The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 24, 2006


Carlisle's Town Administrator looks back

Madonna McKenzie (Photo by Ellen Huber)
Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie spoke recently with the Mosquito about her job and looked back on accomplishments and changes she has seen since she became Carlisle's Town Administrator six years ago. The volunteer Board of Selectmen are the executive arm of town government. They are aided by McKenzie and Executive Administrative Assistant Margaret deMare.

The Town Administrator implements the directives of the Selectmen, acting as Personnel Administrator, Procurement Officer, and is the Selectmen's liaison with many town officials and departments, including the DPW, Fire and Police Departments. She participates on committees such as the town's Financial Management Team, the Land Use Management Team, and is coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Task Force. She oversees town insurance policies and claims, is responsible for Town Hall building maintenance and usage, and oversees Town Hall computer maintenance. She serves on contract negotiation committees and new employee search committees.

Prior to coming to Carlisle, McKenzie worked in 1999 as Westford's interim Town Manager. Before that she volunteered on the Board of Selectmen and school committee in Westford, where she lives with her husband.

Town Meeting

One of the first tasks McKenzie remembers being given was to help Town Meeting run smoothly. She said she tries to ensure that everyone has the same numbers and that all numerical data is accurate. She feels that little details can matter. For instance, voters are now supplied with printed copies of the motions as they enter Town Meeting, something she noted is not done by many other communities.

Asked about the perennial decision of whether to spend hundreds of dollars to configure Town Meeting for overflow seating in the school cafeteria, she said, "It's always a guess. One meeting we needed it and didn't have it, and three times we've set it up and didn't use it." For the second room to operate legally, there must be a second moderator and the sound from the primary room must be fed in. Without a live video feed, there must also be a second presenter to display each slide. Asked why the cafeteria was not permanently wired for video and audio she said, "It's on my wish list for the next contract with Comcast," the only company with a license to provide cable TV and Internet services in Carlisle. The last time their contract was signed they gave $25,000 toward wiring Town Hall for cable broadcasts as part of their requirements to facilitate local access. McKenzie said the Comcast contract will come up for renewal in 2011.

Wage reclassification

McKenzie thought one of the more significant changes in Town Hall was the employee wage reclassification. Salaries of town employees lagged far behind other communities, and a process was worked out to upgrade salaries gradually to soften the impact on the budget. Each year one third of the salaries were adjusted to align more closely with those in a set of similar small Massachusetts towns. The overall effect was an increase of $150,000 in employment compensation. Last year these adjustments were not continued, but McKenzie said the Personnel Board is recommending the salary review be repeated.

Procurement paperwork

Need office supplies? A new fire truck? As Procurement Officer, McKenzie must keep up-to-date on increasing state regulations governing municipal purchases and contracts. She said that building project purchases of any amount and all other purchases over $5,000 require special paperwork. For expenses between $5,000 and $25,000 the town must get three quotes, and keep records. If the cost exceeds $25,000, then it must go out for public bid. For example, both the newest fire truck and the Historical Commission's recent preliminary survey of the Historic District required formal bidding. Once bids are received, they must be reviewed, and replies with justification sent to all bidders. For any construction project, like the HVAC repairs at Town Hall, the town must also keep records of what each contractor pays employees on the job to document that fair wages have been paid. These records are kept for seven years.

Homeland security

Although the topic had not been invented when she began in 2000, McKenzie said "Homeland security has been taking a lot of time recently." She is a member of the town's Emergency Preparedness Committee, which includes the Police Chief, Fire Chief, and representatives from the Selectmen, the Carlisle School, Board of Health, DPW and Gleason Public Library. They invent and practice emergency scenarios, such as dealing with a major snowstorm, a bomb threat or the loss of a town building to fire. The practice can point up areas needing improvement. For example, when working through a scenario where the police department was "gone" and help was needed, the committee discovered that the town which had agreed to help Carlisle with backup communications did not have direct radio contact with the consortium of communities with which Carlisle shares police resources, the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC). This problem has since been corrected.

McKenzie said funding requests are planned for two items to increase emergency preparedness. One is a generator for the school, to allow it to serve as an emergency shelter with running water, heat and electricity. The second proposal is to buy an automated calling system, to allow town officials to share information with residents during an emergency.

Town Hall is a mix of those elected

and appointed

The Town Administrator is responsible for the usage and maintenance of Town Hall. She oversees nine employees directly and helps with budget preparation for those departments reporting to the Selectmen. While she coordinates with all town boards and committees, McKenzie explained that elected officials and their employees are largely independent. As the designated interface to Town Counsel, she helps everyone formulate their questions as concisely as possible to reduce legal fees, and if she can, she will try to answer the question herself.

Less paper in the future?

Asked how Town Hall might change in the coming years, McKenzie said, "We're going to have to do more with technology." She explained how a centralized record system could help reduce storage needs, where now duplicate sets of plans for a housing development might be stored by several boards in the same building. Another technology goal she noted is to expand the services of the new town government web site (, for instance, by providing better access to town board information and minutes.

Town's management structure changes over two decades

Over the years as both the town population and state government regulations have grown, the task of managing the town has increased many-fold.

Back in 1980, Carlisle had a population of 3,300 and was run by a three-member Board of Selectmen aided by a secretary. Five years and 500 additional residents later, the Selectmen sought more help, but did not want to incur the expense of another full-time employee. Many small towns across Massachusetts were in the same situation, and Carlisle joined the state's "Circuit Rider" program to share a part-time administrative assistant with the towns of Dunstable and Bolton.

By 1988 the workload had grown to the point that Carlisle left the Circuit Rider program and hired Teno West to fill the newly created post of Executive Secretary. The population had grown by another 500 by 1990, and the next year the Selectmen changed their assistant's title to Town Administrator. Following West in that role were Paul Cohen (recently hired as Chelmsford's new Town Manager),Theresa DeBenedictis and David DeManche. By the time McKenzie was hired in 2000, the Board of Selectmen had been expanded from three to five members to better handle the responsibilities of managing the town.

Today Carlisle's population stands at about 5,500. Earlier this month, Administrative Coordinator Elizabeth Barnet was hired to assist McKenzie and others at Town Hall, particularly with issues relating to affordable housing.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito