A new era in Lancaster town government is dawning in the new year with Johanna Metz Coleman at the helm.
The town will welcome her as its first female supervisor just inside the front door of the Lancaster Opera House on New Year’s Day. The milestone registers with her but doesn’t dominate her thoughts.
“I don’t even think in those terms. Back when I graduated from college, they didn’t want to hire women because they were going to get married and have babies,” Coleman said in an interview shortly before moving up from her 16-year tenure as town clerk at the end of the year. “So I’m glad I’ve seen that change.”
Simply put, that’s about all Coleman had to say about becoming Lancaster’s first female supervisor. Instead, she is more focused on the challenges facing the town than in reveling in her November election victory over Republican Supervisor Dino J. Fudoli.
Chief on her plate is negotiating agreements on long-unsettled employee union contracts.
“Getting the contracts ratified is a top priority,” Coleman said. “It’ll be a matter of give and take with the unions. No one will be made perfectly happy with it. Health insurance will be a big player. You’re negotiating a healthy contract if there’s a little pain for everyone.”
There also comes the expectation that with the 67-year-old Coleman as supervisor, a new tone will be set at Town Hall, where Democrats retained control on the Town Board. Many political observers predict that her leadership style will be one that will help restore civility and calm to a town government that had taken on combative overtones under the four-year reign of Fudoli.
The petite grandmother of five, known lovingly by her family as “Joie,” has served 29 years in town government, the first 13 as tax receiver before becoming clerk. In the 1970s, she served a six-year stint as financial aid director at Daeman College, her alma mater.
Coleman has a gentle, cautious demeanor about her, in stark contrast to Fudoli, whose style was more openly feisty and often led to heated debates at town meetings. But make no mistake, supporters and critics alike say, Coleman is no shrinking violet.
“I move slowly and cautiously,” she said. “I sit back, and see what’s working. I keep control, but I don’t rule anything with an iron fist. You don’t get anywhere like that.”
Former Supervisor Robert H. Giza, who served 16 years in the post and 14 years before that as town councilman, said Coleman will be firm.
“Johanna is an independent person. She’ll make decisions on her own,” Giza said. “She may ask advice, but at the end of the day, she’ll make the decision. She’ll be very fair to the unions, and make sure the taxpayers are well represented.”
Her Metz family roots run deep in the heavily Democratic community. Her late father, Artel Metz, served as town councilman, and it was his political career that inspired her interest in local government. Self-described as strong and determined, she is the oldest of eight children.
“I think she’ll be a great leader,” Giza said. “She’s a very hard worker and will be a hands-on person and helpful to residents. Her records are impeccable.”
A key advantage, Giza said, is that Coleman has worked with town supervisors and town boards for years. “She’s been around it a long time and is very knowledgeable about town government and is not just walking in off the street. She’s so intelligent, she’ll pick it right up,” he said.
Coleman vows to have an open-door policy. “I think she talks a lot, like me,” Giza quipped. “She’ll be over to people’s houses.”
Coleman said she never closes her door.
“I can never turn people away, and I can’t leave phone messages unanswered,” she said, adding that she “gets” the tightknit community, what it has going for it and the pressures it faces. Her greatest strength, she said, is being “a good listener.”
“Lancaster continues to have continued growth. We have sewers, which makes it attractive to developers,” she said, along with undeveloped land still available on the eastern side of town. “I don’t want to characterize development one way or the other. But I know it’s important to keep things under control.”
Patio homes are part of that dynamic, and Coleman thinks it’s important to take a hard look at the town’s zoning code to see what might work in Lancaster. “Patio homes are very in, and developers are coming to us frequently,” she said. “The way our zoning code is written, we have no provision for patio homes, so each time, we have to do a rezone.”
Coleman has a deep inner strength that has guided her through “dark” moments in her life. The mother of two grown daughters, she unexpectedly lost her husband, John, in May 2013. A year later, in September 2014, she lost her 14-year-old nephew, James Metz, who died in a midair plane collision near Buffalo-Lancaster Regional Airport.
Coleman remembers her brother, Steven – James’ father – working through the first Christmas without his eldest son. “Everyone on their street put up blue Christmas lights on Lakeside Crescent,” Coleman said.
For Coleman, herself, who had to work through the loss of her husband, she had to learn to keep moving forward. “I lost my tennis mate and golf mate,” she said, noting that she focuses on her remaining family members.
One of her closest companions these days is the puppy bought after her husband died. She named him “Buddy.”
“He is my buddy, but he’s not helping me make decisions,” she quipped of her playful, 2½-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who has his own comfy couch.
The value of family resonates in her life. Her coffee table is full of displays of playbills from school plays featuring her granddaughters.
“When my Dad died, my Mom said: ‘Nobody wants to hear about your pain,’ ” Coleman recalled. “You pick yourself up by your bootstraps and put one foot in front of the other.”
Coleman never forgot that.