HARWICH — Danette Gonsalves said she was 13 years old when she started to hear the names of water commissioners and employees in the water department around her kitchen table. The intricacies of the department's operations became more familiar as she grew up.
The flow of water department knowledge came early in her life because her father, Richard Hathaway, served for 21 years as a water commissioner.
“At 13 years of age I started to hear names like Anne Smith, Francis Hibbet, Bruce Cahoon and Chris Zocca,” Gonsalves said of the people who served the department during her father's tenure.
Following in her father's footsteps, Gonsalves spent the past two decades of her life as a water commissioner. She recently notified selectmen that she will be leaving the post in December.
Hathaway served as a commissioner from 1974 to 1995, when Gonsalves stepped into his shoes. She served as an elected water commissioner for 22 years, one year longer than her father.
“I had to do that because our family is very competitive,” she said of outdistancing her dad's years of service.
“It was my father's commitment that drew me. He enjoyed it and was proud of this town.”
Gonsalves is also very proud of the town, having brought up four daughters here and with grandchildren in the Harwich schools. The legacy goes on, she said.
She has always had an interest in the health field and that is why she became a registered nurse. Drinking water was an important part of her interest in the field, and it was also a way to stay connected with the community, she said.
The experience provided an expanded learning process which she extended to her daughters. She said it helped them with science projects in school and health and civic duties. There were times when they would climb onto a boat and go out and take water samples in the harbor with Dr. Stanley Kocot, a long-time chairman of the board of health.
“It made them aware of the environment and our sole-source aquifer and how imperative it is we protect it,” Gonsalves said. Her interest in good health has carried over to her four daughters, all of whom work in the health field. Dr. Amanda Gonsalves Boyd is in her third year of residency in internal medicine at North Carolina; Lauren Gonsalves is an optician; Olivia Gonsalves Vasquez is a certified nurse's aide; and Jennifer Gonsalves is an RN.
Gonsalves' commitment to community was not just related to drinking water. She spent 15 years attending wastewater meetings with Franks Sampson as a member of the water quality task force. She served on the wastewater implementation committee, helping to shape the town's comprehensive wastewater management plan, and on the group that worked on a cost recovery plan for wastewater infrastructure.
Gonsalves has seen the growth of the water department and a number of changes. She said when her father was a commissioner there were about 8,000 customers; now there are 10,100 customers.
She cited the enterprise fund established in 2010 as a major benefit to the department, assisting in maintaining assets and equipment and allowing improvements that lead to the continued recognition of the department by the state Department of Environmental Protection as an award-winning operation. Since DEP began making the awards in 1997, the Harwich Water Department has been recognized “just about every year,” she noted.
The enterprise fund is a special account into which the funds generated by water rates are placed, so that the department can plan and pay for projects without needing to borrow money and pay interest. It has helped establish a better working relationship with the board of selectmen, since there is less of a financial impact on the general fund, Gonsalves said.
Some of the early battles in her tenure included whether the department should allow cell phone antennas to be located on water towers. The commissioner said she was concerned about safety and whether antennas would cause paint degradation. There were also legal issues about access to the department's tanks.
Gonsalves is also proud of the position she took in 2014 when one of the considerations for managing wastewater implementation was to do away with the water commissioners and establish a water and wastewater commission, potentially under the purview of the board of selectmen. She issued a statement opposing the move. “That's what dad would have been most proud of,” she said. “He was very proud of the work the commission has done. Hopefully it continues and we merge to form a five-member wastewater and water commission. ”
Gonsalves pointed to the successes in the department while she has served. They include the building of the Pleasant Lake water tank; the removal of the old Lothrop Avenue tank and the construction of the ground level tank in its place; construction of the Bruce Cahoon green sand treatment facility off Depot Road, which removes iron and manganese; and construction of a similar plant in North Harwich.
Gonsalves said she is very confident the department is running well today. She had great praise for Superintendent Daniel Pelletier, citing his civil engineering degree and his experience in wastewater. “Dan is in the trenches. He's not afraid to get his hands dirty,” Gonsalves said. She also praised the work of the department staff.
“We've made great accomplishments,” Gonsalves said. “I've enjoyed working with and learning from my colleagues for the past 22 years and I am ready to move on to the next phase in my life.”
Gonsalves said she has three grandchildren now with another coming in January, and she wants to be around to help out so the parents can go to work and pay their taxes. The effective date of her “retirement” is Dec. 1, but absent the selectmen having accepted the resignation, Gonsalves said she would remain until candidates come forward to serve.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill said there is presently one candidate expressing interest in serving and the board would like to see more interest in filling the position. The appointment will be made by the selectmen and the commission and that person would serve until May, when the position will appear on the annual town election ballot.