LENOX -- Call it a homecoming for Christopher Ketchen, the new town manager who begins his tenure today with a full plate of priorities following a nearly 10-month gap since the departure of Gregory Federspiel after 14 years in the position.

"It is a homecoming of sorts," the South County native said during a Town Hall conversation on Friday as he prepared to settle in to his new office. "On a personal level it is, my family and my wife's family are excited to have us back. We're happy, but I've been away a long time, so it feels new."

Ketchen, 37, has had an extensive career in town and state government, mostly in Hopkinton, Wellesley and Boston. Growing up just west of Great Barrington in Alford, he attended that town's one-room elementary schoolhouse before it was converted to town offices and graduated from Mount Everett Regional High School in 1994.

He was hired by the Selectmen over two other finalists on Jan. 29 and completed his work as town manager in Hopkinton last month.

Ketchen views his mission as putting into effect policies and goals outlined by the citizens through the Selectmen, their elected leaders.

"Part of being a professional in this business is recognizing that it's your role to be the tip of the sword, to get done what the citizens want to see happen rather than pursuing your own policy agenda," Ketchen said. "I expect the Selectmen to be very strong in terms of how they pursue opportunities."

"If there's a compelling argument to be made in terms of moving the town in one direction or another, I'm certainly going to make that argument," he acknowledged. "I'll have the rigorous analysis and thoughtful projections to make that case." However, he stressed, once the decision is made by the Selectmen, "the conversation is over and we move into implementation."

He plans prompt responses to residents' emails and phone calls. "As overwhelming as it can be for me," he pointed out, "the problems that people are coming to you with are much more overwhelming to them."

Having familiarized himself with key players and major issues during five separate one-day get-acquainted visits since his three-year contract was signed in February, Ketchen described his immediate task as "continuing to get up to speed. ... It's something completely different to be in the thick of the day-to-day." But, he acknowledged, he'll be coming in with "a fresh set of eyes."

Ketchen credited the Selectmen, along with co-interim Town Managers Mary Ellen Deming and Jeffrey Vincent, for working extremely hard during budget preparations ahead of the May 1 annual town meeting, where he'll be formally introduced to the public.

Within his first 60 days, he aims to develop a management plan. Long-term financial planning, infrastructure needs and improved coordination between departments are among the priorities. His goal is to "put the Board of Selectmen in a position where they can develop that management plan, integrating from vision to mission to policy to management, right on down."

"If I can do the work that I need to do to get them in a position to move forward, that will have been successful, that's what we all agreed on from the outset," Ketchen added.

Communication is at the top of his list -- "as somebody from the outside who's coming in new and hasn't established a rapport with department heads, it's going be the most important thing for me to do. ... First assemble the team, that's what I've been trying to do in my visits. Assemble the players and figure out what it is that we want the town government of Lenox to do."

Ketchen said he is open to delegating day-to-day tasks so he can focus on bigger issues. "That's where my time is better spent," he suggested.

Although he is predisposed to taking control of finance issues, given his background, he plans to discipline himself to step back from that area. He credited the town for taking the lead on funding costly benefits obligations to municipal retirees and for an active committee focusing on long-term capital improvement needs.

Running a town has been compared to running a business with the manager as CEO and the Selectmen as the board of directors, Ketchen emphasized that "businesses have customers, we have citizens. Businesses have to sell their products to consumers who have a choice. ... If we want a well-run town where residents are proud to be, we have a higher standard to meet. If you're going to give people fewer choices, we have to do a better job providing services."

To manage his work day, Ketchen uses a whiteboard that he has found very effective in the past. He'll arrive each morning with a punch list of tasks to be accomplished.

Meanwhile, until the family home in Natick is sold and a new house is purchased in Lenox, Ketchen is bunking with his parents.

His father, Charles Ketchen, is a former Alford selectman who worked as an engineer for Massachusetts Electric and National Grid; his mother, Karen, was a teacher at Undermountain Elementary in Sheffield and New Marlborough Central School.

After a courtship that began with high school dates, Ketchen and Kimberly Clouser, of Sheffield, were married several years after graduation. Currently, she is a reading specialist at the Lowell elementary school. They have a 3-year-old son, Caleb.

The town manager's bachelor's degree and masters in public administration are from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Before transferring there from 18 months at the University of Utah, he spent a half-year interning for a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., that advocated for city governments.

"The first person I ever told I wanted to be a town manager was the owner of that firm," he recalled.

Once the family is resettled locally, Ketchen hopes to spend his spare time outdoors, hiking and playing with their son. "Family is the most important thing to me, so we'll be looking forward to finding a church, being part of a faith community, meeting new friends and reconnecting with old friends."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

In his own words ...

New Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen made these points during his first Town Hall interview with The Eagle on Friday:

n "I may have my own personal opinions, but I'm disciplined enough as a government professional to defer to the citizens and their elected leaders to say, ‘Look, this is where we want the town to go.' It's my role to get the job done based on where they say they want the town to go."

n "I'm passionate about public service, there's a ton of stuff I want to get done. I can make my points and make compelling arguments as well as anyone. However, it's important to have the self-discipline and self-regulation, as a professional, to make sure a decision moves forward and is executed as efficiently and effectively as possible, regardless of whether it's what I wanted or not. I don't anticipate any points of friction."

n "If somebody felt so strongly about an issue that they felt like they needed to disrupt their day to talk to somebody about it, that's something that deserves a public servant's attention, whether it's the town manager or the highway foreman. The citizens are already overwhelmed about something. That's my primary concern, more so than my own schedule. However, there will be times when I'll be in a meeting and I'm sure most reasonable people will understand if I'm not available."