 and served as the board’s elected chairman since 1999. He stepped down effective Feb. 2.
“John is the end of an era, literally,” former City Planner Michele Gagnon observed, adding, “When you’re elected chair for 22 years, that speaks pretty highly.”
Fink was on the board before Gagnon arrived and continued on after she left, and through the next three city planners. In a sense, he came full circle, as Gagnon’s former assistant, Elena Piekut, now sits in the city planner’s seat.
“We’ve lost a very valuable member of the Planning Board,” said Vice Chairman John DeLeo, who joined the board in 2017, in announcing Fink’s resignation. “He’s done a great job for the city of Ellsworth.”
As often happens, Fink followed in his father’s footsteps. His father served as chairman of the Hancock Planning Board.
“I overheard meetings because they used to happen at home back then,” Fink said. “I was interested in what they were doing, and when the vacancy came up on the Ellsworth board, I applied for it.”
A self-described “rabid audiophile,” Fink worked as a technical writer in the hi-fi industry, and also as a general jack-of-all-trades, he recalled, before turning to full-time freelance educational and technical writing. At age 77, he is fully retired from his profession and now from the Planning Board, too.
“I’d been on so long, I wondered if I was just doing things by rote and not really seeing what’s around me,” he said.
But listening to any of the meeting video recordings shows that was not at all the case.
“John Fink has been such a calming presence on the sometimes tense environment of a Planning Board meeting,” current City Planner Piekut said. “Mostly I am awed at the mental, emotional and ethical stamina I know it takes to donate your time month after month, for three continuous decades.”
And, she added, “he’s also a generous, welcoming, and thoughtful member of the community. When I moved back to Ellsworth, I brought vintage kitchen appliances and audio equipment he had carefully refurbished and gifted to me as a kid with her first own apartment 10 years ago.”
Thirty years can bring changes to a city that has grown in population as Ellsworth has. When Fink first came on, not only was the city planner position vacant, there was no Unified Development Ordinance and, Fink said, “council after council essentially ignored” the commercial site plan development ordinance.
“That got the board, in those years, very discouraged about doing anything, because we were shut down,” he recalled.
After the Unified Development Ordinance was adopted in 2012, life on the Planning Board became easier, Fink said. But there always seems to be a gap between what the ordinance says and what the community wants. “Always,” he repeated. “My advice has been, get involved. The ordinances can be changed but people have to want to work at it. You can present things to the city, you can ask for changes. But essentially, the board itself is not equipped to do that.”
Gagnon recalls Fink as nonjudgmental and fair.
“He has said, ‘I’ve voted on so many projects that I did not like or didn’t necessarily agree with, but you know what? They met and complied with the ordinance,’” she recalled.
“He really was fair,” she emphasized. “He was fair to the applicant, he was fair to his staff and respectful. You felt that it wasn’t [the developers] against us, it was all of us together trying to move a project.”
But after 30 years, Fink said he no longer looked forward to the first Wednesday of each month when the board meets.
“I thought, 30 years, it’s time,” he said. “I’m comfortable with the direction the board is going and the expertise of the members.”