Wilton’s first-ever town administrator found the ‘perfect opportunity’

WILTON — Matt Knickerbocker just became Wilton’s first town administrator, bringing with him an extensive background in management both in the private and public sector, and a 13-year stint as Bethel’s first selectman.

He also came highly regarded by town officials, including First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice.

As he finished up his first official week on the job, Knickerbocker spoke to Hearst Connecticut in his new office at Wilton Town Hall Friday on what he plans to do with his new role.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

Q: Welcome to Wilton. What is your early impression of the town so far?

Well, my first impression was formed about 40 years ago, actually. I worked in Wilton right out of college. In 1979, I moved to Bethel and my first job was located down the road near Outdoor Sports Center. So I've kind of come full circle. I started my career in Wilton and now, I wouldn’t say ‘completing it’ because I'm not ready to retire, but I'm continuing it in Wilton.

It’s always been a very warm and welcoming town. A lot of great amenities. There are great people here, and the staff here at Town Hall has just been nothing but wonderful and welcoming and eager to work with me. So I really appreciate the opportunity to be here.

Q. Did your familiarity with Wilton factor into you taking the job?

Oh, yeah. I was very comfortable with it. That definitely made a difference.

But I have been here a lot too. You know, I always come down for the fireworks. I've got a couple of bicycles and I bring them to the shop up here at Wilton Outdoor Sports. So I'm very familiar with the town. I spent a lot of time here when I worked here, but I was no stranger in the intervening years either.

Q: What else appealed to you about the role and prompted you, then as Bethel first selectman, to want to try something else?

I’d actually been thinking about looking for a town management type position for some time. In the elected business, we call it, “what comes after life as first selectman?”

Elected positions up in Bethel are a two-year term, you have to run for office, you have to raise money, you have to do the campaigning and Bethel does not have a position like this. So what that means is, when you're the first selectman, you're doing all the policy work and you're doing the city management work. And in Bethel's case, you have a third role: you're also running the utilities. It's all wrapped up into one, but the part of the job that I really focused on up there was the management part — so city management and the utility management.

I think the reason that I was successful in Bethel and was getting re-elected so many times was I didn't really focus on politics. I spent 95 percent, maybe more, of my time just doing the city management. And one of the things that I realized very quickly, right after my first term is, ‘Hey, I may have 30 years experience in corporate management, but I'll tell you what, running a city is different.’

You need management skills. If you have a corporate background, you come with those skills, but you need to learn a whole new set of paradigms in running a public entity, like a municipality. So starting in my second term, I went back to graduate school and earned a master's degree in public administration and that is really what tipped me in this direction.

But I've always thought that when I no longer want to run for a reelection, this is the role that I really enjoy. It's what I trained for. When I saw this opportunity come up, I thought, ‘Well, this is this is the way to exit the election cycle and continue to serve the public.”

Q. And that plethora of managerial experience and focus is why you think you were tapped by Lynne (Vanderslice) for this position?


Lynne and I also go back a few years because we were colleagues on WestCOG (Western Connecticut Council of Governments). And actually, when WestCOG was created, I was co-chair of the organization that put that together, along with Bill Brennan, Lynne’s predecessor.

But you know, I was joking with some friends that, when I read the job posting for this position, I remember I went home and told my wife, ‘My goodness, it looks like somebody followed me around for about a month in Bethel and just wrote down everything I did and said, OK here we're going to make a job that does that.’

Q. So now that you're here, tell me, what are some of your short-term and your long-term goals?

Well the short-term goals are to get the lay of the land and find out how I can support this organization because, ultimately, you know the role of a municipality is to serve its constituents, taxpayers and residents.

Because if you want to boil down municipal management, it's very simple. How can you deliver the essential services and amenities that residents want in the most cost-efficient manner possible? So that's a very simple thing to say, that that's the mission statement, but it's got a million facets to it.

How can we make our land use process easier for people to apply, for businesses to come in? How can we deliver services to people who want Parks and Recreation programs more efficiently? How could we use technology to streamline operations internally? How can you give the employees here the tools to do their job more efficiently so that they they go home feeling good.

So that’s the goal. You know, a lot of companies give lip service to that old saying, ‘Our people are our greatest asset,’ but a lot of companies in the private sector say it but don't really walk the walk. I just want to make sure that our employees and everybody I've met, who are very, very dedicated, I just want to make sure that they're appreciated for what they do.

Q: What are some of the more recent town focuses that you will now take the reigns on?

Well, there's a tremendous amount of money that has been flowing down from the federal government to the local level by virtue of the different coronavirus acts. Then, the brand new one is the what they call the IIJA. And we are preparing to tap into some of those.

One of the first things Lynne got me involved in was getting us involved with the National League of Cities Boot Camp series, which is basically assistance on how to help communities like this one build a team and apply for those federal funds.

Then there's infrastructure funds, funds that are dedicated to electric vehicle charging, setting up electric vehicle fleets, other renewable energy sources, and other types of infrastructure like water and sewer. But the federal system is very, very difficult and very, very complex, so National League of Cities is offering help.

So you know one of the great things about Lynne is that she, like any good leader, is looking at the future.

Q. If I came back to you in say, three years, how would you measure your ‘success’?

While I'm just learning where the pressure points might be, but using my experience in Bethel as a guide, I suspect that there are probably ways that we can give the land use department and the building department more tools to process applications and inspections more quickly.

Just the fact that it's not even a hundred percent online. We just put in Bethel over the last two years an online permitting system, So where the users themselves can go into the computer and they do everything online.

It sounds simple: Use technology to speed things up — it’s enormously difficult. Having to handle all the different state regulations and every one of those areas took a long time to program that in. But now what happens is you go online, you do your thing, it tells you this is going to go to utilities and health, etc. So it goes out to every department, it shows up immediately and they can start on it. There's no paper.

So I want to see what the status is and see if there are opportunities to streamline that and gain efficiencies with those programs.

Q. Lastly, how would you describe your overall excitement to work with this team and take on this all-new role?

For two years, I've been looking for the next thing to do, and when I chose to ‘hang up the spurs’ and no longer be first selectman, this opportunity was perfect. Like I said, it's like somebody tailor-made ‘What does Matt Knickerbocker want to do next?’