Watch out, Cory Schneider! There’s a new goalie in Marblehead.
When new Marblehead Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer is not working or spending time with his family and their two Siberian huskies, you might just find him between the pipes at a local ice rink, a position he jokes is not as unlike his municipal leadership positions as it might seem.
Kezer chatted with Marblehead News about two weeks into his new job in the first installment of what will be a regular feature, “A Cup of Coffee With…”
These one-on-one conversations will not only probe the accomplishments — professional or otherwise — that caught our attention but also seek to provide some insights into the people behind those accomplishments. If nothing else, you’ll learn how our subjects like their caffeine delivered.
To suggest a future subject for “A Cup of Coffee With…” send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Without further ado, here’s our chat with Thatcher Kezer.
Q. You have spent much of your professional life in the Air National Guard. Tell me a bit about your experience.
A. That was part-time, as a traditional Guardsman, though I was activated for six months, and I was active duty for five years when I first joined. The major point is I’ve led dual lives. While I was doing my civilian profession and all the positions I’ve held, I was also holding down a military job. As a traditional Guardsman, it’s “one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer,” or so they say. But the responsibilities I held were full-time. So, I’ve always had the dual hat, two professional careers.
Q. What were you doing with the Guard?
A. Most of my time in the Guard, I was a combat communications officer. The units I was assigned to, we would provide communications computer network systems at a deployed location, which could be anywhere. Think of it as your computer network systems and your telephone systems. We would fly in, land and set up a site for all those capabilities within 24 hours for upwards of over 2,000 people.
For my activation, I was transferred from the Squadron level, which are the unit levels that are actually deployed out in the field, doing the operations. I was transferred to the group headquarters that oversees a number of squadrons. I was sent to Langley Air Force Base Virginia in January of 2003, where I was the officer in charge — I was the first one in, and then the team grew and grew and grew — that was responsible for the activation, deployment and in tracking the setup of all communication and air traffic control systems in the theater of war. So, it was not just Iraq, but the whole the whole region. I was one of the cogs in the big machine.
Q. Are there things that you take from that experience that translate into your other life working for either municipalities or government?
A. You really focus on the important operational requirements to get the mission accomplished. My time during the activation was running a 24-hour operation, where if we didn’t do our job well enough, people in the theater of war would be in greater danger. Though we were not in harm’s way ourselves, we took it as vitally important to do our job, no matter what it took. We worked incredible hours under lots of pressure to make sure that the folks that were overseas had everything they needed to to get the job done.
When I get into you know the municipal world, and there are lots of lots of moving parts and lots of lots of demands. I’ve learned to make sure my focus is on those things that are actually very important to get done. I’m OK if people are yelling at me because the other things are getting delayed. It’s prioritizing the critical needs first, and then we’ll get to the rest as soon as we can.
Q. You’ve been hired to do jobs, but you’ve also been an elected official. What made you want to run for mayor [in Amesbury]? How was being an elected official different from being an administrator?
A. The responsibility of being a mayor is you are having to operate in the political arena, as well as being a city manager focused on day-to-day operations of the community. The difference here is I leave the political arena to the elected officials, and I focus on the professional administration of the community.
But having that experience of being elected also gives me insight to the pressures and needs of being an elected official and how best to serve that.
How I became mayor of Amesbury — the year was 2005, thereabouts. I had been doing a number of jobs, working with municipalities. In particular, in the positions I held, I became a resource for mayors and numerous cities around the commonwealth. My wife and I started thinking, “I need to contribute to my own community.”
I actually pulled papers and started to run for City Council for my district, with the thought that nobody knows me, I don’t know a lot of people, and it’s a long shot, but let me get started.
Then a week before nomination papers were due, the mayor at the time called me up on a Sunday morning to inform me that he had made a last-minute decision not to run for reelection and wanted me to know that and asked me not to share it publicly. It was at that moment that I knew I was running for mayor. It was an open seat, and that’s a rare opportunity.
As a new person in the community, with six people running for office, I received I believe 48 percent of the vote [in the primary], which surprised the heck out of me. But it also indicated that I was in a very strong position to actually win when it was down to the two of us.
Q. Do you miss being a politician?
A. Yes and no. There are components of it that I miss. I like the public aspect of being able to have a significant voice in the public dialogue. But it comes with burdens. It is really tough to be making hard decisions in a community in which you live, you grocery shop and you have a young child in the school system.
I was always taking seriously trying to make the right decision for the community, not necessarily the popular decision for the community. And so that comes with its burdens.
There is a benefit to having to make professional decisions in your job, and not having to bump into the same people at the local grocery store because you live somewhere else.
I was in office when the housing market crashed and the economy crashed. We had to do some significant budget cuts and made some hard decisions. So there was a period of time that I was taking a pretty good beating. I remember going to the grocery store and — maybe in my imagination, maybe it was real — feeling the glances at me. You feel kind of lonely. You feel kind of beat down.
But I remember, I was standing next to the meat aisle at the back, and an elderly lady came shuffling over to me. I remember thinking, “Ah, here we go. I’m going to hear it.” And she put her hand on my arm and, in a whisper, leaned over and said, “I just want you to know, my husband and I think you’re doing a great job.” And then she shuffled off. I remember thinking, for all the pounding and beating, that made up for it all.
Q. Do I take that to mean there’s no chance you’ll move to Marblehead?
A. I don’t see a move into Marblehead in the cards. My family’s well established in Amesbury.
Q. Was that the biggest challenge that you had as mayor? If so, what did you learn from it?
A. When I first came into Amesbury, there was a group — anti-tax, sort of anti-local government. I remember saying one of my one of my goals is to build confidence in the public’s mind in the decisions that we make, that when we make decisions, it’s because it’s in the best interest of the community.
At that time, people were undermining everything the former mayor and administrators were trying to accomplish. It was like, I need to make decisions and have the public’s confidence — even [with] the unpopular decisions — and have them say, “You know what? I don’t like what he’s doing, but I trust that he’s doing it for the right reason.”
Q. What did you do next?
A. My next full-time job was as senior vice president at Mass Development in charge of Devens, which is a former army fort that got closed down, or at least downsized. There was a special act passed that gave Devens all the powers of a municipality without actually being a municipality. I ran that for three years.
Devens is primarily commercial and manufacturing with a small residential component, which is the opposite of most communities. So, it was a good learning experience on economic development and meeting the needs of industry, workforce, transportation — those types of issues.
I then went to Framingham [as chief operating officer] for just under four years from there.
Q. When I Googled your experience from Framingham, I saw stories from an online outlet called the Framingham Source, characterizing your relationship with the City Council as rocky, and I also saw stories in the MetroWest Daily News regarding criticism of the city’s public records practices. What would you tell Marbleheaders who may have seen these stories and might have concerns about your commitment to transparency?
A. The online journal was not friendly to the [Mayor Yvonne M.] Spicer administration, so that plays into things. Framingham passed the charter to change from a town form of government to a city form of government at that time. So, there were issues already going on in Framingham, as to the public wanting something new and different in their government.
Then Yvonne Spicer got elected as the first-ever mayor of Framingham, and she was pretty much an outsider to Framingham government. She had lived there a long time, she was a school teacher and school administrator, but she was an outsider elected as the first mayor and then she hired me as the first-ever chief operating officer.
Under the charter in Framingham, all the employees in the city report under the chief operating officer, who then reports to the mayor, so I had responsibilities of the entire city operations and worked with the mayor.
The relationship with the Council was that the majority of the Council were folks who were more aligned with the former town government and were more aligned with the individual who lost the election for mayor. So, the relationship there was not friendly.
In regard to the public records law, there were folks in Framingham who weaponized the use of the public records law, and a number of people simply overwhelmed the system of requests. The criticism that we would get from the Council and others as we were flooded with requests was that we weren’t providing the documentation. Some of these requests were for records that didn’t exist, and we would say so. The requester wouldn’t believe that it didn’t exist, and therefore we’re hiding things.
A lot of requests were for all emails from the mayor’s staff, for months. We would have to cull through thousands of emails and would have to redact to remove all emails that were legally able to be redacted, such as all of our legal correspondence and personnel-related items. So, there were numerous complaints.
Q. What did you anticipate would be on the top of your agenda when you came to Marblehead, and have those expectations been accurate?
A. Whenever I come into a new organization, I intentionally try to wipe my mind and not have any expectations or or judgment. I come in and say to the folks, “Look, I am the only new change, and I want everybody to keep doing things the way you’re doing it.”
I’ll observe for a while and get a clear picture of what works well, which means we need to keep doing it that way, and where the challenges are, and start building the list of the challenges, what are the things that need to be addressed and fixed, prioritize those and start project planning.
It’s true for any municipality, any organization. You establish processes to do particular tasks or provide particular services, and you design it the way you need to do it at a certain period of time, then you just keep doing it.
I like coming in with a fresh eye and saying, “So, why is it being done that way? Oh, because in 1985 we had a big problem.” You’re like, “Well, it’s not 1985 anymore, so maybe we need to look at how we’re doing the process — there are better ways, there are newer tools.”
The goal in mind on all this is you’re either saving money or increasing productivity for what you’re already spending. In both directions, those are benefits to the public.
Q. What have you been hearing in your initial meetings with department heads?
A. I would say they all have projects and tasks that are piled up on their plate. That’s been true in every municipality. There’s just not enough people and not enough time to do the things that need to get done. Part of the process improvement is trying to get more of those things done. I doubt we’ll ever finish the list because things keep getting added.
One of the things I have done — and I’ll talk about it, because I’ve done it in other communities and it’s been public — is implemented — in Amesbury, it was AmesStat; in Devens, it was DevensStat; and in Framingham, it was FramStat.
Martin O’Malley, former mayor of Baltimore, then governor, created CityStat in Baltimore, and that’s all based on CompStat, which Commissioner [Bill] Bratton used when he was in New York City with the police department. It’s basically developing a data-driven decision-making process.
As I’ve already expressed to the department heads, at some point, I will be implementing that here in Marblehead. It’s a tool that I’ve used that really helps from a management perspective to get a handle on what are all the requirements, what’s getting done and what’s not, and what are the resources we need to do it in a very formal, systematic process.
Q. How have employees who may have gotten used to doing things a certain way received this tool?
A. When I implemented this in Amesbury and was trying to build it from scratch, the police chief at the time had been chief for like 28 years. I’m the new kid mayor coming in, and I was thinking to myself, “This will be a challenge.”
I explained what I was trying to do, and to my pleasant surprise, the crusty old police chief was the first, most enthusiastic supporter. He came to his first AmesStat meeting in a full business suit with a pile of three-ring binders and all kinds of police stats and information.
What he said he figured out was, if the mayor has a solid understanding of what we’re doing and what we need, he will be in a better position to advocate for the resources I need with the City Council and the public.
Q. What’s your sense of how the town is coping with the huge spikes in fuel prices?
A. Towns start the budget process earlier than cities do. It’s just the nature of the schedule of town meetings. Towns have to start earlier, and so the challenge is you have to make assumptions. You pretty much know what your fuel consumption rates are for the year, but the variable that you have to take your best educated guess at as the department is what will be the price of fuel over the course of the year.
I’m going to guess the price has risen much more than what people anticipated, and so there will be budget squeezes on it in the short term. I think that there probably will be challenges as we get more into the fiscal year.
In the long term, it’s looking at ways that we become less reliant on fuel. I am a big proponent of renewable resources and electrifying the fleet as much as possible. I have personally done that with my electric car, and I have solar panels on my house. I drive by the gas stations and don’t know what people are talking about on fuel increases because it’s not my not my problem right now. I get my gas from the sun.
The typical challenge of municipal buildings is you get a lot of rooftops, but they’re not structurally sound enough to put solar panels on them, and so you need to first get a fixture on buildings and facilities so that then you can take advantage of putting solar panels and whatever else in to generate power to offset your fuel costs. Those are the things I’ll be looking to take on.
Q. Were you able to speak with your predecessors before taking this role, and did they give you any advice?
A. John [McGinn] and Jason [Silva], I’ve had communication with, and they both gave great advice. They were both very upbeat about working here in Marblehead and working with the [Select] Board, nothing but praise for all the members of the board.
My first two weeks here, it’s been a great working relationship. It’s really been enjoyable working with them all, and it’s all positive. Whatever trepidation I had of coming into another community and being the outsider coming in, both John and Jason allayed my concerns that this is a great place to work.
Q. Did you make anything of the fact that there were other finalists for the position, but by the end you were the only one that hadn’t withdrawn from consideration?
A. How did I put it, jokingly? I said to somebody, “They are intimidated by the competition.” I don’t know who the other applicants were, but presumably they were already managers or administrators in other communities, and at some point you know before the list is made public what your odds are of getting it. So, I have no idea what the circumstances for the others were.
Q. Tell me a little bit about your family.
A. My wife and I have one son who is 18, who just graduated from high school. He’ll be attending Salem State University, just like his mother and just like his father. My wife [Claire Kallelis] is the general manager of the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem.
One of the benefits [of working in Marblehead] is the whole family during the workday will be within about a 5-mile circle of each other. The only ones losing out on the deal are the two Siberian huskies that are going to be home alone all day.
Q. Outside of your family, how do you spend your time away from the office?
A. I play hockey two to four times a week, and I play in tournaments around the country as part of that.
Q. What position do you play?
A. Don’t laugh — I’m a goaltender. I was a soccer goalie at Salem State. My freshman year, I was a walk-on to the Salem State soccer program. I played the first year, then decided I needed focus more on being a student.
I used to give a speech as mayor, at Chamber and St. Patrick’s Day lunches, I would say, “Being a mayor and a hockey goalie or are one in the same thing: Everybody’s taking shots at you, you’re the last line of defense to say no, and every time you screw up, they put the information up on the board.”
Q. Since this is ‘A Cup of Coffee With…’ I have to ask: How do you take your coffee?
A. Let me see. How do I say it at the Dunkin’ drive-through? Medium hot, French vanilla, just milk.
Q. No sugar?
A. I had gotten rid of sugar years ago.