By LOU WILIN
VAN BUREN — Ed May is the longest-serving mayor of a Hancock County village with 30 years at the helm in Van Buren.
This month he began his eighth straight term to lead the village of about 420 people. He was reelected again last November.
It’s been a good run for May, 64, and his hometown. The village used to have a collection of private water wells and septic tanks that were beginning to raise the eyebrows of concerned scientists at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Today, thanks to May’s leadership, Van Buren has public water and sanitary sewer service and its storm sewer system has been replaced.
Van Buren has become a zoned community and made a variety of other improvements.
But to begin that ride, May had to shake things up a little bit.
When he first became a village councilman in 1988, he noticed village officials lacked vision.
“Basically we had a council that wasn’t focused on the future,” he said. “It was focused more on day-to-day activities.”
So in 1989, he ran against the sitting mayor, and unseated him. That itself was a feat, but winning an election and governing are two different things. The next phase of May’s mission required a different skillset: leading people to where they had not ever thought of going, and did not necessarily want to go because it meant leaving the security of what they knew.
But he did not want to be deciding everything. It often happens in little villages that the mayor becomes a kind of de facto king who decides everything and the council a mere rubber stamp that follows along. Van Buren once was like that.
“It was all done by the mayor,” May said.
It was a new thing for Van Buren when Mayor May established council committees responsible for various aspects of village operations and life. Each committee, chaired by a council member, is responsible for identifying issues and proposing ideas or solutions to address them.
“So people have ownership,” May said. “We actually changed the mindset of our culture when I became mayor.”
He also challenged council members.
“We just had private water wells, private sewers, septic tanks, and I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to start moving this town into the next generation,” May said. “So let’s start thinking out of the box what we need to do.'”
By the end of the 1990s Van Buren had water and sewer service installed with help from the City of Findlay. Van Buren also has replaced its storm sewers.
But those things have all been expensive undertakings for the little village. Residents also had to start paying bimonthly water and sewer bills.
“I would say there were a few people (for whom) it was more of a culture shock of changing things,” he said. “After a while they started to see a benefit of the water and sewer.”
What they were forking over in water and sewer bills was more than offset by cost savings: Residents’ refrigerators, microwaves and other appliances were lasting longer since they were no longer using the high-sulfur well water.
Van Buren keeps reelecting Ed May for mayor.
He seems to be meant for it all. His Van Buren family roots go back to 1842, when May’s great-great-grandfather, Peter May, came from Germany to become the fifth person to settle in Van Buren. He owned a business making wagons. He also became the maintenance man for the local phone company and Ed May’s great-great-grandmother, Lilly May, became the switchboard operator.
May’s grandparents, Kenneth “Ted” and Edith May, then became involved in the phone company in the 1930s. Ted became a linesman and Edith became the switchboard operator. The couple also became large shareholders in the village’s phone system for decades up to the 1960s. The switchboard was in their home at 100 East Market, and young Ed May and his parents, Kenneth and Helen May, lived next door.
Seeing his grandfather installing phone lines for the phone company likely formed and informed Ed May for his later days overseeing installation of water and sewer utilities in Van Buren and serving as field services manager for Marathon. In his Marathon job, May managed the purchase and maintenance of right of way for pipelines.
“I think there was a drive of pride that I lived in Van Buren, so I wanted Van Buren to be the best of the best,” May said. But as many an official who has held public office can attest, even when you do the right things, you can accumulate a list of critics and enemies.
May said he tries to stay ahead of those things by being transparent and keeping open communications through the village website and social media. In those places, he posts information and receives feedback.
“I want to hear the heartbeat,” he said.
“Are we going to make everybody happy? No, but our goal is to make 90-some percent happy,” he said. “I think if you can be open and honest and share exactly how you feel and not criticize somebody with a different opinion. Diversity is the best. If we can have diversity in the community, make sure we hear all the voices, because if you hear all of the voices, then you can make the right decision.”
“It all boils back to treating people how you want to be treated. If you do that, life is a lot easier,” May said. “Are they going to agree with you 100 percent? No, and that’s OK. It’s OK to have a different opinion. But the decision is, what’s best for Van Buren. I keep telling my council, ‘You’ve got to keep going back to that: what is best for Van Buren.'”
Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an E-mail to Lou Wilin