LENOX — Asserting that the town has so much on its plate that it needs the full-time service of Christopher Ketchen, the Select Board voted 5-0 in a closed-door session Wednesday night to terminate the inter-municipal agreement with the town of Lee and bring him back to Lenox as the full-time town manager.
Under that pact, approved four years ago by the boards of both towns and further reinforced in 2020 by Lenox, Ketchen also served as Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer, splitting his time between the communities.
Returning to public session briefly on Wednesday night, Select Board Chairwoman Marybeth Mitts stressed that Ketchen had not requested the change to his contract, which takes effect in two months. Letters with the Lenox board’s written decision are being sent to the chairman of the Lee Select Board and the town clerks of Lee and Lenox.
Mitts pointed out that at the Lenox annual town meeting last month that voters approved $10 million in capital spending investments. The town also has a new master plan and, she said, “we’re also working to restore structural balance to our long-term fiscal plan post-COVID.”
“Given all of that,” Mitts said, “the town of Lenox now requires the focus of the town manager in its entirety as the town prepares to issue bonds for a public safety facility, a wastewater treatment plant and other significant projects.
“We deeply appreciate Mr. Ketchen’s professional service to our community and require his undivided focus on significant projects.”
Selectman Warren Archey voiced amazement that Ketchen has been able to handle both jobs. “For both towns, he’s done an admirable job. I welcome him back, and let’s go from here.”
After the meeting, Ketchen told The Eagle that he’s “incredibly grateful to the 12 selectmen that I’ve served for over the last four years. Some town managers don’t get the privilege that I’ve had to have had the trust that these selectmen have shown to me.
“I feel very fortunate, but what the Select Board said tonight is true — there’s a lot of work before us and it’s going to take greater focus, greater energy, and that’s true for Lee as well.”
Asked if he had any regrets about the outcome since the shared services agreement had been touted as an innovative step for local government in Massachusetts, Ketchen said that “I certainly don’t regret any of the work and dedication that went into it, and I certainly think it’s an option for communities who need specialized skills in key areas that they wouldn’t necessarily employ a full-time person to do alone.”
He noted that there’s “so much going on in both communities that requires greater attention from the chief administrative officer. In this particular instance, it needs two people.”
Ketchen acknowledged that a shared administrator can benefit certain communities, but there are times when it makes sense to move in a different direction.
He emphasized that the communities always retain “their own distinct identity, and who the town administrator is, or whether the position is structured exclusively or in some shared form doesn’t matter. The primary importance is the needs of the community at any given time.”
Ketchen, 44, currently earns $128,638; his annual salary, with a $225 monthly auto reimbursement and a 6 percent deferred compensation provision, is split between the two towns.
Going forward as town manager of Lenox, his salary will be $115,570, as of the current fiscal year that began July 1.
The Select Board’s surprise decision to terminate the shared-services agreement with Lee followed a rocky year in Lee marked by a groundswell of intense opposition to the Rest of River PCB cleanup agreement.
The resistance in Lee to the agreement, now under appeal by the Housatonic River Initiative at the Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, D.C., focused on the siting of a disposal facility for the least-toxic PCB sediment removed from the river, while the more toxic, likely cancer-causing chemicals are shipped out of state.
More recently, some Lee residents voiced strong protests over the removal of political and other signs from town property by Building Commissioner Brenda “BJ” Church, who also serves Lenox. Several citizens contended their signs had been removed from their own property. Ketchen issued a written apology on behalf of the town after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to intervene.
In May 2017, annual town meeting representatives in Lee named Ketchen as the Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer, a shared-services innovation approved the same month by Lenox voters. At the time, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito congratulated selectmen from both towns for creating a blueprint for future service-sharing by other Massachusetts communities.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed out at the time that Lee and Lenox, two historically adversarial communities, were paving the way for future collaborations between towns. “Lee and Lenox are showing the rest of the county “ he said. “You guys have stepped up.”
The inter-municipal agreement was the first of its kind in the state. The dual role for Ketchen, effective in July 2017, followed the retirement of veteran Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason after 19 years in the post. Ketchen and Nason, who died last January, had been discussing potential shared services scenarios for two years.
After a trial run, the two-town agreement was renewed in October 2020 through a new three-year personal services contract that also continued Ketchen as town manager of Lenox.
The new inter-municipal agreement, maintaining his chief administrative officer role in the two towns, had no expiration date. It had a provision allowing Ketchen, the Lee Select Board or the Lenox Select Board to terminate the arrangement with 60 days advance written notification. In that case, the agreement specified, he would revert to his position as Lenox town manager.
Ketchen was hired by the Lenox Select Board in 2014 when he was 37 with a starting salary of $110,000. A graduate of Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield and the University of Massachusetts, he is the son of Charles and Karen Ketchen of Alford. He and his wife Kimberly have three children.