HONESDALE, PA — The few months of lag between learning you’ve won an election and getting sworn into office must feel like purgatory for many first-time electees. But for Derek …
HONESDALE, PA — The few months of lag between learning you’ve won an election and getting sworn into office must feel like purgatory for many first-time electees. But for Derek Williams, the new mayor-elect of Honesdale, it’s been a time for preparation, not for biding time. With his day job as an employee in the Wayne County Planning Department and his passion for curating local festivals and events, developing plans comes naturally to Williams.
A champion of traveling through town on foot whenever possible, Williams’ “walking for mayor” campaign was built on the philosophy that good leadership and policy-making comes from face-to-face conversations between residents and elected officials. As he puts it, meeting somebody on the sidewalk and discussing local issues that affect them directly is “the ultimate icebreaker.”
His grassroots campaign-style won over enough residents to firmly secure his win in the 2021 municipal elections over incumbent mayor Sarah Canfield. Williams garnered nearly 60 percent of the votes.
Though the campaign is over, Williams said his conversations with residents have only gotten more frequent.
“It’s been a pretty trippy time; there’s a natural dam before you become mayor, and now that dam is open,” he said. “The conversations just keep rolling in—people coming up to me to talk about this issue or that—and that’s really exciting to me. It shows that people are really interested in the process and that they really want to get involved. And it shows that Honesdale’s bigger than you realize.”
It’s largely up to each individual mayor how involved they get in the day-to-day workings of local government. In addition to the mandatory municipal training that takes place now and brushing up on Pennsylvania’s laws around the mayorship, Williams is using this interim period to decide how he’ll shape his time in office.
“I want to make sure I focus on the most important information and from there, map out what the mayor’s office looks like,” he said. “Inviting the people I’ve spoken with to come speak at borough meetings, perhaps forming a loose kind of task force system... I want to make sure I’ve got my head on straight so I can kind of put my mind into overdrive.”
Williams is also working on putting together a “summary report” gleaned both from the conversations he’s been having with other residents and what he learns through performing this new role, a document he’d use to help guide his decision-making and to share with the public.
“Come January [upon getting sworn in], even for a person like me who is pretty well informed, there’s going to be so much to learn,” Williams said. “I’d love to issue a ‘state of the sidewalk’ report that lets us know firsthand what we’re working with and have that be a document that’s free to be shared. Just right from the start, talk to people about the process.”
This attitude—“hyper-open-source transparency” as he calls it—is one that Williams said will be a central pillar of his leadership, wanting the position to be something the public feels they have equal access to as he does.
“It’s as if the keys to the mayor’s office are being shared with the everybody,” he said. “That way, not only are they learning what the mayor could do, but how the mayor could do it. And through that style, I think residents will know they can count on me for open and honest expression of everything I take with me.”
He’ll also be pushing for better borough transparency beyond the scope of the mayor’s duties. Honesdale Borough Council meets on the first and third Monday of every month, for example. As the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated restrictions on public gatherings, the borough was forced to hastily transition into completely virtual meetings. Since then, there have been some hybrid in-person meetings that were still streamed live for remote listeners. But just recently, the borough has returned to fully in-person meetings without a virtual option. To that, Williams says, why turn back now?
“Accessibility should only move in one direction; we should be making it more accessible, not scaling it back because COVID cases are going down,” Williams said. “Apart from just making the trip, meetings are at 6 p.m., which is right around dinner time for a lot of people, and it seems obvious that more people participate when there’s a virtual option than when it’s just in person.”
And the option to dial in is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of increasing participation. Williams said that meetings could be restructured to be less dominated by the seven-member council. In its current form, residents have a chance to make public comment during a prescribed portion at the top of the meeting. Williams would like to see the option for making public comment throughout the meeting as different topics and actions come up.
“As an attendee, it’s difficult to always have everything in mind that you want to talk about, because you don’t necessarily know how the conversation’s going to go as the meeting goes down the line,” he said. “I’d also love to hear other people chime in more often—public works director Dan Brown, the chief of police—get more feedback from the people who are so knowledgeable about what they do.”
If you’re looking for the new mayor sometime next year, your best bet to find him may be by simply taking a walk downtown. That’s the way Williams said he hopes to continue meeting and connecting with residents: getting together with folks for mobile office hours, strolling from one end of town to the other and pointing out what improvements could be made along the way.
“This opportunity to work with council members, fellow residents, employees, state representatives—it’s a chance that’s very precious to me,” he said. “A town is a living breathing thing. Some of it we take for granted, but it’s all connected, and if we can make those connections more top of mind, maybe more people will want to get involved in it.”
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