The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 25, 2009

Madonna McKenzie leaves Carlisle for a “new chapter”

A search through the archives of the Mosquito beginning in the year 2000 reveals nearly 1,000 references to Madonna McKenzie, Carlisle’s retiring Town Administrator. McKenzie’s name is linked to a full range of town issues, government and operations, and as our longest-serving Town Administrator, she has been an integral, ubiquitous and influential presence in town for nine years.

Madonna McKenzie was honored with a cake during the Council on Aging luncheon for town employees held on September 17. Shown with McKenzie (cutting cake) are the COA staff (front, left to right) Outreach Coordinator Angela Smith, Transportation Coordinator Carol Killpartrick and Director Kathy Mull; (back) drivers John Horvath, Carl Cline and Dave Terrasi. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

“It all went fast. It was busy and interesting,” says McKenzie. “Every day brought something new.” When she arrived in 2000 as an interim Town Administrator, McKenzie recalls, the Gleason Public Library had just completed its building addition, large new housing developments were in progress, and the school population was increasing. Everything indicated that the town was growing. McKenzie says that the town has grown steadily, but the demographics are changing. “More people are becoming seniors and want to stay,” she says. “The younger people moving in with families tend to have very good incomes.”

Learning on the job

McKenzie took on the Town Administrator’s position six months after being hired as the Interim Town Administrator. Over time, she learned about the character of the town through the decisions made at Town Hall, on boards and at Town Meeting. “For example,” she says, “Carlisle has consciously increased conservation restrictions. Now, about one-third of the total land in town is open space. This is hard on taxpayers, but it’s got great ‘people value,’ and it speaks to the way people here want to live.”

Carlisle has avoided big layoffs

She noted that the town does not rely on state aid as much as some communities and that this had been the case since before her arrival. “To this day, we don’t get a lot of state money. When there’s a downturn, that means we’re not as dependent” on state aid. She added, “This has served us well and left us in better financial shape over time. This year, we were able to avoid the big layoffs that a lot of other towns have been forced into in this recession. And all the departments have worked really well together to plan the budget, so the town is still delivering services well.”

McKenzie feels that Carlisle has managed its growth and finances very competently. “We are far more stable than many towns. We have more free cash and more in our stabilization fund. We plan well in advance and take precautions to make the impact [of an economic downturn] as minimal as possible. This takes a lot of communication and commitment to examining options.”

Town benefits from quality volunteers

One of the things she says has been consistent in her nine years at the helm has been the quality of town boards and committees. “People on boards and committees are well educated and enlightened and willing to share their expertise. The community benefits from this; it would cost a lot if we had to pay for it.” She also credits the “wonderful staff in finance at Town Hall that work so well together and with the assessors.”

Like most communities, however, Carlisle tends to follow, to some extent, trends in the economic climate at the state level, and this affects volunteerism. It is, McKenzie says, “harder of late to find volunteers [to serve on boards and committees], but hopefully that will change again too.”

Providing structure and improving quality

McKenzie recalls that when she arrived, there were no personnel policies in place. “I enjoyed the challenge of helping to put together the wage classification plan, so that we would have a more uniform method to determine pay scales. Everyone could understand what the rule would be and it eliminated confusion.” Another benefit of developing that plan, she says, was that Carlisle was forced to examine salaries in comparison to communities “of comparable kind so that we could be fair and competitive. Now we are really getting quality employees. I think a lot of our department heads and employees are just fantastic.” When she came on board, the town was in the process of completing the reorganization of its financial team and deciding the extent of the Town Administrator’s financial oversight. McKenzie’s job description had been expanded and the Selectmen had responded to the growth in town by increasing their own number from three to five.

Challenges then and now

Challenges she faced at the beginning of her tenure included not only what she has called “the ever-changing money picture,” but also the necessity to help a recently expanded Town Hall staff improve communication and cooperation. “Town employees always need to understand that they work for the community and serve it,” she says. “This takes a lot of creative cooperation,” that McKenzie feels has increased in her time at Town Hall.

McKenzie acknowledges that her tenure in Town Hall has not been without some controversy, and said, “The hardest thing is when communication with your colleagues breaks down.” When that happened, she worked hard to get through it “by behaving as professionally, honestly and straightforwardly as possible.” Currently, she feels that the working atmosphere is cooperative and communication is much improved.

A test for everyone this year, McKenzie said, is the economy that “will force us all at Town Hall and on the committees to push the departments to examine more cost-effective ways to deliver services.” She then asked, “Will this mean creative reorganization of departments? Regionalization is an idea that is taking hold statewide and being encouraged in different departments – not just school administration, but police, DPW [Department of Public Works], libraries, land use and town administration. I think the School Committee has been courageous to begin taking a look at regionalization. This will be an ongoing discussion as an option for many services.”

When the town is grappling with difficult or controversial issues, she said, “it’s important to let people speak and have a say. Usually, people who begin [emotionally] will express themselves calmly if given the chance. We have good, stable, informed people in Carlisle.”

Where do we go from here?

“We’ve come a long way,” McKenzie asserts, “but the town needs to continue to address and discuss big challenges. Commercial development will always be on the table for discussion. People will always have different expectations there, and will have to discuss the costs and [the method]. Affordable housing and Chapter 40B will be critical. There we need to work with our legislators more effectively.

“The town needs to take control of its affordable housing and the state needs to think differently about senior housing, offering ways to share services for seniors who want to stay in their homes. I predict that because of a rising senior population, larger homes will be subdivided into communal housing for seniors. People won’t be able to afford services individually, so the state will move toward providing more services in homes. This is not a new idea. Many nursing homes were founded in what were formerly very large homes. People can support each other in homes like these without a lot of outside services. We just have to take a new look at how we handle this. I think our Benfield project represents a very good step.”

What next?

In terms of her own professional plans, McKenzie declares, “I am making no decisions until after the holidays.” And then? “In my life, things just sort of present themselves. I think this will happen again and I’m just moving into a different chapter.”

McKenzie leaves Carlisle with a sense of satisfaction about Carlisle’s status and plans for the future. “I see Carlisle as growing even more professional, running the town more like a non-profit business that provides services. It’s been my job to smooth the path,” she says. “Sometimes, though, the things you’re proudest of are the little things. Every time I drive past Green Cemetery, for example, I am thrilled to see those gates, restored to the way they should be. But I’ve really enjoyed all my time here. I will miss the wonderful people, and hope to stay in touch. I’ll miss so many people. And I’ll miss the surprise of every day.” ∆


Retirement celebration for Madonna McKenzie

The Carlisle Community requests the pleasure of your company at a retirement celebration in honor of our current Town Administrator, Madonna McKenzie. This event will be held on Tuesday, September 29, from 3 to 6 p.m. in the Clark Room of Carlisle Town Hall, 66 Westford Street. Please join us in thanking her and extending our best wishes for her retirement!

Any donations toward the purchase of a retirement gift are welcome and can be mailed to:

Larry Barton or Anush Coates
Town of Carlisle
P.O. Box 614
Carlisle, MA 01741

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito