This was a sad week for those involved in government service in the Town of Mashpee. Not only did 20-year selectman John J. Cahalane die, but another longtime advocate and former selectman, Judy M. Mills, died this week after a battle with cancer.
She was 71 and married to William C. Mills.
Mashpee residents who knew her and served with her throughout her tenure said much of Mashpee’s conservation efforts and green space currently existing in town had much to do with her. Also, the water pumped to residents by the Mashpee Water District is in part thanks to her.
Ms. Mills was an inaugural member of the board of commissioners who oversaw the newly created water district, a member of the Mashpee Conservation Commission, as well as the Mashpee Planning Board all during the 1980s and 1990s. She served five years on the board of selectmen starting in 1991.
She is described by those who knew her as a no-nonsense and dedicated individual.
“Judy was plainspoken and frank. She didn’t suffer fools well, had the best BS meter I ever saw,” said the chairman of the current board of selectmen, Andrew R. Gottlieb, also known for his frank personality on the board.
“Judy was a straight shooter and earned the respect of everyone she dealt with because she was honest and dedicated to the town,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “You underestimated Judy at your own peril.”
George (Chuckie) Green, director of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Natural Resources Department and a former selectman in Mashpee himself, said that Ms. Mills was “hard and strong.”
“She didn’t cut anyone any slack,” Mr. Green said.
While she was very honest, he said, she was also very fair and willing to listen, and truly represented the people of Mashpee.
Ms. Mills served as a selectman from 1991 until 1996 during what could be described as a tumultuous time in Mashpee. The town was looking to build the high school, a grocery store had only recently opened in Mashpee Commons, and while homes and condominiums were developing rapidly, the town was also having financial difficulties. Also, a young Mashpee Wampanoag tribal member was shot and killed by a police officer, which led to a lot of tension.
Ms. Mills was elected to the board at the same time as the successful recall of a sitting member on the board, Willard L. Hanson. Mr. Hanson, along with a few others throughout town, had been accused of unbecoming behavior of a public official, even by fellow board members.
In the election with the recall, Ms. Mills beat out Mr. Hanson, collecting some 70 percent of vote; about 40 percent of registered voters cast a ballot during the special election, dwarfing voter turnouts in town elections today.
“There is a new beginning for the board of selectmen,” Carol Jacobson, the chairman of the board of selectmen at the time, was quoted as saying in a 1991 Enterprise article.
Ms. Mills was from Dartmouth, where she worked as a clerk/typist for the New Bedford Standard-Times and the former owners of Channel 12 Television. She moved in 1978 to Mashpee, where she held jobs at the Wigwam Motel, as a bus driver, and as a part-time homemaker for the elderly, according to the Enterprise archives.
Aside from town regulatory boards, she also served on the Attaquin Park committee, parks and recreation committee, and as a member of the Mashpee Goals and Priorities committee, all prior to 1990.
She was elected to a five-year seat on the planning board in May 1986, at a time when some big-name developments were building in Mashpee, including Mashpee Commons and Willowbend.
In 1987, she ran unopposed for a seat on the newly created water district commission. The district was looking to service areas of town not served by the High Wood Water Company, which serviced Popponesset, New Seabury, and Mashpee Commons.
At the time, most Mashpee residents had only private wells. And also at the time, news had hit of chemicals from Otis Air Force Base contaminating groundwater.
Andrew G. Marks, current superintendent of the Mashpee Water District, said that Ms. Mills was “extremely important” for the early stages of the current water supply.
“A handful of people, including Judy, started from scratch and brought a public water supply to Mashpee,” the water superintendent said. At the time, Mr. Marks worked for the High Wood company. The district would take on the company as it looked to bring water to the rest of town.
“She was tough,” Mr. Marks said. “You can’t start with nothing and create [a public water supply] without being tough as nails sometimes. That is what made her so important to the water district.”
Mr. Marks said the commission was able to find funding, lay out a financial strategy, secure land for pumps and towers, create standards for the water system, and configure a system of taxing and betterments, all so that almost the entire town would eventually have access to the public water supply, Mr. Marks said. She said the commissioners spent countless hours at meetings planning, all as volunteers. “What they did was really great,” the water superintendent said.
The comments by Mr. Marks were echoed by Mr. Gottlieb.
“Judy made an indelible mark on the town and left it a better place,” the selectman said. “If you enjoy the open spaces of Mashpee or our high-quality drinking water, you have Judy Mills to thank for it.”
In 1991, Ms. Mills was elected to the board of selectmen, the same year that James Vaccaro was elected to the board. Mr. Vaccaro, still an active member in the Mashpee community, said that Ms. Mills was one of his favorite people.
“She was passionate and advocated for what she believed in,” he said. “She was an amazing lady.”
Mr. Vaccaro said she, fellow selectman George Costa and himself all came from completely different backgrounds but were able to form an alliance and move the town forward. At the time, he said, the town was developing rapidly but was in the middle of a economic recession. Ms. Mills, he said, was able to create a balance on the board. While she believed strongly in conservation, she was able to work with the other board members to bring economic development to the region.
In one selectmen’s debate in 1993, Ms. Mills called for consensus through a little bit of compromise. “It is our time to build bridges,” she was quoted as saying in a 1993 Enterprise article. “We all love our children. We all want to keep our elders safe. We must build on the common ground, for the common good.”
Mr. Vaccaro said that Ms. Mills was always a strong advocate for the tribe as well.
Throughout numerous clippings in the Enterprise archives, Ms. Mills was regularly reported as standing up for the environment.
In one story from 1986, she brought up an issue about discoloration in the Mashpee River after hard rain had fallen, and then walked out of a meeting when the conservation commission decided not to take up the issue. She also led cleanups of the river.
“The Town of Mashpee and all who knew and called Judy a friend were greatly enriched by knowing her, and she will be missed,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “There aren’t enough Judy Mills in this world; we were lucky to have her, even if for not enough time.”