FAIRFIELD — When Josh Reny was just an average student walking the halls of Lawrence High School in the late 1990s, no one would have guessed that he would not only stay in his community, but grow into an important figure in the town.

Today, he is a man who wears two very different hats while traveling through two very different worlds.

Most of the time, the 32-year-old serves as town manager of Fairfield, where he tries to balance the needs of the council, employees and residents in the community he grew up in.

He said it’s a challenge, especially considering that many town residents remember him as a mediocre student, or in his first job, washing dishes at a nearby Friendly’s restaurant.

“I try not to think about it, I guess, but when I do, I laugh,” Reny said. “I say, gee, I hope they’re not judging me based on what I used to be.”

Those who do remember Reny from those days are likely to appreciate his transformation into a leader, and not only in the municipal sphere.

One weekend a month, Reny trades his professional clothes for a military uniform to perform his duties as a captain in the Air National Guard. Reny recently returned from a two-month deployment to a Middle East country that he declined to name for security reasons.

Reny said leadership means different things in different settings.

“I’m away and I’m in uniform and I may be getting saluted and people calling me sir all the time,” he said.

But stateside, when Reny resumes his life as a municipal servant, things are more casual, and he uses his leadership skills to try to build consensus on town goals.

Reny said his experiences in foreign countries make him appreciate American luxuries that might otherwise be taken for granted.

During his recent deployment, he said, he was in a vehicle that came upon a poorly built bridge. The underpinnings of the bridge had become so badly eroded by flash floods that the concrete of one of the two lanes of traffic had completely collapsed.

When rainstorms from a couple of years ago caused erosion issues on Fairfield’s roadways, Reny said, he knew he could rely on municipal resources to repair the damage.

“The public works department is great,” he said. “The crews went out and they fixed what they needed to fix.”

But in the Middle East, most communities have no public works crews to rely on.

“Their simple solution was to paint some rocks white and put them around the broken area so that cars could simply drive around that part of the broken bridge,” he said.

The difference isn’t confined to road conditions.

“Right now we’re debating universal health care or Obamacare, and people in other countries are thinking, geez, I wish I had any health care,” he said.

While the worlds are different, Reny said he uses many of the same skills to deal with parallel situations. Whether he’s overseeing an operation in the Middle East, or trying to build community consensus on a fireworks ordinance, he is immersed in policies, procedures, and the people who abide by them.

In both roles, he said, he employs “leadership, followership, thinking tactically and strategically,” and, above all, adaptability.

“I think that what I do in the military and what I do for the town contribute to each other,” he said.

Reny said that his experiences abroad have given him an appetite for change in Fairfield, which is part of the reason he has pushed for economic development and progress. Reny, who served as the town’s economic development director before he was hired as town manager, has been instrumental in an ongoing project to revitalize the downtown area.

While trying to straddle leadership roles in two different continents, Reny also has another set of responsibilities to juggle— he became a new father late last year.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t under a good amount of stress while I was away,” he said.

Digital technology, he said, has helped him to bring all three worlds together in a way that was not possible during his previous deployment, to Iraq, in 2004, during which he was lucky to make the occasional phone call home. During this more recent deployment, he said, he managed to check his email almost every day, spending anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours each week corresponding about town business. He didn’t want his absence to create any problems.

“Even though I’m away, it’s still my fault,” he said.

Technology also allowed him to hold regular video conference conversations with his wife of three years and his six-month-old daughter.

“She was still able to see me and hear my voice every few days,” he said. “That made me feel a lot better, knowing that I wasn’t going to return home and she was going to see me as a stranger.”

When Reny told the town council members that he had been deployed, “They obviously weren’t happy about it.” But ultimately, he said, their patriotism led them to be understanding. “I think they all respect that every now and again, the folks that do this as a part-time career, they may be called up and they’re going to be asked to go over.”

While Reny was away, Deputy Town Manager Cindy Tuttle, who has been working for the town since the 1980s, was able to provide leadership in the office. Reny said he used all available vacation time toward the deployment and then went on unpaid leave, during which the town saved about $10,000 in salary and benefits.

Being town manager was not part of Reny’s plan. When he was younger, he pictured a career in the military or in Washington in a field that made use of his undergraduate degree in international relations. In 2006, he made a failed bid for the state Legislature.

When he applied to be town manager three years ago, he knew his youth would be an objection for some people.

“I suspect that when I was first hired that a lot of people had a healthy amount of skepticism about how effective I could be,” he said.

Part of what has driven him as town manager is a desire to listen, learn, and ultimately prove that he has been an effective and positive force for change in the town, he said.

And for those people who knew Reny back in his high school days, when he admits there were times he could have been better-behaved or more respectful, he hopes he has earned their respect.

When they see him now, he said, he hopes they think “that I turned out better than they thought I would. That I turned out okay. That I’ve grown into a person that is trying to contribute and give something back to the community.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

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