The Winsted Phoenix Interview: incoming Winsted Town Manager Joshua Kelly

Incoming Winsted Town Manager Joshua Kelly. Photo submitted.
Incoming Winsted Town Manager Joshua Kelly. Photo submitted.

Joshua Kelly, currently the town administrator for Bolton, will take over as town manager for Winsted beginning in April.

Kelly will be taking over for current Town Manager Robert Geiger, who started his time as town manager in November 2015.

He became Bolton’s town administrator in August 2019, but over the years he has served on the town’s Long Range Fiscal Planning Committee, the Inland Wetland, and Conservation Commission, and as an alternate for the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

He is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, where he earned his Bachelor’s Degree with a major in Political Science and minors in both Public Policy and Sociology. He earned his Master’s Degree from the University of Connecticut in Public Administration and a Graduate Certificate in Public Financial Management.

In this interview with The Winsted Phoenix, Kelly talks about why he became interested in municipal government, why he wanted to serve as Winsted’s town manager, and what he hopes to accomplish when he starts in April.

What got you interested in municipal government?

“I love municipal government. I think that there are few other subjects that I think are quite as fascinating, especially in the world of political science. 

I started my exploration back in college of various career paths in opera. I attended Ithaca College for two years, and I did end up transferring to Wheaton College in Massachusetts. But my first two years were spent studying vocal performance and music education at the Ithaca College School of Music. 

There were a couple of things that ultimately led to me switching over and starting to delve into politics and political science.

One of them was a very interesting class called ‘Opera and Revolution’ where it was looking at how an opera impacted social movements and governments over time, and how that art form made a societal impact.

But beyond that, I was approached by a good friend of mine whose campaign I ended up working on down in Waterford. He was the one who asked me, back when we were still in college, what I thought about government and politics. At the time, I wasn’t that experienced in either of those areas. But, in working with him and talking to him, we both got interested in the prospect of running for office. 

Of course, the first step that any aspiring government official will consider taking is ‘should I run for office?’ If you are going to, local offices are the perfect place to start.

I think that a lot of people have a view that local offices are kind of a stepping stone for people who have loftier goals. But the bottom line is the local government is the entity that helps maintain all of the roadways. No one would be able to get to work to do the good work that the state and federal governments can conduct the services that they provide if we were not able to build roads that were made by the local government

We’re involved with social services in the same way that the state and the federal governments sometimes are. We’re involved in recreation which is something that the state and federal governments don’t touch on. And there are so many facets to what it is that encompasses local government that it’s never boring. There’s never a dull moment.

I’m very excited that, coming into Winchester, I’ll have the opportunity to see an even more diverse and colorful set of challenges than I have been able to see in Bolton so far.

For example: in Bolton, we have a resident state trooper program and we have two fabulous state troopers who come and serve as the police force for the town.

But coming into Winsted, it’s a whole different ball game now having to work with a chief of police who is overseeing 22 members of a full police department and having a more formal entity, along with a whole new set of communications that need to go out to the public. Due to the current climate, it’s important to make sure that community relations are as good as they can be.

That’s a whole new experience for me to have and I very much look forward to the partnership there. It’s a whole new dimension of interest and intrigue that, daily, I know I will be able to enjoy. I think that people who end up working in town halls come to know and love a fast-paced environment, with new challenges to look at. It’s very rewarding knowing that the work in local government makes an impact on day-to-day lives. 

Being able to live and serve in the community where those impacts are being realized, and seeing those impacts in real-time, is something that keeps me going.”

What do you think the ultimate role of municipal government should be in the community?

“I think that the municipal government is the entity that ultimately needs to ensure that the necessities of individuals and collective neighborhoods and communities are all met. It is adjusted in each different community. There are some communities where if you are certainly part of a larger community like Winchester, you have your school system. 

There are some areas of the state where social services might be a little more readily available in those communities from a state perspective than they are in others. It is the role of the local government to evaluate if more needs are not being met. It is their role to fill those holes and to make sure that there isn’t anybody in dire need, to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to pursue their life and, at the very least, a semblance of happiness. If necessities aren’t met, and they aren’t being provided by the state and federal governments, there’s nobody that knows a community better than the community members themselves. 

I think that’s another thing that’s special about local government. It’s the government of the people and by the people, but it’s people that have a personal connection to the place that they are living in and the people that they are serving. To see folks come together to make sure that each other’s necessities in that manner are something that I think is special. And I think it’s something that I strive to do and make sure that it is being pursued on a day-to-day basis when I come into work.”

Why were you interested in becoming the town manager of Winsted?

“I am somebody who, first and foremost, cares very deeply about Connecticut. I’ve spent the bulk of my life here. It’s a place that, given my career, I want to give back. I also know that I wanted to be a town manager. I spent the last two years as the town administrator in Bolton. And the opportunity to apply to the town of Winchester arose and I explored it greatly. 

Before I had an interview in Winsted, I came to town and I had a chance to see it for myself. Truth be told, I had not been to Winsted before this past year. Having the chance to come and see all of the charm and the promise, along with the wonderful stores. 

It’s an extremely welcoming place. It’s a place that has certainly grown and will continue to grow in the next few years. I’m very excited to have an opportunity to help chart a path forward where, hopefully together as a community, we’ll be able to make sure Winsted is reaching its maximum potential. It’s an exciting opportunity. I’m very excited to take on the role because it has been a career goal of mine.”

What were your first impressions of Winsted?

“I was very curious about it because there is a kind of duality to the town. It presents itself in the fact that two names are closely associated with the town. You have the city of Winsted and the town of Winchester. Even when speaking to others as I leave Bolton and I tell people about moving on to Winchester, a lot of folks when I say Winchester, they ask me ‘where’s that?’ 

And when I tell them ‘Winsted’ then they say yes, we’ve heard of Winsted before. I go ahead and tell them that Winsted is part of greater Winchester municipality. The fact that there is that duality, and there is certainly a duality in the character between the more rural parts of Winchester further out. Then you have your core central Winsted area, feeling like somebody dropped three or four city blocks in a row in the middle of the woods. It’s kind of an enchanting feeling. 

And it’s certainly captivated me and I think there is a lot of opportunity for economic development in Winsted central. I think that, beyond that, the rural character and quaintness of Winchester is magical and is quintessential New England.  

These are things that the community already has capitalized on. I think that it can continue to do so as it grows and continues to thrive.”

What condition do you see Winsted in right now? Do you think it’s doing alright, or do you think some things should be changed?

“It’s on the up and up. First and foremost, I was informed about the recent history of Winsted. Just several years back I know there was an incident with a public official betraying the public trust who was taking money for himself. It was an awful thing to do to the taxpayers of Winsted and a horrible thing to do in general.

Beyond that, it put the town in a place where it wasn’t necessarily financially able to keep up with itself. Since then Bob Geiger has been in place as the town manager and he has a history of being a turnaround guy. From everything I can tell, he has made opportunities or has presented the town with opportunities going forward. He’s opened doors and has made sure the town has had an opportunity to borrow again in case that’s needed for capital projects. He has made sure that this town has every opportunity available to it.

There are certainly some changes that might be necessary. I know that the Board of Selectmen, over the next couple of months, will begin meeting with me. I have already started to and continue to meet with Bob Geiger to talk about what some of those visions are.

As I get more of an impression of the day-to-day operations of the town’s government itself, I will be able to get a more clear answer for that question and I will start to map out a plan for my first several months of office.”

From where you stand right now, do you see any shortcomings and things you would like to change when you start as town manager?

“I will say that one thing that, in Bolton, I was able to effectively increase the number of ways that the town communicated with its residents. I don’t think Winchester is lacking in this sense, but I believe very strongly that if you want to have a government where the people trust in that government, and the people buy into the various projects that the government is taking on, and a community comes together in support of collective interests, you need to have transparent communications. You need to make sure those communications are, if not instantaneous, readily available. They are coming that the people who are in charge are forthcoming with information and people have easy access to it. We need to make sure we do this regardless of what social media platform we are on, regardless of whether people have the internet at home or not, regardless of whether or not people feel like they have to subscribe to a newspaper.

It is wonderful that Winsted has a newspaper in its backyard. But regardless of how they get their news, we need to make sure that the news is out there. I want to make sure I am communicating with the media and that you have all the information you need to publish to your readers. We also need to be on social media and be directly communicating with folks as information becomes available. Not trying to hide anything and not trying to wait in any way to release important information.

The more we can have that kind of transparent and instant communication, I think the more cohesive our community will be. That’s true anywhere, but I think there are some improvements we can make in the way town government communicates out with the residents.”

A lot of residents and businesses have struggled during this pandemic. How do you think the town could, or should, help its businesses and residents during this pandemic?

“If I had a magic answer, it would be something that would be widely known and certainly be the same answer for other towns. There are no easy answers when it comes to economic development, especially when we are facing an economic downturn, a lot of unemployment, and a lingering pandemic.

What I can tell you is that, during his time in office, Bob Geiger has, in my opinion, really been a catalyst for economic development and making sure that Winsted is ready for new businesses to come into play and to revitalize that Main Street area. 

The question is: how do we entice businesses to come in? How do we make sure that there are job opportunities here in Winchester that are keeping people here, and bringing new people here? And making sure that those of us who, unfortunately, don’t have a job, how are we able to help them sustain themselves?

I know that the social services office has to be pretty busy working through several different applications that they are getting from the public and making sure people continue to have their necessities. Of course, the federal and state governments are working night and day to make sure that, whatever proposals are going forward, that they are going to help those of us in the community who are neediest. 

What I want to do coming in is have some conversations with people who are already in town and say: what is it that’s being provided to you right now? And what is it that’s not? From my perspective, there are a lot of levels of government, there are a lot of levels of bureaucracy, and trying to reinvent the wheel for Winchester when there are already services being provided by the state and federal governments, I would rather put our interests and our attention on areas where people are being underserved. 

To that end, I know that I am going to be working with Mayor Candy Perez to make sure that we have a community survey going out. That community survey, part of it is going to focus on economics, personal finances, and trying to figure out where we stand as a community and what is it that people right now feel that is necessary and needed in town. 

That’s on the personal side. On the economic development side, we’re going to have to do some work. We’re going to have to do some marketing and make sure that Winchester is on the map. We need to help businesses around the state and even around the region understand that this is a place that they should want to call home. They should be proud to say our headquarters and our business is located right here in Winsted. That’s going to take some time and some energy. I know that the region is already doing a great job partnering together to increase tourism.

I think that this same energy can be used positively to continue to attract businesses and residents. Anything that we can do to bring residents to help continue to pay on our tax base so that we can continue to use public funds to help those in need. That’s what keeps the system going and it helps to market our town as a place that is very attractive for people to come and relocate to. 

That’s the bread and butter of economic development.”

How do you think the town can attract new businesses?

“What I am going to have to do in the next few months is sit down with Bob and other members of the town staff to have a better understanding of what they have tried so far. It’s not going to be very helpful to the people of the town if I come in and try the same 10 different ideas that have already been thrown against the wall and unfortunately didn’t stick. 

Through some partnerships with those already in the town’s government, and working in partnerships with others around the region through the Northwest Council of Governments, with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, along with some connections that I have, to bring some economic development attention here. I want to gain the wisdom and knowledge that I need, and the background history on Winsted, to figure what is going to be the best strategy forward.

I know that it sounds like a non-answer. But the reality is that if there was an easy answer, then there would be businesses in those storefronts.

I think that it is going to be a long process. We don’t know how long the economic impacts of the pandemic are going to continue to be felt here in Winsted. But I am very optimistic that we have the essential infrastructure. The businesses that are already here are very vibrant. I think they are very enticing to individuals who want to be here and stay here.

That’s a core building block that we need to be able to build upon that, find more business, gain more residents, and continue to have a self-sustaining sustainable economy.

But I do believe that this will be the toughest challenge.”

Being someone who previously campaigned for Democratic and Green Party candidates, do you think any allegiance to a political party would taint your decision-making process?

“That’s a fair point to make of any public official who is coming in and is going to be leading a community, it’s really how are the person’s past experiences going to influence the way that they manage things?

What I will tell you is that I am unenrolled. I am not enrolled in a political party. In the past, I was involved in two different political parties. To an extent, that was a very different phase in my career where I was more involved in party politics. It is no secret that I am open and very proud of the work that I was able to do work on two different state representative campaigns. Both of those candidates were members of different political parties. The work I was able to do as an elected official, in Waterford was, to be able to be on the ballot, while I could have been an unaffiliated individual on the ballot, I chose to run with a party. Different parties in each of the instances which I ran.

I will say that this is all very separate from the work that I do when I am hired and employed to be an impartial and nonpartisan head of a town government, and that has been true of Bolton. 

I don’t think that there is anybody within the town of Bolton who could say that my partisan leanings have in any way impacted the decisions that I make and have impacted my relationships with individuals on the Board of Selectmen or members of the public.

I believe that it is the role of a town manager to bring professional and nonpartisan advice and bring professional and nonpartisan proposals forward to the board of selectmen for policy discussion.

And then to execute the decisions of that Board of Selectmen. Right now in Winchester, I’ve been coming in and having candid conversations with the board. The understanding I have is that they are a group that works very well together. My understanding is also that they all ran unopposed in the most recent election. The disagreements that they have, even though they are few and far between, usually don’t even line up on party lines. That’s true of most local politics from my experience. I’ve seen that political parties tend to not necessarily align as well on the local level as it might seem in the national news headlines and with the national rhetoric that we hear on a day-to-day basis.

There are a lot of programs and there are a lot of different services that are offered by local governments that people feel differently about than in the way they feel about federal programs or even state programs.

I believe that a local government is a great place where you can get involved in a non-partisan manner, whether it is as a volunteer individual or whether you are in a hired role. My philosophy in my current role of town administrator is what decision that we can make that is going to best serve the people of the town?

It seems very simple and basic, but it is a question that you can ask yourself in every instance that helps get partisan politics out of your head. 

Sometimes it revolves around finances, and some people feel that any question about finances is political. Sometimes it revolves around human health and welfare, and sometimes people view that as political. But at no time will I ever make a decision as Town Manager of Winchester that is in any way impacted or based on political affiliations, past or present.”

Do you plan to move to Winsted?

“Yes. I plan to move in that area.”

I love people to know that I am extremely excited to join the community and to be a team player as we all struggle with several different challenges that have been presented by the pandemic, and the current economy. I want to make sure that I am serving every one of the residents of Winchester just as well as I can. I look forward to meeting everybody.”

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