It’s been 2 years to the week since the Board of Selectmen announced the hiring of former Winchester Town Manager, Mel Kleckner to the position of Town Administrator. On August 1, Mel shared his thoughts with us about the present and future of Brookline government and the challenges that lie ahead.
Mel Kleckner conjures up the image of a tall, friendly city cowboy, wearing a suit and cowboy boots (well, Mel doesn’t really wear cowboy boots), overseeing our community. He's a combination of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart; the man has presence.
Mel is actually a New Englander through and through, born in Vermont and raised in Connecticut. He graduated with a degree in Political Science from Saint Anselm College, a small liberal arts college in Manchester New Hampshire. From there, he earned his Masters in Public Administration at Suffolk University in Boston. It was at Suffolk that Mel discovered that his passion was in local government. He had never been interested in running for office and being beholden to special interests. At Suffolk, Mel discovered a position called public administrator that you could earn through merit alone.
Most people who are good at what they do had a mentor at one point or another. Mel is no exception. He met Donald Marquis, who was Town Manager of Arlington at the time. Donald taught Mel just about everything he knows now about managing public office. At the tender age of 22, Mel parlayed his internship in Arlington into the position of Assistant Town Manager, where he served for 5 years. When it was time to move on from Arlington and manage his own situation, Mel found the perfect position for him (he’s good at that). Wilbraham was small enough to hire someone in Kleckner’s position, in Massachusetts where he understood the lay of the land, and close to his family in Connecticut. After all, Mel was still in his 20’s.
Mel stayed in Wilbraham for 5 years, gaining the experience he needed. By that time he and his wife, Cathy, who he met in Arlington, wanted to return to eastern Massachusetts. Mel took over the Town Administrator position in Belmont, where he was very successful for almost 15 years. In Belmont, Mel was able to take advantage of a weak town charter as it related to the Town Administrator's position. A charter is a loose way to describe a book of laws and bylaws. In Belmont, the Selectmen delegated authority to Kleckner, giving him free enough rein to accomplish what he needed for the town. A weak town charter comes with pitfalls, though. Kleckner realized that a change in Selectmen could easily effect his position, not uncommon in his profession. So after 15 years in Belmont, Mel became the Town Manager of Winchester, which had a very formal TM Charter. Unfortunately, the Board that hired Mel changed. Conflict arose around the Town Manager's authority and Mel's management style, and the two sides decided to get a divorce. Soon Winchester’s loss became Brookline’s gain.
Hub: Why do you feel that Brookline was the next logical step in the evolution of your career?
Mel: Coming to Brookline was the best decision I could have made, and it’s the best position I could have imagined. Leading up to this position I’ve done everything a TM or TA could do; balanced budgets, bargained with unions, and all the grunt work someone in my position in a very small community has to do. Here with a larger community, I’m able to work with more staff, department heads, selectmen, resident and business organizations to make change as apposed to actually doing everything myself. Here I don’t have to deal with all the little things, I can manage more.
Hub: Do you have a particular management style?
Mel: My style of management is not to micromanage. I empower my managers. We are able to hire very smart capable people here in Brookline; I’m very pleased about that.
Hub: In this interview and in my research, I’ve heard about the position of Town Manager and Town Administrator. Are they two ways of saying the same thing or are they different positions?
Mel: The Board of Selectmen appoints both TAs and TMs, and they serve at the pleasure of the Selectmen. Town Managers usually have more independent authority, usually in the area of appointment of department heads and executing and signing contracts. I will tell you Harvey, the difference between TA and TM is highly overrated. I’ve served as both a TA and a TM. The important thing for a TA or a TM is to earn the confidence of the Selectmen, and to have a good working relationship with them.
Hub: What’s the town’s biggest challenge moving forward?
Mel: Clearly the town’s biggest challenge continues to be its ability to finance its services and operations. What’s really impacted that and will continue to impact that is this unprecedented increase in our school enrollment. It’s amazing; I can’t describe it in any other way. The increase in school age population is of such a magnitude that we’re really going to have to deal with it. Not only physically but also financially, hiring more teachers to keep classroom sizes low.
Hub: Is the increase in enrollment happening to other communities in our area?
Mel: Not as much. People are learning where the good school systems are from statistics they can readily find on the Internet and they are moving to those places.
Hub: Does the economy and the inability for more people to move further out to places where they can buy larger lots have an impact on the situation?
Mel: I think there is something to that. People are sacrificing their quality of life to educate their children in a higher-rated school district. Where people would typically move to a bigger dwelling, they are now staying in a smaller condo or apartment. We’re having a hard time getting our heads around it through our own analysis, but we were able to make certain assessments from the 2010 census. The trend line just goes straight up. Our biggest challenge will be to finance the big school age population bulge.
Hub: I’m guessing that while the trend line for enrollment is going straight up, the same can’t be said for the revenue coming into the town.
Mel: Our revenue goes up 3 to 3.5% annually, which is healthy balance, given our property tax is limited to 2.5%. We’ve got to be creative. We’ve been working to get two schools enlarged and renovated, the Heath School and the Runkle School. Its never good to try to get these things done in a hurry, and the Runkle School is not going to get done in time. Fortunately, we have the old Lincoln School and we’ll get some relief there. It’s nerve-racking to get these projects done on time like that.
Hub: I recently learned the term OPEB or Other Post Employment Benefit. How does that affect the town’s situation?
Mel: The OPEB is the obligation the town has assumed for health insurance for former employees for the rest of their lives. It is huge liability. Typically towns have adopted a pay-as-you-go basis, determining each year how many people they have to cover and how to fund it. With health insurance costs going up and retirees living longer, it’s a huge obligation. We are starting to fund it. Funding it now is not required, but the good communities plan for things like this to get ahead of them. That is one of the reasons we are a AAA-rated community. We plan for things; we don’t wait for the crisis to happen. Obviously, when you are putting money away for a long-term obligation when next year we might not have enough money for teachers to deal with this population, it’s difficult.
Hub: Has there been talk about suspending benefits or grandfathering them?
Mel: When I first got in this business the salaries for the private sector were higher than the public sector. To combat that the public sector competed by offering good strong benefits. What’s happened recently, is the wages of the public sector in most cases have been the same as the private sector, while still maintaining stronger benefits. So we have to keep making decisions moving forward. Not only do we have to keep putting money aside to satisfy future obligations, but we also have to address the level of benefits we can offer to not only active but also retired employees. That’s a theme that is going on in this country and all over the world. It’s tough one. You’ve made promises to people. Your notion of grandfathering I think is a way that is more realistic. The state has begun to do that.
Hub: How does the town decide on health insurance plans for town employees?
Mel: We recently joined, and this reflects mostly on my predecessor (Richard Kelliher), the GIC (Group Insurance Commission). The state provides insurance for state employees. We joined the GIC even before the new the legislation made it easier. It has proven to be extremely favorable to the town. They have a high co-payments and a deductable that we’ve had to deal with, but instead of dealing with the double-digit premium increases every year, we’ve had increases of less than 5 percent. Next year less than 2.5 % increase.
Hub: What about the employee pensions?
Mel: We are part of the state pension system that is run locally. We don’t make up our own rules. Recently, the state legislature grandfathered new benefits for employees. For instance, now you have to work longer to be vested, but it was grandfathered in. One thing you always find with local government, the retirees are very important. We’re all going to have to retire some day.
Hub: Switching gears here, let’s talk about the future. How will the town change in the next 10 years?
Mel: I think one thing for sure is the way people look will change. We will continue to be more diverse. We have a much larger Asian population, which makes our community much richer. We’re going to continue to become more diverse as time goes on.
Hub: How will new technology affect our town’s future?
Mel: We have a big challenge here as technology grows. We want to make government more efficient and give the power to the people, but there is also concern as we do that we will lose a level of privacy and individuality. Privacy versus efficiency is going to be common theme. One of my goals is to embrace more technology to enable people to engage with their government, not only to pay their bills but also to have meaningful dialogue with their town government. I would like to see a more robust way of doing that.
Hub: How will town departments be affected by the future?
Mel: My feeling is that planning and community development department is at the crossroads of lot of these things. They are viewed as a department that responds to development requests and project issues and I would very much like to see them really take advantage of the planning part of their positions, which really helps convene the town, convene the thoughts of where we are heading. It’s going to be hard, but I do see the planning department being a key resource for the town in that area. As you know our Planning Director, Jeff Levine, just left us to take a position in Portland, Maine. I’m going slowly in replacing Jeff’s position to take advantage of people's ideas about that because I do view Planning as a key department in the future.
Hub: Do you share the concerns of many that Brookline’s commercial areas could end up looking like open-air malls with just national banks and chain stores?
Mel: It’s really hard. In this country, people own property and with ownership comes rights. We can zone uses, but we can’t prevent a chain from coming here. I think having a local flavor is important, it makes us unique, that’s what makes us Brookline.
I do think the diversity of restaurants is a driver of economic activity and vitality. We are looking into expanding the number of liquor licenses we can issue.
I don’t know how some of you guys do it. I know how difficult it is for you small businesses, but I do think it’s vital to have you guys around. I don’t know how some of the local retail stores deal with competition on-line.
Hub: There are a lot of local activists groups in Brookline. I’m quite sure you’ve met most of them (smile).
Mel: Brookline is a tough place with very strong ideas and a lot of really smart people. It can be very demanding. We want to harness that energy.
What I try to do is listen. I believe for every group and every point of view there are a lot of positives. I try to focus on the positives. I try to respect the people I’m talking to and develop relationships. Sometimes at the end of the day, you have one group that wants one thing and one group that wants the opposite thing and you have to compromise or make a decision. That’s why this position has a shelf life because you’re constantly making decisions and having to say no to someone.
Hub: Do you say no more than you say yes?
Hub: It’s like being the Dad of the Town isn’t it?
Mel: Yes and sometimes when they don’t hear what they want, they go to their mom. (smiling)
Hub: Who is the Town Administrator at home?
Mel: My wife is really in charge. We have 3 boys, one is in college but it’s a constant juggling act she has to perform. I met her when she worked in planning department in Arlington so she knows a lot about what I do. I always have someone to lend an ear. She comes with me to some events. I also bring my boys with me so they can see what I do and also what the event is about.
Hub: So your wife Cathy is sort of the First Lady of Brookline
Mel: I suppose so (laughing)
Hub: Was there a question I should have asked and didn’t or something you would like to add?
Mel: I’m really dedicated to the professional of local government management and I try to help young people. I teach one class per year at the Northeastern Master's Program. The reason I do it is to expose what I do to young people. I try to let them know about the benefits of local government management. I try to practice what I preach.
By R. Harvey Bravman