At last night’s (Tuesday, Aug. 16) Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting, the Board members voted unanimously to appoint Matthew (Matt) Knickerbocker to the new role of Wilton Town Administrator. Knickerbocker currently is an elected official for another municipality — he has served as the first selectman of Bethel for the last 13 years.
Knickerbocker will begin his three-year term as town administrator on Tuesday, Sept. 7. He will have to step down as Bethel’s first selectman to do so.
It’s was his municipal experience that made him the person for the job, according to Wilton’s First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, who said that Knickerbocker “stood above and beyond the other candidates” that were considered during the town’s months-long search.
“He brings a wealth of knowledge. What was important for us was for the person to have municipal experience … that was a plus. And Matt has all of that, both in terms of his work experience and his involvement with various municipal organizations,” Vanderslice said, noting that both she and her predecessor Bill Brennan worked closely with Knickerbocker as fellow members of the Western CT Council of Governments COG (WestCOG) and on WestCOG’s executive committee.
Vanderslice listed various local and statewide organizations in which Knickerbocker has held leadership positions, including the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Material Management (CCSMM), the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), the Housatonic Resource Recovery Authority (HRRA) — which Wilton joined in 20221 — Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST) and the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency (CIRMA) — which provides Wilton’s workman’s compensation insurance.
“Matt has not only his years of experience working within municipal government, but he has a wide range of contacts with other municipal leaders or government agency individuals through his work with those organization,” Vanderslice said.
But hiring an elected official as a town employee does carry one bit of baggage: Knickerbocker’s active affiliation with a political party — the Democratic party — could be seen by some as a possible interfering factor.
Vanderslice rebuffed the idea politics would factor in to how Knickerbocker would do in the job.
“The Board of Selectmen were focused on identifying the best candidate. Political affiliation was irrelevant. Neither Matt nor I subscribe to the current political climate where one only collaborates with members of their own party,” she told GOOD Morning Wilton in an email after last night’s meeting.
In fact, Vanderslice pointed out that she and Knickerbocker already have a strong working relationship.
“Over the last seven years, Matt and I typically met along with others at least three times per month, including WestCOG meetings, WestCOG Executive Committee meetings, selectmen/mayor monthly lunches or HRRA meetings. During those meetings, you gain a sense of your colleagues, their knowledge and how they interact with others. We also speak on the phone to discuss common matters. From the start, Matt impressed me as knowledgeable and fully committed to municipal government and its purpose. He has good a professional and personal demeanor and is truly interested in listening and learning from others,” Vanderslice wrote.
Before serving as Bethel’s first selectman, Knickerbocker served as member and chair of the Bethel Board of Education, including during a time when Wilton’s current Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith worked for the Bethel Public Schools.
“I know Matt well and am thrilled that he is coming to work in Wilton. He’s a tremendous leader with great skills and experience. I’m happy for Wilton and excited at the prospect of working with him again,” Smith told GMW.
In the private sector, Knickerbocker previously held executive-level positions with Fujifilm USA.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, each BOS member spoke in favor of appointing Knickerbocker, with glowing comments.
Selectman Ross Tartell lauded Knickerbocker’s management skills, which he said “are critical for making sure our employees are well-managed, well-led, and have a partnership with the first selectwoman.”
As Town Administrator, Knickerbocker’s role is primarily to manage the day-to-day operations of most of the town’s municipal departments. The BOS discussed adding the position intensely since January, with the members advocating for it as a measure to ensuring continuity of town operations even when elected leadership changes.
Second Selectman Josh Cole reiterated that point. “Having a professional manager on staff in town is going to be a great help for whoever’s sitting in the first selectwoman or first selectman’s chair. That’s going to give some stability to the town employees in a change of administration.”
Transition in First Selectwoman’s Role — and Salary Reduction
The BOS had already planned for the new town administrator’s salary in the current budget at up to just under $200,000, although the final number is still to be determined.
“The contract hasn’t yet been executed, but Matt’s compensation will be under budget,” Vanderslice told GMW.
After unanimously approving Knickerbocker’s appointment, the BOS circled back later in the meeting to the question of whether it should reduce the first selectperson salary. The BOS had already built into the current fiscal year budget an assumed salary reduction from $142,999 to $120,000, but it required a formal approval with a vote to make it take effect as soon as Knickerbocker starts.
Back in January Vanderslice advocated for a salary reduction for the first selectperson, with many of the first selectperson’s responsibilities shifting to the new hire while requiring less of a time commitment, even as the first selectperson’s role would become more strategic, promoting development efforts and engaging in regional and state-level issues.
“Even if the first selectperson’s focus changes, the responsibilities and day-to-day commitment will have been reduced,” she said at the time.
Tuesday night, Vanderslice asked the BOS for the option to accept an even lower salary if she thought it was appropriate as the year goes on. The other BOS members felt that the recommended $120,000 salary was good benchmark.
“I think it’s important that Lynne provide us with feedback once the town administrator is in place, as to what her sense of the time commitment and adjusted responsibilities are that remain with the first selectperson so that we, as a board can evaluate that,” Selectman Bas Nabulsi said.
They did agree, however, that any change Vanderslice wanted to make would have to be brought to the BOS for approval rather than simply give her discretion now. Tartell pointed to the Town Charter as a rationale.
“I think we’re constrained somewhat by the Town Charter too, where we have to review budgets and disbursements of significant money. So I think to maintain that responsibility and carry it out fully, we need to, within the confines and direction of the Charter, we need to ask that you come back to us so that we can then have that vote,” he said.