STOCKBRIDGE — After more than 31 years in local government, Town Administrator Jorja-Ann P. Marsden has notified the Selectboard that she intends to retire in six months.
"It's an occasion of joy for someone and sadness for the rest of us," said Selectman Stephen Shatz as he made the announcement at last week's meeting.
Marsden's departure could set the stage for discussions on whether the shared services agreement with Stockbridge's municipal partners, Lenox and Lee, eventually could involve the top job in town government. In Lee, Town Administrator Robert Nason has indicated he expects to resign when his current contract expires in June 2017.
After Shatz described her plan as a "resignation," Marsden emphasized that it's a retirement, amid laughter from the crowd at Monday night's session.
"No, just resignation from this position," Shatz explained. "It's not a retirement, that's different. No one goes off into retirement, Jorja."
Turning serious, he said "this is very difficult, it's not the occasion for a celebration that will come to honor her work, someone who's given over 30 years of her working career to this town. To say that we will miss her is the grossest of understatements."
"It's just impossible to replace someone like this," he added, citing not just her institutional memory but her "care and concern for people."
Marsden has worked in every Stockbridge town department and committee over the three decades.
"I am going to miss it, this has been my whole life, I have to admit," she said. "Ever since I was a little girl, I've done things for the town of Stockbridge, my dad was very active and as a child I would work every year setting up chairs for the Memorial Day Parade."
In a followup Eagle interview, when asked whether recent divisiveness and controversy in town had factored into her decision to step aside, Marsden responded: "Definitely not."
During the Selectboard meeting, Shatz described her service to the town as "an extraordinary run, not one that you see very often in public life. Public service represents a sacrifice, and Jorja has sacrificed beyond most. I'm in awe of the ability of someone who's been able to do this as well as you have for so long."
Resident Mary C. Green saluted Marsden: "Jorja has truly made a difference; she's just irreplaceable."
In her retirement letter, Marsden wrote that she "looked forward to the advantages of shared services with our neighboring towns, especially Lee and Lenox." Marsden also cited the potential benefits of the community compact involving 17 Berkshire towns and six school districts represented by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
The agreement could lead to sharing of services, personnel and equipment, as described during a signing ceremony on Dec. 22 at Great Barrington Town Hall led by Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, described as "an historic occasion."
Hinting at the search for a successor amid intense focus on the collaboration agreement with Lenox and Lee, Shatz said that "this will begin an interesting process for the Board of Selectmen, which is tied up in the whole concept and the discussions of shared services. We haven't had an opportunity to discuss this in any detail, we will be very soon."
He emphasized that the discussion will take place "not in executive session, but very much in the open. Stay tuned for more, it's going to come sooner rather than later."
In Lenox, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen offered Marsden "congratulations on a long career of public service and on a well-deserved retirement. It's going to be really difficult to fill those shoes."
"If there's anything through the shared services municipal agreement between the three towns that Lenox can do to explore opportunities, I eagerly look forward to that dialogue," Ketchen added.
Marsden, a graduate of the former Stockbridge Plain School and Williams High School, has been town administrator since 1996, served as town clerk from 1985 to 1997, and had been assistant collector and assistant treasurer. Previously, after graduating from the Berkshire Business School in Pittsfield, she was employed by the Red Lion Inn and the former Lenox Machine Co.
"I've lived here all my life, so I don't expect to move," she said. "Beyond July 15, I'm leaving my options open."
Her husband is Robert Marsden, and their son Christopher Marsden is the town's facilities manager and emergency services director.
Her grandfather served the town for many years as fire chief; her great-grandfather helped build Procter Hall, the former Town Hall building next to the First Congregational Church. Marsden's parents were the late Francis and Anna Pilling.