Wilton names Bethel first selectman as new town administrator

Photo of J.D. Freda

WILTON — Bethel First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker will serve as Wilton’s first town administrator, officials announced this week.

Knickerbocker will leave his elected position on Sept. 7, a seat he has held for 13 years. Rich Straiton, Bethel’s second selectman, will take over.

“Over the past two years, I’ve actually had two opportunities to make changes — one locally with a nonprofit and one at the state level — and in the middle of the pandemic, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave my role here with the vaccine clinics and lockdowns,” Knickerbocker said. “That situation has eased, and since I went back to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in public administration, I’ve always been intrigued in being in a position where I can do public service.”

Knickerbocker said he wished the timing was different so he could have finished his term, but said he notified Straiton roughly a month ago when he knew he would take the job.

Wilton’s need for the position became apparent in January when First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice acknowledged the increasing resident demand for a “24/7 local government.”

The town has since interviewed candidates to aid Vanderslice full-time. She said Knickerbocker rose head and shoulders above the rest.

“What was important for us was for the person to have municipal experience,” Vanderslice said. “Matt has all of that in terms of his work experience and his involvement with various municipal organizations.”

Knickerbocker is familiar with Wilton officials.

He worked with Kevin Smith, Wilton’s current superintendent, when Smith was employed by the Bethel schools and Knickerbocker served on the school board.

Knickerbocker served on the Western Connecticut Council of Governments’ Executive Committee alongside Vanderslice, its treasurer.

He has held leadership positions with the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Material Management, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Housatonic Resource Recovery Authority, Connecticut Council of Small Towns and Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency.

Knickerbocker’s organizational experience played a key role in his hiring, Vanderslice said.

“This is such an important step for our town because it positions us and prepares us to meet the challenges that are going to face this town and our state going into the future,” Selectman Ross Tartell said. “I think Matt is just an incredible candidate.”

The town administrator will assist the first selectperson in their regular duties and act as a conduit between that office and residents.

Thirty-three Connecticut municipalities have town managers, most commonly found in mid-sized communities, according to a report prepared by the Office of Legislative Research. Those town populations range from about 9,500 in Hebron to 63,000 in West Hartford.

While Fairfield County has no town managers,Venderslice said numerous towns use a town administrator — a role with “less authority” than a town manager, but no less effective.

“The role is designed to be the chief operating officer of the town as an employee,” Knickerbocker said.

Vanderslice said she spends much of her own time, beyond work hours, replying to resident inquiries and concerns. Knickerbocker would help alleviate some of that.

Knickerbocker is grateful for his time serving Bethel.

“We’ve built a new police station, renovated schools. We had a really, really good decade of positive change and I just want to thank the community for their support,” he said.

Vanderslice proposed reducing her salary from $140,000 to $120,000 since some of her duties will shift to the town administrator. The rest of the selectmen unanimously approved.

Knickerbocker’s salary hasn’t been disclosed because the contract isn’t signed yet, Vanderslice said. She added $200,000 was budgeted for the town administrator position, but Knickerbocker will likely be paid less than that.

Staff writer Kendra Baker contributed to this story