WESTERLY — Lifelong Pawcatuck resident Michael J. Spellman has been named 2019 Citizen of the Year by the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce.
In its announcement, the chamber said that Spellman was the unanimous choice of the selection committee for the award — “the highest profile honor in our community.”
In his long career in law enforcement, Spellman, 56, has served as the chief of police for the City of Groton since August 2017. He worked as a patrolman for the City of Groton from February 2014 to August 2017, after retiring as a lieutenant from the Connecticut State Police, serving from 1987 to 2012.
Spellman also served as a selectman in the Town of Stonington from December 2014 to November 2017.
Beth Frenette, chairman of the board of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, called Spellman an exceptional community leader.
“He has dedicated a tremendous amount of his personal time to local government and has shown a great deal of support to nonprofits in the community,” she said. “He is known as a dynamic, thoughtful and generous leader who believes passionately in giving back.”
The Citizen of the Year award was established in 1957 to recognize “outstanding leadership and exceptional contributions to the Westerly-Pawcatuck community.”
Criteria for selection include the candidate’s leadership role in the community and specific contributions in business, civic or nonprofit organizations promoting the community image and improving the quality of life in the area, as well as personal and professional characteristics such as integrity, creativity, communication skills and broad social perspectives. Last year's winner was Westerly financial adviser Malcolm Makin, one of the major fundraisers for the Ocean Community YMCA.
At his office last week, Spellman said he was honored by the award, which he did not expect.
“They got me good because they managed to keep it a surprise, which is not easy to do,” he said, as he recalled Frenette arriving with the delivery of a large fruit basket from the chamber.
“I said, what’s going on? And next thing they told me what happened and I busted out laughing.”
He said the chamber also managed to keep the secret from his wife, Heather. The couple have been married for 28 years and have two children, Mike and Hannah.
Turning to a stack of papers on his desk, Spellman said he was in the middle of budget season for the 2019-20 fiscal year, a task that include negotiating contracts for equipment that would help his staff do their jobs more efficiently.
“It’s good to be innovative because we don’t have the same resources and you win with people,” he said. “If you can empower people to make decisions, which can help them do the job and makes their job easier.”
Spellman has made a life of public service and empowering others. As selectman, he donated 100 percent of his earnings as a public official to the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center and was instrumental in the collaboration of Stonington and Westerly in executing the Bricks and Murals program in 2017. He was also a leader in the push toward bringing internet service to downtown Pawcatuck. He has testified before Congress in support of the Stonington fishing fleet, and was a backer of wild and scenic status for rivers in the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association — a designation that was signed into law on March 12.
Spellman said he was working on bringing to the City of Groton the Citizens with Autism Safety System, which Stonington adopted in 2017. The system, which won a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Award, helps police and emergency service personnel locate missing people who have autism and provides training on how to interact with them when found.
Spellman said he wanted to use the autism system as a model for dealng with people with dementia. “My hope for it is that we can spread the concept we started over there toward people who have dementia and provide a service that community needs,” he said.
Reflecting on his professional career and civic service, Spellman said he felt it was important to build ties to the community. He has served as a volunteer coach for the Groton Mystic Falcons Football League, as a member of the Permanent Columbus Day Parade Committee, as a mentor for the Westerly Public Schools, and as a judge for the Mystic Irish Parade. He is also known as a strong supporter of Stonington’s public schools and served as a member of the West Broad Street School Use Committee.
He also stressed the importance of involvement in local government “because you make things better when you do.”
“Sometimes it’s hard because when you’re in government, you’re the person who has to say no, and figure out what the needs versus the wants are,” he said. “It’s is a balancing act.”
When might he retire? Spellman said he plans to emulate his father, James L. Spellman, who served as Stonington’s first selectman from 1961 through 1985.
“My dad left at the top of his game, he retired at 65 and would have easily won re-election,” he said. “I don’t want to hold a position just to hold a position, I want to make a difference.”
Spellman will be honored at the chamber’s annual meeting at 6 p.m. on June 19 at the Venice Restaurant in Westerly. The event will include a silent auction entitled “The Great Escape” with more than 150 items for sale. The event is open to the public. Tickets are $75 and seating is limited. Corporate tables of 10 are available for $1,000 for parties that include an ad in the program. For more information, call 401-596-7761.